The Leaning Tower of Niles? (USA)

Did you know that the Leaning Tower was actually completed in 1934 as a way to conceal a water tank for swimming pools?

If you didn’t, then you’re not alone.  To be fair, I’m talking about the Leaning Tower of Niles, located in in the Illinois suburbs of Chicago.

In the 1920s, Robert Ilg, owner of the Ilg Hot Air Electric Ventilating Company of Chicago, opened a park – Ilgair Park – in Niles.  Soon after the park opened, he added two swimming pools for his employees; however, he didn’t want to completely ruin the area’s natural beauty.

So as to disguise the water towers, he decided to build a half-sized replica – in other words, 94 feet high, 28 feet in diameter, and leaning 7.4. feet – of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.  Bronze bells were even imported from 17th and 18th century churches in Italy. Construction began in 1931, and finished three years later.

Moon over the Leaning Tower of Niles

In 1960, part of Ilgair Park was donated for the construction of the Leaning Tower YMCA, with the understanding that the YMCA would pay a small amount annually for the upkeep of the tower.

In 1991, Niles formed a sister city relationship with Pisa, Italy, and in 1997, the Leaning Tower Plaza was dedicated in the park, replete with four fountains and a reflecting pool.  Notably, the Leaning Tower of Niles was designated a National Historic Landmark earlier this year, a first for Niles.

But, how does it compare with the Italian original, which was started in 1173 and completed in 1370?

Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy (taken in 2007)

For starters, a lot less tourists.  But I’ve gotta give Italy the edge for pizza;)

Canang Sali: Bali’s Ubiquitous Hindu Offerings (Indonesia)

The first time I went to Bali, way back in 2005, I was a much different traveler.  Having just visited a few countries at that time made me nervous about solo travel, and coupled with that, fearful of taking rides at airports, especially after a disorienting flight.  So visceral was my anxiety that instead of taking the hotel shuttle to Jimbaran, I walked for about 2+ hours at night, wheeling two suitcases in that exhausting tropical humidity.  This was also before mobile phones could show you where you were, so I was working off of rapidly disintegrating printed maps to get to the hotel.

What does that have to do with Balinese Hinduism?  Nothing…except that I probably accidentally tripped over more than a few of the ubiquitous canang sari along the way.

Before diving into what canang sari represents, it’s vital to point out that Bali is Indonesia’s last prominent Hindu bastion, a relic of centuries of Hindu and Buddhist rule throughout the Indonesian archipelago, roughly peaking between the 5th and 13th centuries AD.   However, there are some key differences between Balinese Hinduism and Hinduism followed by much of India— namely, Balinese Hinduism incorporates aspects of Buddhism, beliefs in animism, Malay ancestral worship, a lack of a caste system, and no child marriages.  Also, in keeping with the Indonesian government’s creation of Pancasila (five principles) – in which monotheism is a requirement to be a sanctioned religion – Balinese Hindus primarily worship Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, a deity unknown to most followers of Hinduism in India.  Although there are many minor gods representing water, fire, earth, fertility, rice, and so on, it was necessary for Balinese Hindu acolytes to accept that these lesser gods all form one primary deity, Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa.

What exactly is canang sari?  Loosely translated as essence (sari) in a palm frond tray (canang, pronounced cha-nang), canang sari are offerings to local gods left daily by Balinese women, typically in the early morning or around dusk.  Depending on the ritual and importance of that day, they may either small or grandiose, and will be filled with flowers, herbs, food, money, and incense.

Canang sari are strategically placed by entrances to family compounds, altars, temples, in addition to restaurants, hotels, and other structures.  Chiefly, canang sari show to the deities the time spent by each family in making them, to keep the good and bad balanced, and as a thanks for keeping the family harmonious.

Preparing Canang Sari, Bali, Indonesia

In addition to the incense, the basic ingredients of the canang sari are called the peporosan; they symbolize the Trimurti, or the three dominant Hindu gods:

  • Shiva, the destroyer, represented by white lime
  • Vishnu, the preserver, represented by a red betel nut
  • Brahma, the creator, represented by a green gambier leaf

On top of the canang sari are flowers dedicated to sincerity and love, placed in specific cardinal directions:

  • White petals for Ishvara, supreme lord/personal god, pointing East
  • Red petals for Brahma, pointing South
  • Yellow petals for Shiva, pointing West
  • Blue/Green petals for Vishnu, pointing North

Once that incense fizzles out, however, you might notice some local fauna nibbling away at canang sari.  According to tradition, as long as there’s no more incense to be burned, it’s totally ok to do so…not that the animals know anyway!

The Neptunus Group Building, Shenzhen (China)

Recently, I came across an article from two months ago that mentioned how Chinese Leader Jinping Xi issued a decree limiting the construction of buildings >250 meters (~821 feet) tall, disallowing buildings > 500 meters (~1641 feet), and prohibiting copycat behavior – in architecture.

That article made me reflect on the architectural scene in China, and how I relish exploring its urban fabric in the hunt for the most bizarre structures exemplifying a combination of the modern vicissitudes of Chinese capitalism and tradition.  Whereas there are some real winners out in the mainland, I believe this one, located in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, also deserves a spot in the pantheon.

Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China, #1

Founded in Shenzhen in 1989, the Neptunus Group is a dominant player in the Chinese health and pharmaceutical industries; if you have visited China, you may have seen their Nepstar drugstore, the largest pharmacy chain in the country.  They have other skyscrapers throughout the city, but only this one merited a report.

You also might be wondering, what’s with the names?  The Chinese characters 海王 can be translated as Neptune, the Roman “god of fresh water,” and analogous to the Greek Poseidon.  Wouldn’t the name work better for a shipping company?  Also,  isn’t China officially atheist?  Hmmm.

Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China (2)
Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China (1)

If you, too would like to see Neptune riding through the façade of a Chinese skyscraper, it’s located in the Nanshan district of western Shenzhen.

Chinese Address: 深圳市南山区南海大道2225号海王大厦A座5层

Some People Like Banh Mi, Some Like…Thuoc Lao

Within the Solanaceae family of plants are some of my favorite foods; tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes are the three that come to mind.

However, there’s one particularly nasty member of the family that not only counts as addicts hundreds of millions of people, but also doubles as an effective pesticide

Tobacco. 

Yet, there’s the tobacco which you might encounter in your local shop, and then there’s thuoc lao.

Thuoc Lao (thuốc lào), Nicotiana rustica or more commonly, Aztec tobacco, is said to have nearly nine times as much nicotine as the significantly more widespread Nicotiana tabacum.  Even though both species originate in Latin America, for decades, thuoc lao has been the go-to post-meal hobby for many Vietnamese.

Smoking Thuoc Lao, French Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam.jpg
Smoking Thuoc Lao in the French Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

What sets thuoc lao – “drug from Laos” – smokers from others is that is is chiefly smoked using a water pipe.  Often, these are bamboo pipes (điếu cày), but you may see ceramic, plastic or metal pipes, too. 

In Vietnam, many believe thuoc lao to aid in digestion, and smoke it along with having green tea or a beer. 

For first timers, the excessive quantities of nicotine may cause them to faint for a spell. In short, the pipe is filled with some water and a small amount of thuoc lao. Then the thuoc lao is ignited, whereby the smoker blows the ash out, then takes a toke, at which point a feeling of being phe, or “high,” sets in.

Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン)

Located on Shikoku, the smallest of the four primary islands of Japan, Tokushima is a small seaside city best known for a 400-year old dance called the Awa Odori, an historic indigo trade, a citrus fruit known as sudachi, and Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン).

Tokushima ramen may not be one of the better known bowls of noodles throughout Japan, having only been popularized at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in 1999.  It’s saltier and sweeter than the average Japanese ramen, generally has thin and soft noodles, and unbeknownst to me at the time, comes in three different types of broth.

Tokushima Ramen at 麺王

The most common broth is brown, using tonkotsu (豚骨), or pork bone broth, and a darker soy sauce.  Fried pork, spring onions, and a raw egg (already mixed-in in my photo) round out the Tokushima style.

Other types of Tokushima ramen might be yellow, due to chicken or vegetable broth and a lighter soy sauce, or whitish, using tonkotsu and a lighter soy sauce.   Amusingly, in a country where you might even see fried noodle-filled sandwiches, rice is a common accompaniment to Tokushima ramen.

St. Louis-Style Pork Steak

Due to the raging pandemic, I recently returned from a family visit near St. Louis, Missouri (USA).  With the notable exceptions of St. Louis city and county, that region of the state was significantly more open for business than where I currently live.  As someone who would normally travel hours just to try new food, and because it had been 25 years since my last visit, naturally, I had barbecue on my mind.

For those of you who may not be familiar, St. Louis is most famous for ribs, and for its high per capita consumption of bbq sauce.  There are other foods
which I may cover in later posts, but for now, let’s talk about the pork steak.

At first glance I thought, pork steak?  Isn’t that just a ridiculous synonym for a pork chop?  Apparently, no…you see, a pork steak – also known as a blade steak or Boston butt- is cut from the shoulder, and is said to be a cheaper cut, whereas a chop is from the rib/loin.

Pork steak, baked sweet potato, and unsweetened tea at Big Sticky’s in Troy, MO

Pork steaks were popularized in the St. Louis area more than a century ago, and may even be more common on an Eastern Missouri menu than the signature ribs.

What is Falun Gong (法轮功)?

Truth (真)

Compassion (善)

Forbearance (忍)

Those three words represent the primary tenets of Falun Gong (法轮功/法輪功) aka Falun Dafa (法轮大法), a quasi-religious movement first practiced in China by Mr. Li Hongzhi in 1992.

Drawing from a combination of Buddhist and Taoist teachings, as well as employing qigong (气功) breathing exercises, the characters of Falun Gong translate as achievement (功) through the wheel (轮) of law (法).

Even if you haven’t heard the term Falun Gong, you have may seen propaganda littering hardware store windows and bus stops for Shen Yun, the performing arts show fully backed by Mr. Li and his acolytes.

Taken in a pre-July 1st, 2020 Hong Kong

Sounds harmless enough, right?  But, if Falun Gong merely exists as a way for people to improve their health by doing a few breathing exercises and lithe movements, what caused this spiritual movement to be banned in China by June 1999?

Simply put, the Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist, and cannot tolerate any potentially competing ideology in its territory.  Unlike other health-focused movements such as Tai Ji (太极), adherents of Mr. Li were under the impression that through practicing Falun Gong, they were able to join a path to salvation and enlightenment, with some even believing Li to have the power to levitate.

At first glance, it’s a bit David and Goliath, isn’t it?  Then again, the CCP would absolutely not want a contemporary analog to the mid-1800s Taiping Rebellion, in which Mr. Hong Xiuquan believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and claimed to receive orders to rid China of all the non-native Manchu rulers.

Anti-Falun Gong messages, in a pre-July 1st, 2020 Hong Kong

As Falun Gong gained more followers, Beijing first prohibited the sale of its official text, called the Zhuan Falun (转 法轮).  Some periodicals even started claim that practitioners were so taken by Mr. Li’s gospel that they committed suicide.  After a mass display of loyalty to Mr. Li in front of the CCP headquarters in Beijing, Office 610 was set up in June 1999 to oversee the prohibition of Falun Gong in China, as well as to “disappear” thousands of believers.

Mr. Li fled to a usual suspect, the United States – notably, there is no extradition treaty between the US and China – and in New York state, he set up the secretive Dragon Springs Falun Gong facility in Cuddebackville.  As with other religious beliefs, it is likely that there are still underground followers in mainland China.  However, being that Falun Gong is one of the CCP’s “Five Poisons” – along with Uyghurs, Tibetans, democracy movements, and Taiwanese separatists – any news of their successes and practices is suppressed and/or censored.

BuildingMyBento, Part Deux

Hi everyone,

First and foremost, I hope that you are all healthy and safe, particularly during this pandemic. Due to COVID-19, I halted plans to move to Japan and instead, chose to be there for my family. Japan will always be there, although this has become a Stanford Marshmallow Test of mind-boggling proportions.

Thus, I hope that you will excuse the long break since the last post.

Nevertheless, I will keep the WordPress BuildingMyBento page for product review-specific posts, and will start using “LearningFeelsGood” for well, nuggets of knowledge, now. Food, travel, architecture, and languages will all continue to play their vital roles, but now under a more encompassing website title.

Please enjoy Learning Feels Good, the BuildingMyBento, Part Deux.