A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Tongzhou's ancient... or not-so-ancient... pagoda

It’s Beijing’s oldest pagoda, built around 1,300 years ago, says visitbeijing.com. No it isn’t. It was built 1,200 years ago, according to china.org. Oh no, make that 1,000 years ago (chinaculturecenter.org – but then when they ask if you “Want a Regualr Group Tour?” for a “Bepoke Price” it’s probably difficult to take anything they write as gospel!). Wikipedia tells us it was actually built in 1696.

Are we talking about the same pagoda I wonder?

Wikipedia tells us it is The Randeng Pagoda. No, no… it’s the Dipamkara Pagoda, according to travelchinaguide.com; while china.org has it called the Burning Lamp Buddhist Relic Pagoda, adding helpfully that it is also known as Tongzhou Pagoda.

The funny thing is they all look the same in the photographs shown.

So your favourite blogger thought it was about time he went to find out – unlike the majority of the copy-n-paste brigade in the blogosphere who obviously have never set foot anywhere near the structure!

The easiest way to get there is to take Subway Line 6 to Tongzhou Beiguan whence it is a 15 minute stroll going due south. Once you get to the bridge crossing the Tonghui River, you can’t miss it ahead of you on your left…

Just keep on following the road once you’re across the bridge, taking every available left turn and you will soon find you’ve arrived at the You Sheng Jiao temple. It’s quite a pretty temple, by the way…

A Confucian sculpture welcomes you in to the inner courtyard, and there you will see the pagoda peeping out at you from behind the main building in the temple.

To the left is a small building with a number of posters on the walls showing what the place used to look like in days gone by.

But it’s the main building, which is probably the only one worth going into. Nothing, by the way, is written in English, and it’s pretty apparent that foreigners are a rare sight in this part of the world.

The ceiling is a definite hit in my book. Probably the best thing in the entire structure.

But there are also two sets of bells hanging in frames that are worthy of inspection.

Behind the main structure is a cute circular gate going through the rear wall to a little temple room where the devout can pray.

And just to the left is where you can get the best view of the pagoda itself which, unfortunately, is closed off to visitors.

The pagoda is an octagonal, thirteen-storey brick and wooden structure, measuring 53 metres (or 49 metres, if we are to believe visitbeijing.com) in height. Every corner of the pagoda is decorated with a Buddha sculpture, meaning that there is a total of 104 Buddha sculptures within it.

china.org tells us that “It’s a typical example of multi-eaved pagodas of the Liao and Kin dynasties. The base of the pagoda is a Sumeru pedestal, decorated with exquisitely carved patterns of human figures mid flowers. The first storey is particularly tall, with a door on the east, south, west and north sides. The southern door, two meters deep, used to contain a statue of Buddha. The other three doors are purely ornamental. False windows decorate the other four sides of the first storey. Beyond the first storey there are thirteen levels of closely structured eaves. The brackets under the eaves are made of brick, but the rafters are wood — a fashion followed during the Liao and Kin dynasties. The spire at the top of the pagoda is made of metal. The whole pagoda’s sculpt is powerful and strong. Echoing to Tianning pagoda in west of Beijing, both of them are important relics of the Liao and Kin dynasties in Beijing.”

The reason it is called the Randeng Pagoda, according to china.org is that “It used to be a stone sculpture of Randeng Buddha that enshrined within the pagoda”.

visitbeijing.com puts us right on that point: “The Dipamkara Pagoda is also known as the Buddhist Relics Pagoda of Dipamkara because it contains Buddhist relics of Dipamkara, the Buddha of the past. The Pagoda was first built in the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), and restored in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties and also after the Tangshan Earthquake. The thirteen-storey octagonal pagoda is made of bricks and wood. It consists of a base, a body and a top, with a height of 56 metres” [oh, not 53 or 49?]. “As the highest pagoda in Beijing, since the Ming Dynasty, the Dipamkara Pagoda has been listed as the first of the ‘Top Eight Scenes in Tongzhou’.

Well, that’s nice.

And as an added bonus, the plaque within the temple – probably the only one in English in the entire area – tells us that it is in fact called the Dipamkar Pagoda!

Anyway, it turns out the original structure was destroyed in 1679 during the reign of Emperor Kangxi following an earthquake. After that, the Emperor had it reconstructed in 1691 but the temple was once again destroyed by the European Alliance Forces in 1900. In 1976, the aftershock of the earthquake at Tangshan caused the basement platform to be partially destroyed and many corners of the tower were cracked. Eventually, the Beijing government restored it to its original look in 1985, though from the look of things there is still work in progress .

So there we have it. Unless you are a keen aficionado of pagodas, you may not feel it is worth the long trek from the centre of Beijing just to see this; but if you are in the area it would be a shame to give it a miss.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Breasts and beasts in West Beijing

Sculpture parks are becoming quite the norm the world over these days. I remember going to my first in the north of England some 35 years ago and it seemed in those days such an amazing thing to do, giving over an entire parkland to sculptures.
Beijing has had a sculpture park since 2002, and very good it is too. Whether you are a culture vulture or just enjoy seeing the occasional work of art that makes you smile, its 43 hectares has it all.
Shijingshan District over on the far west of Beijing may not be a place rich in historical sites or natural landscapes, and it is not likely to be on the wish list of many a tourist visiting the northern capital; but, according to tour-beijing.com, “here are over 200 sculptures from over 40 countries, dotted in the park creating a paradise for people seeking the mixture of arts and natural beauty”. Well, paradise might be over-egging it a little, but there is surely something here for everyone.
The park is divided into an East Park and West Park which are connected by an underpass. The east garden displays “human culture”, and the west part expresses “pastoral beauty” – well that’s the premise anyway. “They are complement with each other, picturesque like painting and poem,” tour-beijing.com gushes on.
China.org.cn, perhaps rather late in the day, informs us that “the works on display are Beijing's latest attraction, and add a touch of modernity to this ancient city. Some are to be placed in sports stadiums during the 2008 Olympics.”
An old notice board at one of the entrances tells us "We expect Beijing International Culture Park to become a second sight symbol among Beijing City”; but that was probably wishful thinking, given its location!
Yatra.com, tourtravelchina.com and a number of others urge you not to forget your camera, and when you get there you can soon see why.
If animals float your boat, then there is a plethora to choose from, ranging from these spawning salmon…
… to a ‘Confrontation Bull’ by Shanghai-artist Liu Xunfa…
…to this yellow frog, given the epithet ‘Joy’ by a Beijing artist called Fan Chenzhong.
Or how about this ‘Mantis', by Beijinger Wang Hu?

Sculpted birds too are found everywhere. One of my favourites is ‘Paradise’ by Zhong Ma…
…not forgetting ‘Bamboo Partridge’ by Yang Ge,
or these adorable owls which have lost their pedigree sign.
There are three areas where sculptures of famous people have been erected. Here you will find composers such as Bach, Paderewski and Beethoven…
…as well as scientists that include Louis Pasteur, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, who looks like he posed for this on the morning after a bloody good party!
Artists being… well, artists, it’s no surprise that the human body is well represented, with breasts spilling out at every available opportunity.
Some leave you wondering why… for instance in this bronze called ‘Walking Towards the World’ by Tian Jinduo, the girl has remembered to put on a head scarf and shoes, but had a lapse of memory when it came to putting on anything else;
while this strumpet, by French artist Maire Madeleine Gautier, leaves you somewhat wishing she had got her kit on first before lying out in the sun reading!
‘Beautiful Life’ by Han Meilin is somewhat more tasteful, representing a mother and child.
Abstract art is also well represented. This is called ‘Moon Mirror II’ by Czech artist Emil Adamec;
while this somewhat colourful display by Zhang Hua is called ‘Melody’.
And here is 'Opening of a Disc' by a Spanish artist who goes under the name of XuXo.
Some of the names given can themselves be somewhat paradoxical. How does this sculpture by Tian Shixin equate to 'Sound of the Mountain' I wonder…
Other signs also intrigue as much as the artworks themselves. Here, for instance is 'Creeping' by Xu Guohua that we are told is made out of "useless metal" (I’m pretty sure they mean scrap metal, which I guess is pretty much the same thing). It probably looked a whole lot better before it started rusting away; but I have to say I quite like it.
Traditional art also gets a look in, such as this ‘Tibetan Girl' by Cheng Yunxian.
But for me, perhaps the musical corner is what I like the best. This ‘Glamour of Home Town’ by Yu Shihong stops everyone dead in their tracks;
while who cannot be forced to raise a smile with 'Choir' by Zhang Liqi?
And the sculpture that everyone wants to pose with? Without a doubt, 'Rocky Roll' by Hao Zhonghai.
Thank you tourtravelchina.com … I’m so glad I didn’t forget my camera! Rock on!
Beijing's Sculpture Park is equidistant from Yuquanlu (exit D) and Babaoshan (exit B and then cross the road) on Line 1. You can also reach it using bus #1.

Friday, April 20, 2018

HKIA features Cheongsams in its third temp exhibition

Hong Kong airport never ceases to surprise me – in both good and bad ways. (On my last visit I was intrigued to find that the McDonalds located at the airside entrance, which has a ‘24 Hours’ sign hung above the serving area, is in fact closed through the night. When I asked what the ‘24 Hours’ referred to, a sleepy “worker” said that they are on duty all night, but that they don’t serve customers until 6am!)

I have already blogged twice about the place regarding two of its temporary exhibitions (tea and food), and when I recently went through it for the third time in as many months I discovered yet another exhibition – this one about the history of the Qipao, or Cheongsam, in Hong Kong. This one can be found near Gate 22.
The exhibition focuses on how the tradition of the cheongsam developed in Hong Kong and gradually became a source of inspiration for the creation of new fashions.
Qipao literally means a Manchu robe but is generally referred to as a Cheongsam in Hong Kong (which translates as a long dress). This one piece dress was highly fashionable between the 1930s and 1970s, although the Hong Kong cheongsam for women can be traced back to the loose cut and wide sleeved dress which emerged in the late Qing dynasty.
The stylish and often tight-fitting cheongsam that is best known today was created in the 1920s in Shanghai and made fashionable by socialites and upper class women.
As a matter of interest, the word cheongsam comes from the Cantonese pronunciation of the Shanghainese term zǎnze, by which the original tight-fitting form was first known. The Shanghainese name was in contrast with usage in other parts of China where ‘chángshān’ in Mandarin refers to an exclusively male dress, while the female version is known as a qípáo.
In the late Qing period, the silhouette of the Manchu robe grew slimmer and revealing more of the body outline. Educated women in the early Republican period could be identified by these new outfits which featured a blouse with an asymmetrical opening and a curved hemline on top of a plain black skirt. But during the May 4 Movement in 1919, a trend emerged for female students to wear men’s robes in order to express their desire for sexual equality. Initially these robes were made of plain, relatively course, fabric which was easier to handle.
In the 1930s and 40s the cheongsams were tubular in form with a slimmed down waste, side slits, and a sweep about the same width as the hip. This rather drab looking cheongsam has been made in the style of the late 1930s…
A large number of Shanghai taylors migrated to Hong Kong and Taiwan from mainland China in the late 1940s as the Communist Revolution curtailed the popularity of the cheongsam and other fashions in Shanghai. There it remained popular over the next two decades.
In the 1950s, women in the workforce in Hong Kong started to wear more functional cheongsams made of wool, twill, and other materials. Most were tailor fitted and often came with a matching jacket. The dresses were a fusion of Chinese tradition with modern styles.
Over in the mainland, from the 1950s to the 1970s, but especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the cheongsam was seen as a feudal dress from ancient times. It was abandoned as daily clothing, and people who wore cheongsams were judged as being bourgeois, which was very un-PC at the time. (In 1963, when President Liu Shaoqi visited countries in South Asia, first lady Wang Guangmei wore a cheongsam. She was later declared guilty in the Cultural Revolution for wearing it!
Recently there has been a revival of the Shanghainese cheongsam in Shanghai and elsewhere in Mainland China, where it is mostly worn as a stylish party dress.
This HK cheongsam was made in the 1950s by Mee Wah Qipao.
To my untutored eye it doesn’t look a whole lot different from this modern design by Renee K.
or this one by Vivienne Tam.
But this modern cheongsam, made out of denim fabric, and designed by Classics Anew, takes the prize as far as I am concerned for ugliness and bad taste. Yuk. How could they!
The Cheongsam has long been used for school uniforms in Hong Kong, especially in church-run schools. These cheongsams are usually straight, with no waist shaping, and the cheongsam hem must reach mid-thigh.
The cheongsams fit closely to the neck, and the stiff collar is hooked closed, despite the tropical humid and hot weather. Although the skirts have short slits, they are too narrow to allow students to walk in long strides.
Hong Kong Poo To Middle School, for instance, adopted this school uniform in the 1940s. In summer white is worn, switching over to a dark blue colour in winter.
And in case you have difficulty in picturing what that might look like, there are two dolls – with characteristically Chinese blonde hair (!) – showing off the school fashion.
Flower buttons made by Madam Po Ming-wah are also on show, demonstrating the traditional skills passed down by Shanghai craftsmen. They are regarded as more exquisite than their Guangdong counterparts which are perhaps more solidly functional.
On display, too, are measurement sheets and invoices together with fabric samples…
… as well as some of the tools used in their manufacture, such as threads, sewing kits, chalk pouches and triangular tailors’ chalk.
Scissors, scraper, pincers and forceps are also on display…
To give an example of how ubiquitous this fashion item was, you can see an album cover dating back to 1960 of The Lemon Sisters; the cover of a 1970s album by Paula Tsui; the cover from a comic book in 2012; a concert poster from 2005; and a comic book cover produced in the 1970s.
Cheongsams were also used extensively in advertising material – picking up on a trend from the Shanghai region in particular. Here’s a replica of a calendar poster of the Hing Kee Bookstore from the 1920s...
… while there are also replicas of 1960s adverts for the Tak Wan restaurant and Ovaltine beverages.
All in all, this is a charming little exhibition and well worth spending a good ten minutes taking it all in.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

HKIA Serves Up Another Exhibition for its Passengers


I wrote recently about a special exhibition staged inside Hong Kong airport, and how nice it was that the airport authorities actually made an effort to provide distractions for the passengers passing through. It wasn’t a great exhibition, if the truth be told; but the fact is they made an effort and that, in my book, counts for something.
Well I was passing through HK yet again and guess what…. Yes, there’s another exhibition just a little bit further down the terminal from the previous one (which is still there, by the way).
This one is called “More than just food” and, according to the blurb provided, “Hong Kong Heritage Museum invited local ceramic artists some years ago to showcase their imaginative and artistic table settings. The artists came up with some appetising menus specially designed for each month of the year, and designed some delightfully imaginative table ware in which to serve them.”
On show is a selection of over 12 sets of the original exhibits, accompanied by artist statements expressing their sentiments towards the menus. (Maybe they had nowhere else to store these exhibiots and, rather than let then collect dust in some dingy cellar, someone had the brainwave of using some of the “spare” space in the airport. Who knows?
Some of the scribblings of the artists are, one has to admit, banal in the extreme. Take the 'In and Out Face-giving Party' by artist Tsang Cheung-shing as an example: “There are no festivals in November, so there are no restrictions. I can express myself any way I wish. To be ‘in’ means that you reside in a paradise of endless bliss, and there will be constant song and dance. Everybody loves each other, everything functions in harmony, and to make ‘outsiders’ envious, you have all the privileges and benefits you crave for.”
Any idea what he’s on about? No, me neither. But I rather like his design, albeit that I’m not sure I would want to eat off someone’s face every day…
One that rather catches the eye is by Ho Tai-kwan. He calls it ‘Labour Day Feast’.
"Chinese people have their own unique ways regarding food, eating and all the accompanying rituals," he writes. "Eating is an art form and as Dr Sun Yat-sen put it, tastes that are considered pleasurable to the palate should be like paintings and music, and be treated as art.”
He recalls how when he was 19, during the Cultural Revolution, he went into the countryside and laboured in the rural areas. "During the busiest seasons, I was always assigned the role of the big chef, which refined my cooking skills. I can still remember the times when the entire village gathered in front of the ancestral hall, talking freely about matters of the nation as well as family affairs and the harvest, while tucking into the traditional dishes served in huge bowls and basins. Those were the happy days I wish to share and this project is an attempt to imitate the dining wares used in those days."
Law Hon-wah's ‘Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth (The Five Culinary Elements)’ presents the idea of the five elements with the dining wares taking on the physical form of water, whereas the menu is determined according to the five tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, hot and salty.
There’ a whole load of gobbledegook provided about the internal organs and how they relate to the five elements; but I was happy enough simply looking at the way the artist has conveyed the shape of water in the designs.
Some of the sets are nice just because they are… well, nice. This rendition of ‘Union of Blissful Wares’ by Leung Koon-ming, for instance, "attempts to cater for the tastes of both Northerners and Southerners. They are designed to highlight the characters of each individual dishes, so that when dining there will be extra pleasures in both the visual and tactile sense". Yes, well… It’s still quite nice though, you have to admit!
Other exhibits are, frankly tacky. This one – ‘ Pun Choi' by Ho Tai-kwan – definitely takes the wooden spoon award as far as I’m concerned.
But there again, there’s no denying that art is very personal and no doubt some of my biggest blog fans will be scratching their heads, as they read this, saying what IS he on about?
Actually I don’t particularly like any of the remaining table sets, if the truth be known. But maybe that’s a reflection on your favourite blogger’s lack of artistic imagination, rather than anything else.
Finally there is also a ‘Dai Pai Dong’ – an open stall which was once very popular in the HK of the 1950s-70s. They have in the main been replaced by fast food; but this represents a throw-back to a bygone age.
So, not a mind-blowingly earth-shattering display, but if you have ten minutes to kill before your next flight when going through HK, I can think of worse ways to pass the time.