The BBQ Lady of the Great Southern Gate
On cold winter days I like to come back in my thoughts to the first time I visited the City. I remember it bathed in the yellowish glow of early autumn sun, verdant green of her abundant nature blending in with the mixture of dust and the sandstone hue. It’s strange, being able to remember it so clearly even after so much time has passed; I feel the time here convoluted, one year in the City corresponding to decades in the outside world. Then again, perhaps what I see in my head is nothing more than my reconstruction of those days, as I dearly miss all the things that used to be but vanished in a speck of time. Few things stay exactly as they were, that’s true, as the waves of change sweep through the City in phases, destroying and rebuilding as they please. Not everything is lost in time, however. Some things that seemed to have been forever gone turn out to have merely phased out of existence for a certain amount of time. And when they phase in again, what joy it is to discover them anew! This was the case of The BBQ Lady.
The BBQ Lady because even though there are countless bbq sticks stalls in the City, most of them run by women, this one is special. Located in a minor food street that used to be a bustling little alley of lights and steam she run her inconspicuous stall offering different sorts of grilled sticks. Not at all unusual, as there were at least a couple of others in the same area, all sporting tiny little red tents where you could enjoy this five star dining experience.
I was an Outsider back then, having been taken there on my last day of my first rendezvous with the City, I recall, stunned by all the colours and smells that surrounded me at once. Everything seemed so new and so alive, and even though I spoke not a word of the common tongue, I felt it was one of the life-veins of the whole City, pulsating with live. Now I see how the City itself is like the heart of this world, throbbing and shaking with every bit. There is nothing except it that keeps this reality from falling apart, and I have embraced that truth with joy; back then yet, it was only the prelude to something greater to come. And the overture was The BBQ Lady, her smile so genuine that it was heart melting. She never lost that smile.
There are meat sticks, fish sticks, tofu sticks and all sort of veggies and other mysterious stuff that goes well with a large amount of chilli. The real treat though are the barbecued breads and mini pumpkin cakes, and not all stalls serve them.
I remember that night, sitting in the red tent and munching on all those gourmets while downing them with a lukewarm Harbin beer, thinking that even if I were to get a massive food poisoning the next day, I would have come back, again and again. And thinking how sad it felt to have to leave the City after only such a brief acquaintance. It would be so unfair to not be able to eat those sticks again and see the BBQ Lady’s smile. I think we have all felt countless times that we really don’t belong somewhere and don’t want to be at one place or another. Crowded bus, flat with annoying neighbours, a job you hate, company of people that only make you annoyed, and so on. I think it’s so easy to convey the feeling of being fed up with our current surroundings. What I fail to picture well with words, though, is the opposite: a feeling of absolute comfort, soothing and dispelling even the greatest fears. It comes from nothing in particular, it just exists. That evening, in the red tent of the BBQ Lady of the Great Southern Gate I had that immense feeling of belonging and I knew that my life would become intertwined with that of the City.
So imagine, Dear Reader, the pain I felt when I came back to the City for good a couple months after only to be able to visit that food street once or twice before it got shut down for unknown reasons. First the bbqs started disappearing due to increasing “food safety” control (as if that was THE issue in a place where almost no one seems thinks using soap for washing hands is kinda important). Then, the entire alley got blocked off with some construction screens and that was it, it was gone. None of us harboured much hope for the future. Someone once mentioned they saw her in the street selling fruit, but I’m sure it wasn’t much more than a phantom. Things just disappear, never to be found again - this is the fate of everything in the City.
Some time after the alley reopened, brand new in fashionable tiles and all, only there was not a single street food stall to be found. Some flashy milk tea, other stuff that no one really needed... only good thing was the bean hotpot and luoguo were left untouched. Yet, no sign of the Lady.
And so years passed, all the way until the Great Disaster that I mentioned in my previous writings. The world almost ended as two biggest food streets in the City disappeared overnight. Again, I refuse to go into detail as I’m still upset about it even now. Everything was gone: first the alley, then the streets, what would go next?
I feels ashamed I showed so little faith in the unbending spirit of the City. One evening, as I decided to visit the bean hotpot after a long while (that’s not really summer food, as much as I love it to bits) near the Southern Gate, I noticed the whole area being a tiny bit busier than usual, with some of the stalls and tents back to where they used to be. Yet, the fabled BBQ Lady wasn’t there. In truth, I didn’t even look as in my heart I assumed I’d never get to eat those sticks again. It became the symbol of everything that was lost irreversibly. Maybe I had simply succumbed to the absolute despair that gnaws on hearts of all men and women.
Another cold evening, another bean hot pot time... and just as I was walking back to the Main Street to get home, there she was. I can’t express how I felt that moment. She had probably only seen me a few times yet she recognised me immediately as I exclaimed: “Where have you been!” in the tongue I now spoke. Somehow, everything went back to how it used to be in this one brief moment; I did not only reunite with the best BBQ I’ve ever known, but also with my past and with my true love, the City.
Thank you, BBQ Lady of the Great Southern Gate. You truly are my Hero, and a Legend.
PS: I feel horrible about not being able to find a better picture at this moment but this story will surely continue one way or another. Also, too hungry to reread for typos and such, so forgive me Dear Readers, if my mind is occupied with but one thing: Sticks sticks sticks!