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January 9, 2010

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Grandma's famous dumplings, peasant Picassos and games

Li Juguan is a farm wife celebrity cook, using a huge old wood-fired stove and oven to turn out country cooking for visitors, some who travel all the way from downtown Shanghai for Grandma Li's cooking.

Li and her neighbors will become World Expo attractions starting this May, but they're open for business now in ancient Zhonghua Village in Langxia Town, Jinshan District.

Next door to Li, in another spacious farmhouse, Chen Meihua shows visitors all the old-time games and pastimes, like spinning tops, kicking shuttlecocks, tossing sandbags -- and transplanting rice seedlings (for those who actually want to do something useful).

Nearby in a third cottage is Yan Junjie's farmhouse and studios where he turns out Jinshan farmers' paintings, famed for their vibrant colors and quaint scenes of country life. He is one of the district's "peasant Picassos" who will be showcased at the six-month Expo.

These three farmers are among the first batch of "World Expo Shanghai Farm Houses" where visitors can spend the day, sleep over, savor country cooking, enjoy rural pastimes and appreciate folk culture, like paper-cutting, weaving, and, of course, peasant painting.

They have official accreditation to accommodate visitors from home and abroad.

These quaint farmhouses are among the first batch of 19 which were renovated in 2007 by the local government and the Shanghai Jinjiang International Travel Service Co Ltd.

Makeover for each cottage cost around 300,000 yuan (US$38,760). Each has a new look with an ancient-looking facade and truly modern interior.

The air-conditioned living rooms are comfortable and contain television sets. The small bedrooms have clean white sheets on the bed. There's a standard bathroom, with commode, hand basin and shower.

One night's stay in the little rooms runs 80-150 yuan per night.

Each cottage has its own vegetable patch or small garden in the front yard where cabbages, eggplant, squash, grapes, bamboo (for the earthen stove), and other organic vegetables are grown.

Zhonghua Village

Address: 9188 Langcao Rd, Zhonghua Village, Langxia Town Yummy food

Grandma Li, a 70-year-old farmer, is busy these days, bustling around her two-story white brick cottage and cooking up a storm, as usual.

"People, especially those from downtown, like my dishes and some can gobble down three big bowls of vegetable rice in one sitting," she says proudly.

She's something of a local celebrity for her small family-style bistro and delicious fare. Her specialties include dumplings shaped like eyebrows, duck marinated in beer, homemade pastries, glutinous rice with pickled vegetables, square rice cakes, pork patties and vegetable rice.

Stepping into the simple, clean, slate-roofed farmhouse, visitors are immediately tantalized by the aromas of cooking.

The kitchen is spotless. It's not big, but it's white and bright, with a full-size refrigerator and a microwave oven. What catches the attention is a huge, wood-fired earthen stove built into the wall. The fuel is dried bamboo and firewood, and the flames are fanned by a billows.

"The modern microwave oven is, of course, more convenient, but we seldom use it," she says, busy preparing lunch while fanning the fire in the stove's firebox. "Food cooked in this stove is more delicious and preserves its original flavor."

Urban dwellers who are fed up with feasts of fatty foods and lavish banquets can enjoy simple, delicious and healthy meals here.

Grandma Li's son and daughter moved from the old village to the town center, leaving her alone in the big house with six guest rooms. She lives in a small room on the first floor.

"I'm busy preparing food for my guests and have no time to feel lonely," says Li, who gets up early every morning to get fresh food and prepare meals for guests traveling to the village. She also washes dishes in the village's catering center, which supplies farmhouses. She earns 900 yuan a month.

During the off season in winter, she stays with her son or daughter in the town.

"I feel quite happy now," she says. "People like me." Old-time games After eating their fill and relaxing in the garden with tea, visitors can do a bit of exercise. Grandma Li's next-door neighbor Chen Meihua has prepared lots of farming games, and even chores.

His three-story house is another Expo Farm House with a spacious courtyard.

Visitors can try those tricky spinning tops balanced on strings, roll iron hoops, toss sandbags, learn to make rope out of straw, work at a loom and otherwise play at being a farmer.

"When I was a kid, I played these games with my friends in the village and we often forgot it was time for dinner," recalls 62-year-old Chen. "I hope people can revive their happy childhood memories through the games in my house."

Peasant Picassos Just a few steps away from Chen's house is Yan Junjie's home and art studio, another Expo Farm House that showcases his quaint and colorful, "primitive" but not unskilled, Jinshan farmers' paintings. Many villagers, young and old, paint farm scenes.

Yan has been painting for more than two decades. "No one taught me how to draw. We paint when we feel the need to express our feelings," he says.

Inspired by traditional paper-cut art and embroidery, the paintings, sometimes called "peasant Picassos," are known for vibrant colors and charming scenes of country life.

Farmers use tempera paint mixed with chalk and work on rice paper. The paintings are then mounted on heavier board.

This folk art is a hobby among locals. Many farmers in the district, from 70-year-olds to youngsters, are painters. Their subjects are village life -- farm scenes, animals, harvests, celebrations and ceremonies.

"From farmers' paintings, you can almost smell the pure fresh soil of the countryside," says Yan.

"They are natural and show a love of ordinary life, love of children, love of animals and love of daily tasks," he says. "Painters have a lot of imagination."

Yan also paints gourds, umbrellas, paper fans and even lingzhi (ganoderma lucidum) , a precious Chinese herb.

Visitors can tour Yan's studio, paint their own pictures and, of course, buy some paintings.


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