A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Oh ¥€$ – This Is Definitely A Museum Worth Visiting

Regular followers of your favourite blogger will know how much I like Tianjin – a city 120km southeast of the capital Beijing. Apart from the horrendous China House museum, there’s pretty well nothing to dislike about this place. But I have to admit that until recently I had no idea about some of the museums it houses; and as my regular followers will know, I am very much “in” to museums and their ilk.

So I was delighted to come across – by chance – the Chinese Museum of Finance which opened just four years ago. It’s a specialist museum dedicated to China’s finance history, general financial knowledge, and the current and future state of the financial industry. 

It is housed on the former site of the French Club, which was built in 1932 at 29, North Jiefang Road in the heart of Tianjin’s old Financial City. 

It’s only a couple of streets back from the River Hai, and if you cross over the wrought iron French bridge, you can hardly miss it. This street is where the colonial banks of yesteryear built their branches during the treaty-port era and many of the buildings have been retained and are well-preserved. It’s no longer the central business district, and the street has hardly any cars on it, so it’s a pretty peaceful place to wander around. 

The museum was the brain child of a financial highflier called Wang Wei. He was executive vice-president of a domestic brokerage when he was only 34, then a banker, a mergers & acquisitions leader and an author. And he even climbed Mount Everest last year at the age of 56. Apparently he got the idea of a finance museum after visiting a similar one in the United States (this is the eighth such one in the world). To date he has set up three similar museums, with a fourth one being planned for the Haidian district of Beijing.

In many respects, the museum is unusual, to put it mildly – but it means the visitor is constantly pleasantly surprised. Even the entrance ticket, which comes in its own little wallet, is a delight…

If you were expecting a museum about finance to be dry and boring, then think again. As you enter up the main entrance way staircase, the walls on either side of you are decorated with loads of famous sayings –
Men do not desire merely to be rich, but to be richer than other men / Money will buy a pretty dog, but it won't wag his tail / It's not how much you earn, it's how much you owe / If we command our wealth, we shall be rich and free; if our wealth commands us we are poor indeed / Pennies don't fall from heaven. They have to be earned on earth / and so on and so on…

Inside the lobby area, for want of a better word, the upper walls are decorated with portraits of famous notables in history – Thomas Law, Isaac Newton, Thomas Gresham, as well as numerous Chinese whose names, unfortunately, have not been transliterated as they are elsewhere in the museum. 

The whole tone of the museum is upbeat and positive – even to the use of the Yuan, Euro and Dollar to make a point! 

As you would expect in a museum about finance, money is an important theme. The 2,400 sq m exhibition hall stores nearly 200 currencies, banknotes and many other precious finance-related items from China and other countries, from different historical periods. 

The museum is divided into five sections, starting with the history and current situation of finance, the origin and development of currency, financial institutions and instruments, financial markets, M&As, and major international financial institutions. 

The second part is called “finance and us” and it deals with finance and entrepreneurs, finance and industries, finance and war, finance and politics, finance and science, and finance and the arts. 

The third part is the history of Chinese currencies, covering the evolution of currencies in China, and milestones in the history of its finance. 

The fourth part deals with financial crises, and is constantly being updated to cover the continuing fall out from the sub-prime crisis, as well as looking back to the Great Depression, the 1987 stock market crash in the US, economic cycles, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, hyperinflation, and financial frauds and scandals. 

The final part looks at special topics, including gold and currencies, as well as the history of Tianjin’s North Jiefang Road and the planning of the financial core area in Binhai New Area.

But undoubtedly the stuff that catches one’s attention are the displays of money from all over the world. Obviously there is a preponderance of modern money from the past century… 

… but there are also plenty of displays of old forms of currency, and in my view it is vastly better displayed and more “accessible” than the currency museum in Beijing. 

There are also Chinese bank notes going back to the declaration of the People’s Republic, including this issue whose 5 and 1 jiao notes are still used to this day. One instinctively feels that the present Mao design on the notes is a retrograde step if you compare it with previous designs.

Most of the foreign money shown has obviously been chosen for the prettiness of their designs, rather than anything more esoteric such as their importance to international finance. 

There’s even a display of Disney banknotes…

…which might seem odd until you realise that they probably have more worth than the Zimbabwean currency which was printed in hundreds of trillion dollar denominations.

Yes, I did say hundreds of trillions… and yes, that is a One with 14 zeros after it!

All I can say is that the inflation of 1930s Germany (whose bank notes you could count in the hundreds of millions of Marks) didn’t come close to Mugabe’s criminal mishandling of his country’s economy. Somewhere in a box back home I have a whole load of these German inflation notes. I must dig them out and dust them off sometime for a closer look. 

There’s even a beautiful display of the UK’s coinage which took me a bit by surprise. 

But as I say, this museum is not a currency museum per se. It covers all things financial – including long drawn out explanations (in Chinese only unfortunately) about periods of history where finance would be the lead on the evening news night after night – such as that period in the Netherlands’ history when hyperinflation struck the value of tulip bulbs, which were used as a local currency and swapped hands for thousands of florins depending on their scarcity. 

There’s even an abacus which must be one of the largest – if not the largest – in the world. I’ve never seen one so big, though we all know that size isn’t everything!

Share certificates, too, get a look in. The museum apparently houses the only known share certificate in existence featuring a picture of Mao Zedong on it. But I didn’t know at the time, which is why you can instead have a look at this Franco-Chinese certificate from 1903, being one of 50,000 such certificates representing a 500 francs share of a total of 250 million francs. 

There are also assorted posters which make their own point…

And then every so often you get a corner where there is something about the computer age or electronics or whatever – like a cylinder gramophone, some 3½” floppy disks, a poster of Sony products, or Bill Gates smirking over a couple of computers that were both surely far too old to run Windows XP! 

In another room there are displays about some of the financial crises in history, such as the Great Depression, the more recent Greek financial crisis, financial ethics and, of course, the subprime mortgage crisis.

There are also words and pictures about Berni Madoff and an explanation of the Ponzi scheme.

For those less enamoured by paper money and electronic transactions, there is always the lure of gold, whether you carry it around in your mouth …

… or sit on it to conduct your regular business 

But at the end of the day it’s always good to know that we can rely on good old Mao stuffing up our wallets – though as this poster shows, you have to be wary of forgeries every time you receive or spend any money. Having had at least three forgeries pass through my hands here in Beijing (and had two thrown back at me – literally), I guess I should study this poster in a bit more detail. Or perhaps not. Now what did I do with my online translator? 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

In the Best Possible Taste?

It’s nearly 20 years ago that Kenny Everett, a British comedian, radio DJ and TV entertainer, passed away from AIDS. To many, he embodied the height of tackiness throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s , not least with one of his famous characters – Cupid Stunt (think about it!), who was a starlet with balloons for boobs and who kept criss-crossing ‘her’ legs while assuring us that everything was ‘all in the best possible taste’.

If, perhaps in some parallel universe, Kenny had wished to personify a museum, he surely couldn’t have done better than to have chosen one in Tianjin, a city situated some 120 kilometres southeast of Beijing.

China House (a.k.a. Porcelain House – 瓷房子) is a ‘contemporary’ museum of pottery and antiques. It is located in a historical colonial building – No. 72, Chifeng Dao, in Heping District; and even without taking a single step inside, you can see how vulgar it is going to be from the outside.

I guess we are all voyeurs at heart, and just as we couldn’t help but switch on the TV every week to watch Cupid Stunt displaying ‘her’ red satin knickers every time ‘she’ crossed her legs, so the urge to actually go in to this monstrous museum became overwhelming and I finally succumbed on my fourth visit to this lovely city.

The old five-storey French-style house, which covers some 3,000 square metres was originally the home of a central finance minister in the late Qing dynasty (how he must be turning in his grave), and was later converted into a bank in 1949, after the founding of ‘New China’. But later the building was left deserted, until porcelain collector Zhang Lianzhi bought it for 1 million yuan ($160,000). He then spent the following four years turning it in to the monstrosity it is today.

It is said that over 5000 ancient vases, 4000 plates and 400 million porcelain fragments have gone into the outside ‘decoration’ of the house. Not for nothing is it known as ‘the most eye-catching building in Tianjin’, and of course, it is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, having finally opened its doors to the great unwashed on September 2nd, 2007. 

The courtyard wall is covered with around 3,000 porcelain vases, while the wall in front of the house is named the ‘peace wall’, consisting of 635 vases made during the Republic China and the late Qing Dynasty.

In some ways the place reminds me of some of the famous Gaudi buildings that grace Barcelona – guaranteed to shock on first glance but which grow on you after a very short while – except that this abomination doesn’t grow on you – well, that’s to say it hasn’t grown on me one iota, though to read some of the comments on the likes of TripAdviser you’d end up thinking this guy was some kind of a genius. It all goes to show there is no accounting for taste. 

Everywhere the House is decorated with some 400 million pieces of ancient porcelain, 16 thousand pieces of ancient chinaware, 300 white-marble carvings, 20 tons of crystal and agate and millions of pieces of ancient Chinese ceramic chips. Some of the fragments and vases go back to the Tang (AD 618-907) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. 

In fact, about 80 percent of the porcelain used comes from broken or damaged antiques, but Zhang mixed all the different fragments together and pasted them onto the walls in such a way as to conceal the damaged bits, so most of them look intact. 

Zhang ensured that elements of Chinese ' culture' could be seen at every turn; and he seems to have taken a liking to creating loads of dragons entwining the exterior wall. Each dragon is more than 200 meters long and is pieced together from thousands of porcelain pieces. They are said to symbolize the power of ancient China, being one of the most dominant features of Chinese architecture.

In fact, looking down on the courtyard there are piles of stone pillars and junk littering up the front yard and one shudders to think what this guy has next planned on his to-do list. 

Everyone is snapping away on their mobile phones, with idiotic people striking poses as if there was no tomorrow. What drives them to behave in such a way – heaven alone knows! (Ah well, if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em… as they say.)

Inside the house it is very dark, making it difficult to see some of the more imaginative uses one can put a broken teacup to. Thank heavens that in contrast to the outside, the inside porcelain is only used to decorate parts of the ceiling, rails and doors.

There’s also loads of antique furniture, arranged like in a junk yard sale. With the very dim lighting it’s difficult to see if its good stuff or really is just junk. My inclination was to the latter, though a group of loud-mouthed Americans wearing grotesquely chequered trousers covering their ample bottoms ooh’d and aah’d as if they had come across the meaning of life. 

This is simply awesome,” wrote one overawed visitor; while another opined “The building is very unique,” which I guess demonstrates their level of education and credibility. 

Compared with some of the tat, there are a few nice things to see, however, such as porcelain mosaics of various different animals, scenery, and Chinese characters. This eagle is rather a handsome bird, I felt…

… while this snub-nosed tiger is somewhat endearing, if perhaps a little anatomically challenged. 

As for the cockerel – well you have to smile when you see it don’t you. 

Some of the ceiling designs, too, I have to grudgingly admit to finding quite nicely done…

Zhang Lianzhi, meanwhile, just like Kenny Everett, insists it is all done in the best possible taste. "The design is based on my understanding of antique porcelain and traditional Chinese culture,” he once explained in an interview. “The experience is like a child building his dream house with toy bricks. With such a large amount of porcelain pieces, all I needed was my imagination to create and explore." 

Many would argue that used in this way, the antique artefacts have become worthless, though Zhang counters that antiques are not something that can only be conserved in storage houses, saying he is giving his collection a new lease of life by presenting them to the public. "I want to share my enthusiasm about the collection with many more people. For the past twenty years, I myself have found great fun in studying the stories and history behind the ceramics. It would be a pity and waste if these fabulous works of art were appreciated by myself only." Hmm, if you say so, Mr Zhang; if you say so. 

Of course, you might well be asking yourself how this guy could afford to put together such a museum. It turns out that not only was he born into a wealthy businessman’s family in Tianjin, but he also has a profitable Cantonese-style restaurant chain. He has been collecting antique porcelain for well over 20 years. And maybe he just ran out of space in which to store it all! 

Mind you, one of his latest acquisitions is a fully functional Land Rover covered with approximately 10,000 pieces of antique ceramics. It’s estimated to be worth around 1 million yuan ($160,000). And although its owner is reluctant to put a price tag on China House, ‘experts’ (whoever they may be) have evaluated the museum to be worth at least 2 billion RMB ($315 million).

The US blogsite Huffington Post has listed China House as one of the world's 15 most stunning museums; and rumours abound that even Bill Gates wanted to buy it but was refused. 

Which all goes to show, I suppose, that there is one born every minute!