A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Strutting the flesh on a cold winter’s day

Regular readers of my blog will know that one of the joys of living in Beijing – and many other parts of China for that matter – is the way that people spontaneously get up and dance in the most public places. Go to any park or public garden … even simply walk the streets in the evening, and you will see people waltzing or doing the tango or simply moseying around in some personal dance of their own. It’s wonderful!
So it is no surprise, too, to see that Beijingers love to go dancing in more established places. I, myself, have danced with them in a few of the clubs and dance schools around the capital. And now there is yet another dance school about to swell the numbers. This one is called the Beijing Salsa Club; and your favourite blogger has been invited to go and swell the numbers at the club’s official opening celebrations.
The map that is sent appears to be more a reflection of the designer’s artistic capabilities, than with worrying over-much on the actual distances involved. But by judicious comparisons with Mr Google’s very own map of the same area it is not too difficult to work out what the art-loving designer had in mind…
There is still snow lying around since yesterday, but worse, a partial thaw and then a hard overnight freeze has turned some of the pavements into ice rinks – something that my sit-upon can now well testify to, having made an unscheduled landing on a piece of pavement real-estate near the station exit.
Hobbling and slithering along, I finally turn into Baiziwanlu and after a while discover a new museum to add to my list of museums-in-Beijing-to-discover – the Today Art Musuem (looking very much like Yesterday’s forgotten building), with a row of 20 sculptures, all looking as if they are contemplating suicide from the top of the building.
Down below are characters who look as if they have escaped from Beijing’s 798 Art District. Mind you, just to look at them in this arctic weather makes me shiver.
When I finally get inside the building and down to the basement level, it’s like a rabbit warren with corridors going off into dark deserted passageways where you can’t even see the ends. There are loads of empty units waiting for tenants – perhaps Fritz, the owner-manager, got a bargain on his first year’s rental. Finally, after wandering around for what feels like hours – and bumping into loads of other lost souls on the way, we finally all see a flash of red in the distance that proclaims a celebration…
and sure enough we crowd into an already crowded dance studio to catch the remnants of a welcoming speech.
The timing is perfect, because just before the start of the performance dancing, everyone is invited to try some “special sparkling wine from Italy” or some hot tea. The wine is left almost untouched as most people try to squeeze as much hot lemon-honey chai as possible into their paper mugs. There’s even cake on offer, though I have to say it reminds me of the stuff that clowns traditionally throw at one another in the circus. As there is no-one I particularly fancy the need to throw cake at, I decline the offer of a slice.
Finally the performers are ready to begin. First off is Fritz, the owner-manager – a Filipino from whom I used to learn Bachata in a studio in the north east of BJ. He is accompanied by his lovely wife – and all eyes are on her as she manages to wiggle bits of her body that normally have no place wiggling anywhere, and the result is an incredibly sexual performance from the pair of them.
Rapturous applause follows. One feels almost sorry for whoever has to come on next, to perform in their shadow.
But the feeling is totally misplaced. A Chinese girl comes on in a lurid pink outfit that you certainly wouldn’t want to see the morning after the night before. She, it appears, will be teaching belly dancing in this establishment. Her ‘credentials’ are impeccable. Again, she wiggles parts of her anatomy that logic tells you have no right to have a mind of their own. Fritz and his lady-wife are soon forgotten as everyone becomes mesmerised by this object of beauty.
There is a slight pause as the assembled guests are asked to all move to the very back of the room. The next act is going to be “dangerous”. Yeah, right! A guy looks through the dressing room window, and it looks as if he is wearing a dress!
But soon, as he and his wife emerge, we see rippling muscles (on her as well as on him) from this Russian duo who are soon throwing each other around the room – he lifting her as if she weighs a feather, and she throwing herself around him as if he is a pole dancing substitute. Truly awesome stuff; and once again the audience goes wild.
Are you ready for some more?” Fritz goads his audience, with predictable responses. “OK, for the next one, I want you all to move forward again – no even further forward. Yes, right onto the dance floor…”
Yes, it’s that embarrassing time when audience participation takes over. Fritz demonstrates some easy moves, the music starts pounding away and before you know it, everyone is dancing Gangnam Style.
Finally, as the music dies away there are some fond farewells, plenty of hand wringing and back slapping, and the place spills out into the rabbit warren of tunnels once again.
But hey, your favourite blogger knows he has an hour or so to get home, and with the cold temperatures outside, he also knows a thing or two about what that does to the human bladder.
A sign to the loo seems a temptingly sensible idea before going out into the snow-filled streets. And predictably – well as predictably as you’ll find people dancing in the streets in the capital – we find Beijing’s army of slogan writers has turned its attention once again to the walls of the male loo.
It’s an exhortation I can well appreciate, having previously visited many of BJ’s not-so-nice public inconveniences.
I am left wondering how long it will be before someone scribbles a few words underneath… Step back and prepare for Armageddon, perhaps?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Coming Face to Face with a Scholar and Thinker

Could it be that your favourite blogger has finally found what must be the most boring museum in the whole of Beijing? I’m not talking of the Watermelon Museum; or the Museum of Tap water; not even of the Museum of Phone cards. No, no… this one is in a league of its own. I’m talking of the Jin Tai Museum.
Never heard of it? Well, I’m not surprised. Neither has anyone else. I defy you to ask anyone who has lived in China’s capital for more than 5 minutes whether they have heard of it, let alone know where it is, and I am pretty confident you will get a shrug of the shoulders.
I mean… try looking it up on the web. The Beijinger has it marked a good three minutes walk away and on the wrong side of the main road from where it actually is. (It’s actually inside Chaoyang Park - that crenulated white blob on the map vertically due south of the West Gate 1.)
Cityweekend has it marked even further away – a good five minutes walk and again on the wrong side of the main road.
Placesonline goes one better – a good 45 minutes walk away…
But at the end of the day, I guess it doesn’t really matter. You’d have to be pretty desperate to want to visit this museum, that’s for sure.
So why, you may be asking, am I going out of my way to see it? Well, it’s like this. The Azerbaijan Embassy, in the spirit of it being 20 years since they established diplomatic relations with China, decided to donate a sculpture of Nizami Ganjavi to their Chinese hosts.
No, come on now. It’s no use pretending you have never heard of Mr Ganjavi! According to the Azerbaijan Embassy blurb, “The great Azerbaijan poet Nizami Ganjavi is one of the most brilliant masters of world literature. His masterpieces are the best achievements of artistic genius of mankind. The measure of Nizami’s art and talent is so immense that he became a son of humanity.” Oh THAT Ganjavi! Oh, of course…
Anyway, this must be a perennial problem for governments the world over. What do you do with sculptures of Ganjavi and his ilk when presented with one from another nation with whom you have such long standing and amazingly close ties. Well, what else? You put it in a museum!
And so, dear blog reader, you finally understand. Jin Tai appears to be one of those places in which Beijing can place such unwanted gifts and pretend to be pleased with what they have been given. Honour is satisfied all round and everyone can carry on ignoring the place!
Me? I was asked if I would like to come along to the grand unveiling, meet some people and nibble a little something on the side. Who could refuse such an invitation?
At the appointed hour, clutching a sheaf of assorted maps, I emerge from the 419 bus that has had the perspicacity to pick me up from right outside my place of work just a half hour previously. I see a line of ambassadorial cars with their flags straining on their masts in the icy wind, and follow them on the basis that they probably have a better idea where they are going.
I meet an old friend who, like me is shivering in the cold weather and we go inside where I am introduced to more people. Around a reception room are pictures of, presumably, Azerbaijani sites and relics, though I don’t see anyone looking at them the entire morning. The Azerbaijan Embassy PR people are probably wondering why they even bothered to make the effort.
A new found Australian friend and I are offered glasses of coke and 7-Up which, in the absence of a nice hot coffee, are accepted; but the problem is where to place one’s empty glasses once the beverages are suitably quaffed. A handy sideboard appears to be the best solution, though I read up later on the web that this is one of the museum’s prized exhibits…
We’ve hardly had time to swap visiting cards when there is a general call. Would everyone be pleased to go outside to witness the grand unveiling of the sculpture? Amazingly there isn’t a mad stampede to the door, though we all traipse outside to do our collective duty.
It’s only now that I notice that this section of Chaoyang Park backs on to the new media centre that is being built – a beautiful building that I have been watching slowly rising up over the past year.
I also notice that the path is lined with sculptures – well, maybe lined is putting it a bit strongly – but there are certainly around half a dozen. Here’s one of the Mahatma. It was made by the director of the museum, Yuan Xikun, of whom more in a moment…
Right now, though, the tension is mounting. Everyone is straining forward lest they miss a single word of the proceedings.
A spokesman for the Azerbaijani embassy reads a prepared statement while one of the guests looks on in admiration… (Actually I discover a short while later he is a fellow ambassador of some other ex-Soviet republic.)
And lest some of us are a little rusty on our Azerbaijani, this girl gives a running translation when she is allowed to get a word in edgeways…
Listening to every word is a line up of ambassadorial guests from Afghanistan, Georgia, various other ‘istans etc while the guy on the right – the one who looks like he has had a hearty breakfast before setting out into the cold morning air – is Mr Azerbaijan Ambassador himself. The crème de la crème of ex-soviet satellite ambassadors.
I get to hear the Azerbaijani national anthem for the first time in my life – a pleasant ditty, though only the ambassador is mouthing the words to this catchy tune… until the third verse, that is, when he either forgets the words or gives up the unequal struggle. The Chinese anthem follows and everyone stops talking and gives it the respect it undoubtedly deserves. The official translator girl sings along to it, obviously being well schooled in the lyric, without even looking at her prompt pad.
As the inspiring words die away, a bevy of China’s youth come to lay flowers at the base of the new sculpture, though why their mums never thought of equipping them with gloves on a day like today beats me.
Naturally everyone wants their picture taken with Ganjavi to record this momentous date in their diaries.
It’s now I am able to get a closer look at the sculpture and discover that not only was he a Great Azerbaijani poet, but he was a scholar and a thinker too! I make a mental note to alter the contents of my visiting cards next time they are due for a reprint. “Brian Salter – broadcaster, journalist, scholar and thinker”! It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
My thoughts are interrupted by an army of cleaners walking towards us stragglers, ready to tidy up the empty sweetie wrappers and other debris that might have been left by the ambassadorial staff. Or maybe they can’t wait to set eyes on the scholar and thinker and son of humanity.
I wander back into the relative warmth of the museum where I learn that the curator / director / most regular visitor, Yuan Xikun – that gifted sculptor I mentioned a moment ago - was born in Yunnan Province in August 1944. According to the blurb, he established the Jin Tai Art Museum in 1995, “the first private-owned museum where over 100 international cultural exchange activities are held praised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture.”
Yuan Xikun is a “Member of the 8th, 9th and 10th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and later Member of the 11th Standing Committee of CPPCC. Member of the Standing Committee of the All-China Youth Federation, Curator of Jin Tai Art Museum, Honorary Chairman of China Association of Collectors, Researcher of the Graduate School of the Chinese Arts Research Institute and Honorary Member of the Russian Academy of Arts, Recipient of the National Labor Medal of May Day”. Makes you wonder how he gets the time to do any work.
Someone has thoughtfully placed a posy of three yellow roses on a table in the entrance, which brightens up the place immeasurably.
A corridor leads off down to the back of the building. Many of the assembled guests, including some of the ambassadors, are making their way down there rather than going into the main reception hall. Could there be some priceless artefact worthy of attention, I wonder? No, it turns out that the cold weather has had a predictable effect on ambassadorial bladders and they have just been to ‘inspect the plumbing’.
I wander up a flight of stairs, seeking inspiration and find myself in a gallery of busts and pen and ink drawings. More of Xikun Yuan’s work. It appears he was invited to draw ink-and-wash portraits for 152 foreign dignitaries, who were then asked to sign and approve said drawings.
According to yet more blurb on this paragon of Chinese art, his sculptures of international celebrities have been collected and placed by the governments, international organizations or museums of Japan, Greece, Russia, the United States, Poland, Slovakia, Italy, Bulgaria, Kenya, etc. His sculptures have even been given as state gifts to Japan, Greece, Russia and Slovakia by Chinese state leaders on their visits. (So they can hardly complain at the Azerbaijanis taking a leaf out of their book!)
Xikun Yuan’s portraits of world leaders include such notables as Gloria Arroyo, Luciano Pavarotti (since when was he a world leader?), Simon Bolivar, Boris Yeltsin, Yasser Arafat, Pervez Musharraf, Kofi A.Annan and Fidel Castro.
But wait – what have we here? A picture of Lucifer himself?
Oh no, it’s Tony Blair. Mind you…..
I have to say if I had a choice of the smirking Blair brat, or this pen and wash of a lion, I’d go for Mr Leo any day.
But I hear noises from afar and hurry back to the excitement of the main reception area. Yes, Mr Ambassador is giving his long awaited speech – no doubt extolling the virtues of Chinese-Azerbaijani friendship and how the two countries can benefit from such close mutual cooperation. (Later when discussing my exciting morning with a Chinese work colleague, she admits she has absolutely no idea where Azerbaijan is; but let’s not dwell on that.)
The speeches are followed by rousing renditions of Chinese songs by a youth group, while the assembled media snap away hoping to get a picture of something a little more inspiring, perhaps, than the ambassador’s speech.
And finally as the last notes die away, the assembled multitude is able to tuck in to what it appears most came for in the first place. A selection of Danish pastries and sandwiches, by now curling at the edges. Duty has been seen to be done and we can get on with real living once again.
With sticky fingers and a new collection of visiting cards to add to my useful contacts box, I set off once again into the cold fresh air outside. As the ambassadorial limousines sweep past me I head on up the road to the 419 bus stop. It’s been a grand morning!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Is Purple the new Black?

The Chinese are a funny lot, I’ve decided. And this past weekend has only underscored that feeling in my mind.
It is 9am and outside it is minus 9 degrees. Looks like winter is on its way now; though with the promise of another sunny day it is too nice to be snuggled up indoors.
I scour the map and discover a park named Zizhuyuan – 紫竹院公園 – slap bang behind the National Library here in Beijing. As I have an appointment at the National Dance Academy at midday, and the Academy is “just around the corner” from the Library, I decide it’s time to take in another of Beijing’s famous parks.
Zizhuyuan translates as Purple Bamboo Garden. The park is renowned for its 50+ species of bamboo, of which by far the most rare is the purple bamboo.
I shiver my way to the subway – normally a 10 minute walk away, but today as I brave an icy northerly wind, I make it in seven minutes. Surely the subway will be empty of people today? But no, it is as crowded as ever with the collective breath of these hardy souls turning to steam as they wait for the train.
I emerge half an hour later from the National Library station on Line 4. According to my map, all I have to do is turn right and right again and I should be there. Alas, Mr Google’s army of map making henchmen take no account of Beijing’s city workers who decide to lock one of the access gates five minutes walk down a pretty road, bordering the Changhe River which itself meanders through the park; and your favourite blogger is forced to make a U-turn and head on to another (main) entrance further to the south.
The blurb written about the park is winsome in its praise. “For visitors who are fond of bamboo and wide waters, Zizhuyuan Park is hard to beat,” they all chorus. “This park is renowned for its bamboo scenery. Three lakes, filled with lotus blossoms, occupy one third of the area. They are connected with two islets by five arch bridges. Pavilions, corridors and bridges hide in the tall bamboo all across the park. It is a veritable oasis of peace and tranquillity in the frenetic heart of Beijing. As well as the liberal use of verdant bamboo groves, the visitor can also enjoy water lilies and lotuses, all landscaped using traditional Chinese techniques.” How could one resist such an entreaty as that?
I arrive a short while later at the main (eastern) entrance and learn straight away that there are at least 20 things I mustn’t even think of doing while I am inside the park. Haha – I see one of them is that no smoking is allowed. OK, in that case we can fairly safely assume that this notice doesn’t count for much since all Chinese know that smoking is one of their inalienable rights.
Once inside I come across a list of nine further admonishments that I attempt to commit to memory, including:

Love motherland, love Beijing, cherish national harmony, and maintain stability
• Love labor, be dedicated to work, be honest and be diligent and thrifty
• Transform undesirable habits and customs, lead to a healthy life, advocate family planning, and be physically strong
OK, I guess I’m a fan of national stability; and as for being honest, diligent and thrifty, then I’m your man! As for transforming my undesirable habits, I fear it may be a bit late for that by now – remembering the old saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And as for advocating family planning and being physically strong, I’m afraid the Mr Wimp inside me may have difficulty coming to terms with this too.
I slope past the notice board wondering if anyone will stop me for not having enough rippling muscles on display. But I have no reason to worry, as everyone is covered up Mr Michelin Man style and no one is inspecting muscles today, rippling or otherwise.
The blurb on the websites helpfully suggests that “The garden has a variety of bamboos on display, and is one of the seven largest parks in Beijing.” Actually once inside there is bamboo everywhere, which I have to admit is rather picturesque – not like the bamboo weeds in my garden back in the UK which are impossible to kill (and believe me I have tried – with flames / chemicals / spade .. but all to no avail.)
I have to admit that though Zizhuyuan may well be one of the seven largest parks in Beijing, (it covers an area of 14 hectares, contains three lakes and two islands, with five bridges connecting the lakes) I had never actually heard of it before. Come to think of it, neither do any of my friends at work – not that that says an awful lot, you understand!
The lakes cover 11 out of those 14 hectares; and earth dredged from the lakes was piled up to form several little hills on the eastern shore to complement the natural hills that line the lakes' western shores. The Park’s authorities are proud to tell you that “The designs and arrangements of all the scenes in this park follow the principle of what is natural is the most beautiful…” before going on to describe how stones and manmade rockeries have been scattered around artistically, thereby somewhat shovelling the ground from beneath their own feet!
The Purple Bamboo Park has a long history. Before the third century it formed the upper reaches of the Gaoliang River, and a famous Gaoliang Bridge stood nearby to the east. A thousand years later, the lakes served as a reservoir providing an important part of Beijing's water supply. In the late Yuan Dynasty, a canal was built along the upper reaches of the Gaoliang River but it fell into neglect and gradually became silted up. During the Republican period it was filled in and rented out as paddy fields.
Of perhaps more historical importance, though, is the fact that the park grew-up around the central Beijing terminal of the canal built to carry the empress dowager Cixi to and from the Summer Palace; and even today in the summer, tour boats still ply the waters carrying tourists to the palace. After 1949, the People's government transformed the fields into a new park.
But what’s this – I hear you eagle eyed blog followers crying out. Could your favourite blogger have been having us on all this time?
Yes. Here it is again! Purple Bamboo Park? Awww come on!
OK, OK! You think this isn’t confusing for me too? 紫竹园 – Zī zhú yuán – literally means Purple Bamboo Garden. The English botanist to first name this species of bamboo called it Phyllostachys nigra (maybe he didn’t know the Latin for purple - so he didn’t call it Phyllostachys blattinus, Phyllostachys blatteus, Phyllostachys puniceus, Phyllostachys ostrinus nor Phyllostachys purpureus). Hence its official English name is Black Bamboo Park, despite every web site and guide book calling it Purple Bamboo Park. (And you think you’re confused!)
Anyway, be it purple, black, pink or even orange with emerald spots; the entire park is given over to bamboo in various colours, including park benches…
…tables and chairs; bamboo waterwheels; even stores along the lake bank (when they are open, rather than in the depths of nearly-winter) also sell fancy bamboo works of “art”. Even the bridges and pavilions are decorated with bamboo motifs.
However, it is not all bamboo – purple, black or otherwise. Apparently in the summer months the lakes are a riot of colour from lotus plants; so it is not surprising that the lotus shares the limelight as far as some of the park’s decorations are concerned.
One of the things that I regularly come across in Beijing’s parks is the sight of – normally – old people practising calligraphy on the sidewalks using water instead of ink. It’s a simple idea, but most effective and I find it always catches my attention whenever I pass by. I am left wondering today if the words will turn into slivers of ice, rather than simply evaporating in the sun.
Other hardy souls are even more adventurous – or balmy, depending on your point of view. I mean, for crying out loud, it can’t be more than minus 5 degrees by now and still these men are sitting around in the cold playing mah jong. Are they mad – or am I missing something?
There’s even an area devoted to Chinese Chess. What look like park benches, but which on closer inspection turn out to be sculptures…
are offset by a gigantic chess sculpture. Quite pretty!
But no one is playing chess today; come to that, not that many people are enjoying the beauties of nature, despite some of the trees displaying some fantastic colours.
The sky has turned overcast – that look it gets when it is thinking of chucking down loads of snow. Already the sides of the lakes are turning to ice; and although it is the middle of the morning, it almost feels like dusk is on its way.
But just then a ray of sun fights its way through the cloud layer revealing a saxophone combo about to warm up for a rehearsal in the protection of a grotto. China’s parks are full of people who want to practise a musical instrument but can’t do so in the apartment blocks in which they live.
Another saxophonist appears, this time in the shade of a pavilion.

The sun peeps out a second time illuminating a call to the weather gods, perhaps?
But it’s too late. Everywhere greens are turning to reds and browns, though I for one am not complaining…
I turn a corner and the sounds of mass choirs fill the air. There must be 70 or 80 people all singing at the tops of their voices. Doesn’t ANYONE have a warm home they’d rather be in? Can you imagine this happening in Europe? Or America? No, neither can I!
Meanwhile, the kiddies’ play area has all but ground to a halt. Maybe the kids themselves have a lot more sense than their parents!
OK, I know what you’re thinking. You’ve sat through all this blurb so far and there’s been practically nothing about the bamboo plants themselves. The web sites blabber on about “Among the diverse bamboo stock, such as mottled bamboos, purple bamboos, and fishpole bamboos, by far the most common in the park is the purple bamboo.”
Really? Well at the top of this blog you will no doubt have recognised the ‘Phyllostachys aureosulcata faureocaulis’ that is much in evidence here. (Come on! You’re allowed to B-S just a little!)
There’s even quite a bit of ‘Phyllostachys propinqua’ – which looks like this >>>
But ‘Phyllostachys nigra’? Well, apart from one largish clump close to the massed choirs, I haven’t actually seen any at all. But I have to say that in the park it looks decidedly black; whilst while writing this blog the photo looks…errr…purple! So what is it dear blog fans? Black? Or Purple? Answers on a postcard….
I round another lake heading in the direction of the southern exit. Already there is ice forming right into the centre of the water and the falling leaves are getting trapped in the ice. It’s pretty now, but I suspect in a couple of weeks it will look rather yucky!
I turn another corner and come face to face with mass tango – Beijing tango, I believe; not the Argentine variety. Again, there must be over 50 couples strutting their stuff in way-below-zero temperatures. It’s a joy to behold; but I still think these Chinese are balmy. I’ve been in the park for just over 45 minutes and I am blue with cold.
As I pass yet another dance class (in Paso Doble, I think – Beijing style, of course!) I head out into the real world once again and make my way rapidly in the direction of a hot cup of tea.