As the season of giving, the holidays are a time of joy. But when you can’t think of good gift ideas for your loved ones, it can also be a time of frustration. We’d like to help you avoid that frustration by offering our gift suggestions for people who have an interest in China or China-related products. We hope you enjoy our updated fourth annual holiday shopping guide.

Since our clients are located all over the United States and even outside the country, this list focuses primarily on online stores rather than local stores. However, we certainly encourage you to support local businesses when possible, and the list does include a number of Bay Area-based businesses. Please contact us if you have a suggestion to add to this list or have information to share about one of the products or retailers on this list.

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All of these companies or products (other than our own tour packages, of course) are independent of China International Travel CA. We are promoting them only because we think you may find this information helpful.

Wild China DVD or Blu-ray Set

Wild China Blu ray coverAn acclaimed documentary produced by the BBC, Wild China focuses on a side of China that doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the Western media: stunningly beautiful natural areas like Zhangjiajie, Xianggelila, Guilin, and Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). The 6-episode series is narrated by Bernard Hill (King Theoden in the Lord of the Rings movies) and contains spectacular footage of remote places that are rarely seen, as well as places that are easily accessible to tourists but no less beautiful. It also gives fascinating insights into the lives of the people living in such areas, especially their relationship with the land and its wildlife. If you enjoyed Planet Earth and you’re interested in China, you’ll love Wild China. The higher-definition Blu-ray version is highly recommended in order to fully enjoy the magnificent footage captured in the series.

Note: Netflix and Amazon Prime customers can stream Wild China in high definition for free!

If after watching Wild China you feel a sudden urge to visit the incomparably beautiful places it documents, take a look at our tour packages. In particular, our Yunnan Highlands and Majestic Scenery tours, along with our tours featuring Guilin, highlight these destinations. You might also consider arranging a custom tour to visit a unique combination of scenic areas.

Other DVDs and Blu-rays

Here are a few other Chinese or China-related movies that we think you or your loved ones may enjoy. Many more films will be highlighted in future shopping guides, as China has produced a number of the world’s greatest films over the last twenty years.

Infernal Affairs Blu-ray cover - small - 125 x 125Infernal Affairs – Blu-ray (無間道): The acclaimed Hong Kong thriller that inspired The Departed, featuring Andy Lau, Tony Leung, and other stars of HK cinema. Also available on DVD.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Blu-ray (臥虎藏龍): Though the new version of the film’s English subtitles has received some criticism, this new Blu-ray presentation is stunningly beautiful. Relive this contemporary classic in high-definition glory. (And if you’d like to visit the lovely Hong Village, where some of the scenes were filmed, take a look at CIT’s Jiangnan Gourmet Cuisine/Yellow Mountain 10-Day Tour!) Also available on DVD.

Dragon Dynasty Triple Feature (Jet Li Collection): This set of classic Jet Li movies on Blu-ray includes The Legend (方世玉, also referred to as Fong Sai Yuk in English), Fist of Legend (精武英雄), and Tai Chi Master (太極張三豐). A great bargain for fans of Jet Li or kung fu movies in general. Also available on DVD.

The Emperor and the Assassin DVD coverThough unfortunately it is not available on Blu-ray, acclaimed director Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin (荆轲刺秦王) is a well-acted, visually stunning historical epic about Qin Shihuang (originally named Ying Zheng, played by Li Xuejian), the unifier and first emperor of China. Its Shakespearean story portrays his relationship with his concubine Lady Zhao (played by Gong Li) and the consequences of the extreme brutality he employed in conquering the rival states that existed in his time. Like many films that present Chinese history and culture to the West in a sometimes critical light, the film has received some criticism in China. At 162 minutes, it is also quite slow-paced. However, its intense, nuanced, artful presentation of historical figures and events is ultimately powerful and thought-provoking. For an alternate portrayal of the First Emperor, you might consider The Emperor’s Shadow (秦颂), which was the most expensive film ever made in China at the time of its release in 1996. Though both of these films take some liberties with the historical record, they feature impressive cinematography and some of China’s best actors in iconic roles, including Gong Li, Zhang Fengyi, Li Xuejian, Jiang Wen, and Ge You.

  • The tomb of the First Emperor is the site of the famous Terracotta Army, a tour of which is featured in all of our tours that include the city of Xi’an.

Red Cliff Blu-ray cover - small - 125 x 125Red Cliff (International Version) – Blu-ray (赤壁): Director John Woo’s uncut, 288-minute adaptation of the Chinese literary classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms is another film that has achieved both critical acclaim and great popularity. It features some of the most ambitious battle scenes ever filmed. See them in high definition on this Blu-ray release. Also available on DVD.

Shower (洗澡): A contemporary Chinese family drama involving the conflict between the traditional and modern worlds. A materialistic “prodigal son” with a successful career in Shenzhen, whose family runs a bathhouse in Beijing, returns home to visit his aging father and mentally challenged brother. There he finds himself slowly drawn into the traditional world he had left behind. A touching film that laments the precious, human things lost in the fast-paced lifestyle and relentless change of the modern world. (If you’re interested in seeing the traditional hutong neighborhoods depicted in the movie, most of our tours that include Beijing feature a hutong pedicab tour.)

Chungking Express DVD cover - small - 125 x 125Acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (重慶森林), which weaves together two apparently separate stories involving cops and romance, is a quirky, memorable presentation of life in 1990’s Hong Kong. This Criterion Collection Blu-ray release has gotten rave reviews for its beautiful transfer of the film and special features. Hong Kong icons Tony Leung and Faye Wong (in her cinematic debut) star in one of the stories. Criterion Collection release also available on DVD.

With Yi Yi (一一, sometimes referred to in English as A One and a Two), Taiwanese director Edward Yang won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. A slow, quiet meditation on modern family life, Yi Yi is not for everyone, but it is tremendously rewarding for patient and thoughtful viewers. This Criterion Collection Blu-ray release is the best way to experience this film. Criterion Collection release also available on DVD.

Aftershock DVD cover - small - 125 x 125Aftershock (唐山大地震) is both a heartwrenching story of family tragedy and a historical document of the devastating effects, both short-term and long-term, of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed approximately 250,000 people. Released in 2010, it became China’s biggest box office success ever. Many reviewers have called it one of the most powerful movies they have ever seen.

Last Train Home (归于列车): A moving documentary directed by Yixin Fan that candidly reveals the challenges faced by a rural family. Like many of China’s 130 million migrant workers, the Zhangs have had to leave their children in their home village while they pursue more lucrative work in the hope of giving their children a chance at a better life. Raw and though-provoking, but also beautiful and sometimes funny, the film presents their experiences in a way that is universally understandable.

Amongst White Clouds DVD coverIn Amongst White Clouds (共坐白云中), director Edward Burger documents the lives of Buddhist hermits in the Zhongnan Mountains south of Xi’an, an area which for thousands of years has been home to Taoist seekers and Buddhist monks isolated from society. In a meditative, understated style, the film shows what their quiet, simple lives are like, including the hardships they must endure in their search for enlightenment. Having lived with one of these masters for four years, Burger has keen insight into their experiences. The DVD makes a good gift for anyone interested in Chinese religion, philosophy, and meditation, but the documentary can also be viewed on YouTube here.

China from the Inside - DVD cover - small - 125 x 125China from the Inside: In the U.S. media, we are often exposed to a very narrowly Western perspective on China. As its title suggests, the 2007 PBS documentary series China from the Inside makes a genuine effort to present representative opinions from many Chinese citizens, scholars, and government officials on some of the major issues and challenges in contemporary Chinese society. The producers of the series had unprecedented access to places and activities that could not be easily seen by foreigners, and many of the people interviewed speak with refreshing candor. Through its objective but sensitive portrayal of the lives of ordinary citizens, the film makes contemporary China comprehensible even to Westerners not already familiar with it. The major topics covered in the four-part series are the status of women, the Communist Party, environmental challenges, and justice and freedom. Highly recommended to anyone who wants to gain real insight into Chinese society.

China-Related Books

China Books (originally known as China Books and Periodicals), founded in 1960 and now located in South San Francisco, has a wide range of products (not just books and magazines), including some good deals in the “bargain bin” and “clearance” sections of its website.

Books About Chinese Art

Art in China (Oxford History of Art) (Craig Clunas): This comprehensive introduction to China’s 5,000 years of visual arts is an expanded 2009 edition of the highly rated first edition published in 1997. Available for Kindle.

book cover - China's Sacred SitesHighly rated books that focus on the architectural wonders and other important sites in China include China’s Sacred Sites by Professor Nan Shunxun and Beverly Foit-Albert, which features photographs of not only temples and other important architecture but also the stunning landscapes that they adorn; Chinese Houses: The Architectural Heritage of a Nation (also available for Kindle) by Ronald G. Knapp, Jonathan Spence, and A. Chester Ong; and Yale University Press’s voluminous Chinese Architecture, the third volume in a planned 75-volume series on Chinese culture, which boasts contributions from six leading historians of Chinese architecture.

Books About Chinese Philosophy

For people interested in Taoist philosophy, there are a wide range of English texts to choose from. Here is a brief guide to the most acclaimed English editions of the Tao Te Ching (道德經, or Dào Dé Jīng):
cover of the Feng-English translation of the Tao Te Ching

  • David Hinton’s translation is critically acclaimed for its poetic beauty as well as its linguistic and philosophical accuracy.
  • The Vintage translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, long prized for its poetic evocation of Lao Tzu’s style, has recently been republished in a new edition. Like the popular original, it is an oversized book (10.9 x 8.4 inches) enhanced with meditative photos and a calligraphic version of the Chinese text. (There is also a smaller edition available, so take care when ordering.) Available for Kindle and iBooks.
  • Red Pine’s spare and elegant translation is acclaimed as a faithful rendering of the original. Envisioned as “a discussion between Lao Tzu and a group of people who have thought deeply about his text,” this edition is also unique in providing selections from the many commentaries produced over more than two thousand years by Chinese thinkers to complement the text and give deeper insight into its meaning. Available for Kindle.
  • The audaciously titled Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition, translated and compiled by Jonathan Star, is a useful resource for anyone who wants to take a scholarly, in-depth approach to reading the text. In addition to his literary translation, it features a literal, line-by-line translation, as well as notes on the possible meanings and connotations of each character. Available for Kindle.
  • Tao: The Way (The Sayings of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and Lieh Tzu) includes revised versions of the classic translations by the scholars Lionel and Herbert Giles, presented in a unique format. Rather than separating the three texts, it combines selections from each text in topical sections like “Tao as a Moral Principle, or Virtue” and “The Doctrine of Inaction.” For someone interested in a philosophy-oriented survey of Taoism, this is an especially useful book. Available for Kindle.

For those interested in Confucian philosophy, there are also a wealth of reading choices. Here are some of the best-reviewed and most important:
book cover of The Original Analects

  • The Original Analects, edited by E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks, presents a translation and detailed analysis of the original Confucian text The Analects of Confucius for those inclined to a scholarly study of Confucian thought. Their analysis is unique and even revolutionary in that it attempts to distinguish between the original ideas and priorities of Confucius and those of his later followers who collected and altered his teachings.
  • With a detailed introduction to Confucian terms and concepts, helpful notes throughout the text, and a very literal approach to translation, Chichung Huang’s version of the Analects is distinguished by its philosophical clarity. As a member of a family of Confucian teachers, Huang has unique credentials among translators of the Analects.
  • For a more literary, poetically flavored version of the Analects, consider David Hinton’s translation.

Anyone who wants to explore Confucian thought even more deeply with a pilgrimage to Confucius’ hometown of Qufu, where the Kong Family Mansion and other important sites are located, might be interested in our Northeast China 15-Day Tour.

Books About Chinese Divination and Fengshui

Ancient Chinese Divination book coverWith a scholarly and historical (but also lucid and highly readable) approach to the subject of fengshui and other forms of divination, Dr. Stephen Field’s Ancient Chinese Divination is a fascinating tour through the origins and evolution of divination in ancient China, tying together Chinese cosmology, neolithic forms of divination, the Zhou Changes (later known as the I-Ching), fengshui, numerology, and more. Head of the Chinese program at Trinity University, Dr. Field is a specialist in pre-Qin Chinese literature and ancient Chinese cosmology. More of his writings about fengshui and ancient Chinese texts can be found on his website, Fengshui Gate.

Other highly rated books about fengshui include the following:

  • A Master Course in Feng-Shui is a comprehensive workbook and reference manual “for homeowners, renters, architects, and business owners who want to put feng-shui to practical personal use.”
  • Feng Shui That Makes Sense is intended as a personal guide to help you use basic principles of fengshui to create a more comfortable, harmonious home and garden environment. Available for Kindle.

For someone who is interested in applying fengshui principles or would simply like an unusual conversation piece for their coffee table, a fengshui compass might make an interesting gift.

Chinese Literature

cover of Classical Chinese PoetryAs an introduction to Chinese poetry in translation, David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology (also available for Kindle) is a perfect gift. More than simply providing a faithful and pleasant translation, Hinton’s ear for verse gives these poems an added power that makes them worth reading as works of English literature too. Writer Bei Dao (Zhao Zhenkai) gave Hinton’s translations just about the highest praise possible: “Given the magnitude of his ability and his overall project, Hinton is creating nothing less than a new literary tradition in English, an event of truly major importance not only to English literature but also to the literature of my own language. I cannot recommend the value of his work too highly.”

Here are a few excerpts from Hinton’s translations of Song Dynasty poet Mei Yaochen’s work:

  • On the death of his wife: “I hide my tears, not wanting them to see,/push the lamp away and lie facing the wall,/a hundred sorrows clotting heart and lung”
  • On a rat infestation of his home: “Suddenly my silly boy/starts meowing like a cat! Goofy plan, eh?”
  • On going blind: “No telling what’s what in this confusion,/I’m suddenly free of likes and dislikes.”
  • On the sounds of autumn: “The ear hears, but mind is itself silent./Who’s left now all thought’s forgotten?”
  • On peasants forced by desperation to gather weeds in the snow: “Hands so raw they can’t feed themselves, they/live in hunger, and you’re ashamed to eat it?”

Bill Porter, better known by his Chinese name Red Pine, is considered one of the best translators of Chinese literature into English. He has translated numerous volumes of Chinese poetry, as well as other important literary and philosophical texts. For students of the Chinese language, his translations are essential because they include the original Chinese text. Here are some of his most popular volumes of Chinese poetry:

The temple named after the reclusive Tang Dynasty poet Cold Mountain (寒山, Hánshān), Hanshan Temple, can be seen on many of our tours that feature Suzhou.

Books About Chinese Society

A farmer in Wuxi, one subject of Tom Carter's China - Portrait of a PeopleChina: Portrait of a People (Tom Carter): The photos in this book were taken during a two-year journey taken by the author through all of China’s 33 provinces. It is highly recommended for its stunning photos, which are both beautiful and truly representative of China’s many ethnic groups—you can see several sample photos on the book’s Amazon page, and there is also a “book trailer” on YouTube with an array of architecture-oriented photos from the book.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Jung Chang): This powerful book tells the story of three women whose lives span the tumultuous changes in Chinese society over the course of the 20th century: Chang’s grandmother, her mother, and Chang herself. Both critically acclaimed and popular, Wild Swans is featured in many university and high school courses. Available for Kindle and iBooks.

Factory Girls - book coverFactory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (Leslie Chang): Written by a former Beijing correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Factory Girls focuses on the lives of young women in southern China who have left home to take assembly-line work in search of a better future. In intimate detail, it reveals the intense, fast-paced world of migrant workers that is experienced by 130 million people in China but glimpsed by few outsiders. Available for Kindle and iBooks.

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory (Peter Hessler): Hessler, a Mandarin-speaking American (and husband of Leslie Chang) who has spent years living and traveling in China, is a sharp, sympathetic, and dauntless observer and explorer with a gift for drawing you into his experiences. Country Driving, as its title suggests, covers his extensive road trips through northern China, as well as the time he spent living in a village outside Beijing and visiting factories in southern China. Moving, fascinating, and funny, it is highly recommended for anyone who is interested in understanding the effects that China’s rapid changes have had on its people. Hessler has also written two other well-received books about his time in China: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze and Oracle Bones. Available for Kindle and iBooks.

This Is China: The First 5,000 Years (Haiwang Yuan): This introduction to China and its history draws from The Berkshire Encyclopedia of China to give readers a concise but comprehensive overview of China. Available for Kindle.

China (DK Eyewitness Books) (Hugh Sebag-Montefiore): This book provides a great introduction to contemporary China for children, with a wealth of photos and information. DK’s Ancient China (by Arthur Cotterell) provides a complementary overview of China’s long history.

Chinese Language Books and Educational Software

For a much more detailed discussion of Chinese language educational materials, many of which would make excellent gifts, see our Chinese Language Resources for Travelers and Students page. Don’t miss the links to our Language and Culture Learning Pages with educational materials designed to enhance your tour experience.

Niubi - book coverNiubi: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School (Eveline Chao): One fascinating effect of China’s continuing growth and modernization on its popular culture is the explosion in slang expressions that has occurred in recent years, in large part because of the use of the Internet by ever-larger numbers of Chinese citizens. As in the United States, wildly creative, funny, and vulgar new slang can become popular overnight as a result of mass exposure online. Many now-common colloquialisms are given a clear and thorough explanation in this book. For anyone who wants to really speak like a native and have fun with the dynamic, living language that is contemporary Mandarin, this book is a great resource. Available for iBooks. For an introduction to the slang covered in this book, see our past blog posts “Contemporary Chinese Slang Part 1” and “Contemporary Chinese Slang Part 2: Flirting, Dating, Romance, Marriage, and Heartbreak.”

Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide (Claudia Ross and Jing-heng Sheng Ma): For the serious student of Mandarin, this 432-page guide presents detailed, comprehensive information about contemporary grammar and usage. To make the book as useful and relevant as possible, its authors favor the practical over the obscure. Available for Kindle.

Learning Chinese Characters, Vol. 1: A Revolutionary New Way to Learn and Remember the 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters (Alison Matthews, Laurence Matthews): Most helpful for beginners but also a good reference tool for more advanced learners, this book uses a cartoon-based mnemonic approach to aid in memorization. It presents the characters in a logical order that also makes them easier to memorize, and it also contains useful information about each character. Available for Kindle.

cover of Schaum's Outlines - Chinese VocabularySchaum’s Outline of Chinese Vocabulary (Yanping Xie and Duan-Duan Li): For intermediate-level students, this book contains a well-designed course of 200 exercises to help students understand and memorize practical vocabulary, including topics like computer terminology that are neglected in many other Mandarin sources.

Chinese (Mandarin), Conversational: Learn to Speak and Understand Mandarin Chinese with Pimsleur Language Programs (Pimsleur Instant Conversation): This well-reviewed audiobook (CD) conversational Mandarin course of 16 half-hour lessons is based on the Pimsleur Method. There is also a much more expensive 30-lesson version available.

ChinesePod logoChinesePod and Rocket Chinese are both getting rave reviews for their online multimedia courses, which include interactive audio lessons, video lessons, games, online communities, and vocabulary building materials. A subscription to either service would be a fantastic gift for someone interested in learning Chinese.

Rocket Chinese logoFluenz Version F2: Mandarin 1+2+3 with supplemental Audio CDs and Podcasts: A well-reviewed (but expensive) 3-disc, 75-lesson CD-ROM set with two audio CDs and supplemental podcasts. Since this course uses pinyin (romanized Chinese) only without Chinese characters, it is appropriate for those who are only interested in learning to speak the language or who want to use this course as a supplement to other materials. The developers of this course describe it as a teacher-oriented approach, with each lesson led by a tutor. They emphasize that in contrast to other learning systems that focus on mimicking patterns, their course involves explanations of grammar and sentence structure to build clear, conscious understanding. For both PC and Mac operating systems, though Mac OS X users should check to make sure it is compatible with recent versions of OS X.

Multimedia Learning Suite Chinese Characters Memory LifterMultimedia Learning Suite Chinese Characters Memory Lifter: Presented in a convenient “plug and play” USB stick format, this program uses multimedia flashcards organized by subject to help you memorize 3,000 Chinese words. Its useful features include a variety of learning modes, the ability to track your learning progress, statistical feedback on your performance, the ability to edit and expand vocabulary sets with your own data, and the ability to print flashcards. The package also includes a study guide, introductory videos, MP3 audiobooks for playback on portable listening devices, and a “Learn to Learn” booklet to help you get the most out of the system.

Tea and Teaware

Good information about tea and teaware can be found on the discussion boards at TeaChat.

An Yixing teapot - photo by Alexandr SoloYixing zisha (“purple clay”) teapots (photo credit: Alexandr Solo) are prized for both their beauty and the added richness they impart to the flavor of tea. Although there are apparently a number of English-language retail websites that sell authentic Yixing teapots, my research suggests that the sites introduced below may be the best places to purchase them. However, to ensure faster shipping for Christmas, you might also consider purchasing a pot directly from the Yixing teapots page on the U.S.-based website of Yunnan Sourcing, a company that also sells high-quality tea leaves.

  • Wan Ling Tea House: With a tea shop in Shanghai and other operations based in the U.K., Wan Ling Tea House is a great source for both tea leaves and tea accessories, including Yixing teapots.
  • Chinese Tea Culture: This site is operated by a Mandarin-speaking American living in China who is able to ensure the quality of the products he sells (tea leaves, Yixing teapots, and other tea accessories) by getting them directly from producers. (Note: As of the publication of this post, this site appears to be down and may no longer be in operation.)

The wonderful Teavana Yixing Travel Tea Tumbler (a stainless-steel, clay-lined thermal tumbler) that we used to recommend is no longer available. Here are a few highly rated alternatives:

The following books would make great gifts for anyone interested in learning more about tea culture and the complexities of tea itself:
cover of The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook

  • The Tea Drinker’s Handbook (Francois-xavier Delmas, Mathias Minet, and Christine Barbaste): Written in clear English by the co-directors of France’s Le Palais des Thés (“Palace of Tea”) retail chain, this well-designed, accurate, and comprehensive book goes beyond many other books about tea in giving detailed information about tea bushes and the cultivation of tea. It also features 200 full-color photographs and illustrations.
  • The Tea Enthusiast’s Handbook: A Guide to Enjoying the World’s Best Teas and The Story of Tea: A Cultural History & Drinking Guide (Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss): Written by the founders of Tea Trekker, these books have received a great deal of critical praise and high marks from readers. The Handbook is a “pocket guide” (for a large pocket) that focuses on practical buying, brewing, and tasting advice; The Story of Tea is a more comprehensive tea tome augmented by 150 full-color photographs. Both books are also for sale on Amazon and available for both Kindle and iBooks.
Chinese Cuisine

Easy Chinese Recipes book coverEasy Chinese Recipes: Family Favorites From Dim Sum to Kung Pao (Bee Yinn Low) and The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook: 101 Asian Recipes Simple Enough for Tonight’s Dinner (Jaden Hair): Two very highly rated cookbooks covering the spectrum of Chinese cuisine, with an emphasis on convenient recipes that use ingredients available at American supermarkets. Both books are now available for Kindle.

Joyce Chen 10-Inch Bamboo Steamer Set and Joyce Chen 50-count Steaming Papers: A set of two stackable bamboo steaming baskets, along with convenient paper liners fitted to the baskets. Other highly rated 10-inch steamer liner options are Helen’s Asian Kitchen Parchment Steamer Liners, 20 Count and Pre-Cut Perforated Parchment Steamer Liner / Non-Stick Rounds (Pack of 40).
cast iron wok set - small - 125 x 125
14-Inch Traditional Cast Iron Wok Set: A perfect gift for the budding Chinese cook who wants to cook the traditional way, this is an “old-school” wok (without teflon) that has received rave reviews on Amazon. It includes five pieces: the wok, an aluminum lid, a stainless steel spatula, a ring, and a bamboo cleaning whisk. For a high-quality teflon-coated wok, consider this 14-inch wok from T-Fal. Those with a bigger budget might also like the Calphalon Elite Nonstick Wok, which features a glass cover.

Chinese Art and Calligraphy

Mystic East Art’s website, chinesepaintings.com, has a good reputation and features beautiful Chinese-style paintings—original paintings only, not prints. Oriental Furniture is a highly rated seller with a broader selection of Chinese and Asian furniture, art, and decorative accessories.

Oriental Art Supply and Asian Art Mall are two reputable online retailers that offer a huge selection of calligraphy- and art-related supplies and products. Oriental Art Supply is owned by the family of Dr. Ning Yeh, an accomplished painter.

Here are a few art-related gift ideas available on Amazon:

Chinese calligraphy set - small - 125 x 125Chinese calligraphy writing and brush painting set with 5 brushes, an ink stick, an inkstone, signing ink, a water well, a brush rest, and a stone chop. Be aware that the brushes are quite small and may be unsuitable for people with larger hands. (This set can be supplemented with these medium-sized or large brushes.) Although it has a reasonably good rating overall, numerous reviewers have criticized the quality of this set; this similar but somewhat more expensive set may be a better option.

Chinese Calligraphy Made Easy: A Structured Course in Creating Beautiful Brush Lettering (Rebecca Yue): A well-reviewed book for beginning practitioners of Chinese calligraphy.

100 sheets Japanese Chinese Calligraphy Rice Paper: Well-reviewed paper used for calligraphy and brush painting practice.

Chinese seal - Oriental Art Supply - small - 125 x 125A personalized Chinese seal, also referred to as a chop or stamp, makes a classy and unique gift. Oriental Art Supply sells personalized seals carved in China in a variety of configurations; square artist name seals like the ones pictured here are the most commonly used. (See the “Related Products” links at the bottom of the page for other kinds of seals.) Asian Brush Art & Graphic Design also sells customized seals.

If you need to create a Chinese name for someone without one, try these websites:

  • MandarinTools.com: A sophisticated name generator with a variety of options; it gives rough phonetic transliteration of Western names within the parameters of a traditional three-character Chinese name (one-character surname, two-character given name). It also provides some information about the specific names it generates and Chinese names in general, along with links to other sources of information about Chinese names.
  • Chinese-Tools.com: This name generator handles one name at a time only (given name or surname), and it outputs common transliterations of Western names that do not follow the format of a traditional Chinese name. These names are immediately recognizable as Western names and may or may not work well on a seal.
  • ChineseTools.eu: This name generator works just like the one above.

You can get a digital version of the seal stamp on these websites to see what it might look like:Fu Mingdao seal stamp - positive - 75 x 75

Kung Fu and Martial Arts

Master Amin Wu performing a t'ai chi fan formFor Bay Area residents interested in t’ai chi ch’uan (太極拳, tàijíquán), lessons with a local instructor would be a perfect gift. We are fortunate to have an internationally famous sifu available for both group classes and individual lessons: Master Amin Wu (吴阿敏, Wú Āmǐn). A graduate of the Wushu Department of the Beijing University of Physical Education, she has won numerous international tournaments and China national championships, served as a judge at China’s national championships, and been a featured instructor on China Central Television (CCTV). She teaches all major styles of taijiquan (Yang, Chen, Sun, and Wu), as well as ch’i kung (氣功, qìgōng) exercises for health, t’ai chi weapons, and self defense. Her group classes are held in Millbrae, and she is also available for private lessons. Her classes and lessons are very reasonably priced, especially for such an accomplished teacher. Visit her website to find out more and purchase her Yang-style Tai Chi Fundamentals for Beginners DVD and other VCD’s. See performance videos and interviews on her YouTube channel.

Medicine Begins With Me logoChilel Wellness and its website, Medicine Begins With Me, have an admirable mission: to empower people to improve their own health by combining traditional Chinese practices like ch’i kung and t’ai chi ch’uan with modern medical knowledge. In addition to seminars and other products, they host annual group tours of China that feature both cultural exploration and qigong/taijiquan study sessions with local masters. Based in Rocklin, California, northeast of Sacramento, they hold workshops and retreats in a number of cities in California, Hawaii, and Indiana.

For basic instructional videos on ch’i kung or t’ai chi ch’uan, consider these highly rated DVDs created by Chris Pei: Qi Gong for Beginners and Tai Chi for Beginners.

Feiyue martial arts shoes (black)The Martial Arts Store has an incredible selection of martial arts-related goods.

Feiyue martial arts shoes: These shoes are apparently the kind worn by Shaolin monks during training. Flexible, padded, and light, they are ideal for martial arts and similar activities. One drawback is that the shoes’ rubbery soles have a strong smell at first that diminishes over time. Note that these shoes are different (lighter, for martial arts practice) than the shoes sold on the official Feiyue website based in France, which are more fashion-oriented shoes.

Martial arts practitioners interested in incorporating Taoist philosophy into their daily lives will find Deng Ming-Dao’s Scholar Warrior: An Introduction to the Tao in Everyday Life invaluable. Also available for Kindle.

The Way of Energy book coverThe Way of Energy: Mastering the Chinese Art of Internal Strength with Chi Kung Exercise (Master Lam Kam-Chuen): An introduction to zhanzhuang (站樁, zhànzhuāng), a simple but powerfully health-promoting form of ch’i kung that involves standing still in various postures and can be done by people of all ages. This book is very highly regarded for its lucid explanations of qigong concepts and its easy-to-follow instructions, augmented by more than 100 drawings and photographs. Complementary video clips by the author can be found on the StandStillBeFit channel on YouTube.

Serious students of martial arts might find a trip to the Shaolin Monastery, the home of kung fu, fascinating; the monastery is included on our Roots of Chinese Culture 14-Day Tour.

After our leisurely stroll through downtown Hong Kong (see Part 2 of our HK trip), we decided to take a ferry to Cheung Chau (長洲), a small island in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. I had fond memories of it from a previous trip there in 1997.

The cliché that the journey is more important than the destination can be quite literally applied to a ferry trip in Hong Kong (though in our case the destination was pretty sweet, too). Although Hong Kong is a terrifically stimulating environment, it can also be stressful, but a leisurely, comfortable ferry ride forces you to relax and smell the figurative roses—roses that in this case happen to be colossal towers of glass and steel, along with the magnificent mountain and ocean scenery that surrounds them. Depending on how hot it is, you might choose to enjoy the view from an indoor seat, where the Asgardian air conditioning system will make you feel like you’re closer to the North Pole than the sweltering South Pacific. Personally, I’d never want to miss the breeze and the sun on the outdoor deck. The only thing that could have possibly made our trip better? A cold six-pack of Tsingtao.

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

A view of the skyscrapers and wharves of downtown Hong Kong from the Cheung Chau ferry A distant view of the Kowloon waterfront and a ship from the Cheung Chau ferry

Left: As you pull away from the ferry terminal, you have a great view of some of the tallest buildings in the world, including 2 International Finance Centre and the Center. You’ll also see a great variety of vessels in the harbor (one of the busiest in the world, of course), some of them pleasantly quaint, such as this tugboat.

Right: In this photo you can see Kowloon’s International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in Hong Kong and #4 in the world, which was still under construction at the time this photo was taken. The ship in the foreground appears to be some kind of naval vessel.

A view of the buildings of downtown Hong Kong from the Cheung Chau ferry A view of Hong Kong Island from the Cheung Chau ferry

From the ferry, you can enjoy constantly varying views of endlessly varied Hong Kong. And as you cruise farther away from Hong Kong Island, a bigger scene unfurls before you—a picturesque combination of city, mountain, sea, and sky.

Right: This is a view of Hong Kong Island from the west; the area on the left is the downtown area (the Central and Western Districts), and the area on the right is Aberdeen, in the southwest part of the island.

A view of boats in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor from the ferry Sunlight reflects off the surface of the water in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor

As you enter Cheung Chau Harbor, you can see that the local fishing fleet is still quite robust.

Right: Here, you can see the breakwater protecting the harbor from large waves. The late-afternoon sun glints off the furrowed surface of the water.


The chance to enjoy the scenery while we recovered from hours of walking was itself more than worth the cost of the ticket, let alone the opportunity to relax and eat seafood on Cheung Chau. (video by CIT)

Boats near the ferry pier in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbour Pedestrians, bicycles, and stores on the waterfront at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor

Left: This is the view alongside the ferry pier. Both small ferryboats, such as the one pictured here, and much larger ferry ships, serve the people of Cheung Chau. Some of the ferries we saw appeared to be something like “water taxis,” run for the locals by private operators.

The waterfront near the pier shows the influence of the West and the influence of the tourist trade (a Circle K, a 7-Eleven, and a McDonald’s all in a row; small shops selling knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, tchotchkes, curios, trinkets, and souvenirs), but most of the island is charmingly and convincingly local. In fact, I was delighted to find that it seemed as though nothing had changed since my visit 12 years earlier. In the modern world, that kind of reassuring consistency is hard to come by.

Food and beer at a seafood restaurant on the waterfront of Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor Seafood tanks at a restaurant on Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Island

There are a number of restaurants along Cheung Chau’s waterfront, specializing in seafood, of course. We chose one, more or less at random, and in our eager hunger inhaled a bountiful meal (I was so hungry that I forgot to take a photo until these dishes were all that remained). To my wife’s discriminating Shanghainese palate, it was not the best seafood she had ever had but quite enjoyable nonetheless. Surprisingly, I recall the vegetables as being my favorite dish—simply prepared yet intensely flavorful. And there’s nothing like a cold beer in a shady spot with a view of the ocean, except perhaps a cold beer on a Hong Kong ferry.

Right: I’ve always found seafood tanks like these rather cruel, but I suppose their redeeming quality is that they force you to be more aware of where the pleasantly dead food on your plate came from than do most Western-style restaurants that hide the uglier bits of the preparation process—and they have the added virtue of allowing you to confirm that your food is indeed fresh.

Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Beach A distant view of Hong Kong Island from Cheung Chau Beach

All in all, I would describe Cheung Chau as an oasis of relaxation, a refuge from the bustle of the city. The part of the island that best epitomizes that quality is Cheung Chau Beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of sand just a few minutes’ walk across the narrow part of the island from the waterfront.

Right: From the beach, which faces Hong Kong Island to the east, you can admire the distant view of downtown HK while you relax, far away in both mind and body. The visible distance somehow makes it easier to let go of the urban insanity of modern life—which, paradoxically, is only a convenient ferry ride away when you need a little craziness. If I ever suddenly retire from human society to live as a nomad, this is one of the places I’ll go. Call me “the convenient recluse.” Tibetan monasteries are just too darn extreme.

Although my little pocket camcorder doesn’t really do justice to the vividness of Hong Kong, I think this clip does capture the serenity of Cheung Chau Beach on the evening we relaxed there for an all-too-brief time. (video by CIT)

Boats in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor at dusk Large store billboards and crowds of shoppers near a night market in Hong Kong's Kowloon district

Left: As night began to fall, I took this photo of Cheung Chau Harbor.

Right: After two days chock full of endless walking and flagrant gawking, we didn’t have the energy for much partying by the time we got back to the city, but we did stroll around to do some shopping and take in the impressive bustle.

With stores, clubs, bars, night market stalls, street performers, and restaurants galore, there is never a shortage of nighttime activities in Hong Kong—even a simple stroll along the streets can be entertaining. (video by CIT)

Two of my favorite memories of Hong Kong are things that I unfortunately didn’t capture on film.

One of these memories is passing by the basketball courts on Cheung Chau where I had seen locals playing an intense style of pickup basketball—with one of them even dunking in the short time I watched them—on my first trip there in 1997. As a basketball fan since early childhood, I was deeply impressed. Way back then, when Chinese basketball was not yet on anyone’s radar, I began to realize that it was only a matter of time before Chinese players would begin to emerge on the international scene. This time no one happened to be playing when we passed by, but just the sight of the same courts put a smile on my face.

Later, while strolling along the streets of Kowloon, I watched a small crowd gather outside a media store that was showing a Michael Jackson concert DVD at the entrance. Although I haven’t been a big Michael Jackson fan since I was about ten, I’ve always appreciated his magnetism as a performer, and to see it attract Chinese locals to a little TV on a street in Hong Kong several months after his death was somehow touching—the kind of thing that reminds us of our essential unity. As travelers, we seek the exotic and the new, but ultimately what we want to find, in spite of all our differences, is a deep connection with the people and places we visit, something that transcends the superficial, the local, and the temporal. I felt that in Hong Kong, as I’ve felt it everywhere I’ve gone in China, and it has made those travel experiences both exciting and comforting.

—originally published on our old blog on August 6, 2010

If you’d like to experience Hong Kong yourself with an itinerary that will allow you to do your own independent exploring, sign up for our Hong Kong 3-Day Tour or our China Highlights 11-Day Tour. Please visit our Hong Kong Photo Gallery and Information Page for more photos and information.

On our second full day in HK, we struck out on our own and enjoyed some sights and experiences no less beautiful and stimulating than the more touristy experiences we had had the day before. And of course, we only scratched the nanosurface of all that there is to do and see in Hong Kong.

If you’d like to experience Hong Kong yourself with an itinerary that will allow you to do your own independent exploring, sign up for our Hong Kong 3-Day Tour or our China Highlights 11-Day Tour. Please visit our Hong Kong Photo Gallery and Information Page for more photos and information.

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

A narrow street walled in by buildings in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong The storefront of the Chinese Noodle Restaurant in Hong Kong's Kowloon District

We started off in Kowloon, whose claustrophobic urban canyons, crammed with billboards, have a bit more character than the more modern, sterile, finance-oriented buildings of the downtown area. Just the sight of it is highly suggestive, rich with the possibilities of so many lives in such a small space.

In the morning we each had a tasty bowl of spicy noodles at a little eatery with the almost hilariously unimaginative name “Chinese Noodle Restaurant.” (Its Chinese name, 四川麻辣米綫, which I would translate as “Spicy Sichuan Rice Noodles,” is a bit more descriptive.) When eating at places like this, be careful not to let them make you pay the “foreigner tax.” Sometimes people who are obviously foreign (especially Westerners) are charged extra; this did in fact happen to us at one restaurant, but it wasn’t here.

Sichuan-style rice noodles at a restaurant in Hong Kong's Kowloon District Crowds of transit passengers in the Hong Kong subway

The food in Hong Kong is world renowned, and although as a semi-vegetarian I’m not as crazy about HK’s Cantonese and seafood-oriented cuisine as I am about some of China’s other regional cuisines, even my persnickety palate was pleased by the food we had there. These noodles were an even better morning stimulant than coffee.

Afterward, we took a subway ride from Kowloon to downtown HK, the Central District of Hong Kong Island. Although the subway ride was convenient and comfortable, I don’t want to imagine what it must be like during a sweltering August afternoon rush hour. I just hope it has a massively powerful ventilation system.

The central atrium of the Landmark, an upscale shopping mall in downtown Hong Kong Another view of the central atrium of the Landmark, an upscale shopping mall in downtown Hong Kong

The Landmark in downtown HK is probably one of the finest shopping malls in the world, with many of the most exclusive brands represented. As someone with rather plebian tastes and an utter lack of sartorial style, I felt about as comfortable as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It was beautiful and impressive, but I don’t think anyone with a philosophical bent can help feeling a bit alienated by the hordes of worshippers at downtown Hong Kong’s altar of Mammon.

After we emerged from the Landmark with our bank account fortunately still more or less intact, we witnessed an impressive phenomenon: the lunch rush amidst the office buildings in the Central District. Every day, tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of worker drones descend from their mile-high celestial cubicles simultaneously to swarm the streets and mingle with the crowds of shoppers and tourists. This video clip doesn’t fully capture the intensity of it, but it was quite a sight (and sound).

A human billboard puts a costume on to advertise on the streets of downtown Hong Kong The storefront of the Kosmo Wellness Cafe in downtown Hong Kong's Central District

We also witnessed the amusing sight of this “human billboard” (on the aptly named Theatre Lane) preparing some kind of costume—a sun, a sunflower, a strange mythical creature? I can’t tell. Actually, “costume” doesn’t do it justice. “Promotional siege engine” is a more accurate description.

Soon we took shelter from the crowd in the Kosmo Wellness Cafe, an oasis of calm with tasty (and at least nominallly healthful) beverages and friendly service.

A refreshing fruit smoothie and iced milk tea in downtown Hong Kong's Kosmo Wellness Cafe Skyscrapers (including the Center) rise into a blue sky over a street in downtown Hong Kong

Our beverages: a smoothie and some milk tea. I suppose drinking milk tea in Hong Kong is disappointingly predictable, but it was indeed good.

With all the time I’ve spent in places like San Francisco and Shanghai and New York, you might think I would be fairly gawk-proof at the sight of gleaming skyscrapers, but downtown HK is stimulating even to jaded eyes. As the scads of photos (many more than I’ll inflict on you here) I took there prove, I spent a lot of time gazing upward at the impressive buildings, playing the role of slack-jawed American yokel, to the amusement of the locals around us, no doubt. At one point my wife even offered to buy me a bib. Well, she didn’t say that, but I’m pretty sure she was thinking it.

Hong Kong's 2 International Finance Centre, one of the tallest buildings in the world Glass-sided skyscrapers (the Bank of China Tower and the Cheung Kong Centre) reflect a cloudy sky in downtown Hong Kong

I don’t think you can blame me for gawking, though—by some measures Hong Kong has the best skyline in the world, and it currently boasts five of the the twenty tallest buildings in the world, including Two International Finance Centre (left photo), which comes in at #4.

Right: The Bank of China Tower (left) and the Cheung Kong Center are the 12th and 52nd tallest buildings in the world, respectively.

A busy intersection in the Central District of downtown Hong Kong Trolleys in the Central District of downtown Hong Kong

Despite all of the industrial towers of steel and glass, downtown Hong Kong somehow manages to be rather charming, too, with its many shops, its cultural distinctiveness, and its pedestrian-friendly environment.

The trolleys, in particular, are rather quaint to an American’s eye.

A demonstration against Citibank in downtown Hong Kong An anti-Citibank protester in Hong Kong wearing a t-shirt that reads 'pyscho' and 'God destroys'

One somewhat unexpected sight we came across was this anti-Citibank demonstration. This and some other things we observed on our trip, along with the recent [at the time this post was originally written] news about factory workers in China going on strike and successfully demanding better wages, gives me hope for the “little people” of China who have thus far largely been left behind by China’s remarkable economic success.

Right: This protester is wearing a shirt that reads “psycho” (or “insane”) at the top, and it looks like the bottom part says “God destroys.” At least I’m pretty sure he was a protester, not an actual self-declared psycho. In any case, I didn’t even consider messing with him, and as you can see I waited until his back was turned to take this photo. My experience suggests that it’s best just to take people labeled “psycho” at face value.

Next up: our ferry ride to Cheung Chau and a taste of Kowloon nightlife. I’ll chronicle the rest of our trip next week.

—originally published on our old blog on July 20, 2010

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