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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A hidden jewel in Tongzhou

After seven years in Beijing I thought I had seen most of what there was to see – museum-wise at least. But recently I discovered what has to be placed in my top five museums... and even that is being conservative.

It’s way out in the eastern suburbs of Tongzhou, which is why it had escaped me for so long. But it’s well worth the trek, albeit that there is a bus that goes directly there from Guomao.

I’m referring to the Beijing Daqi Radio and Movie Projector Museum (北京大戚收音机电影机博物馆) – though what a misnomer this turns out to be!

The fact is that, probably due to its location, it is little visited and when I arrived there I was treated like royalty. Certainly there were no other visitors on my first trip, and when I went again a couple of weeks later there were only two other visitors in the building.

The name of the museum belies what treasures there are to be found inside... but more of that in a moment. It’s not just radios and projectors here, but a whole Aladdin’s cave of other stuff, including film equipment, stereo systems, gramophones, mobile phones, typewriters, cameras and much much more. It basically covers the development of sound and image recording and playback equipment from the 1930s to the present; and it’s truly a Mecca for retro-lovers.

One Chinese web site claims the Daqi museum, which opened in 2011, is by far the largest and most complete private radio film machine museum in the world. Maybe that comes down to the definition of ‘private radio film machine’. But the collection is said to include more than 20,000 machines, including 3,000 radios, many of which, however, are in storage on the lower ground floor due to lack of display space in the main two floor areas.

The museum's curator, Jian Jiangang, has been collecting his massive assortment of radios and film projectors since 2005, bought in the main from other like-minded retro enthusiasts from other parts of the world, particularly Germany.

When you walk in, however, you might be forgiven for thinking you have come to the wrong place. A collection of fake post boxes line the lower part of the main staircase. But I find out later that these, and other miscellaneous items scattered haphazardly around the building, have been used over the years as props in various films.

In the visitors’ rules, that all museums and public places appear to love putting on display, we are advised ‘Don't shout loudly and travel in civilization’. I remind myself henceforth to shout softly should the urge take me.

First off is an exhibition area for foreign movie projectors. These, we are told, are typical projectors used outside China from 1895 to the 1970s, and range from the silent era, including oil lamps, gas, carbon rods, and kerosene lamp light sources, to AC powered portable and stationary projectors. This has to be a collector who simply didn’t know when to stop, there are so many of them!

Here, for instance, is an Edison Projecting Kinetoscope dating from the first decade of the 20th century, together with a photo of one actually in use – just as are provided with many other items in the collection...

Other machines, such as this Revere 16mm projector from the 1940s, are accompanied by reproductions of movie posters from the era.

More modern projectors up to the 1990s feature domestic brands like Dongfeng, Meihualu and Zhujiang, as well as a number from the US, Germany and other countries.

There are also plenty of photos of projectors being used in everyday situations...

... not to mention cinema entry tickets.

Of course, without film cameras, the projectors would be pretty useless; and just like with the previous section, there are plenty of cameras on show.

Here, for instance, is an Arriflex 16mm camera from Germany. Developed during World War II, the ‘Arri’ stands for the two inventors of the brand – August Arnold and Robert Richter. This model with its interchangeable lenses was used primarily for shooting news footage and documentaries.

On show, and pretty much on its ownsome-lonesome, is this carousel slide projector. Amazing to think that something as basic as this that was found everywhere when I was a lad, should end up in a museum!

Not surprisingly in a museum of this sort, there is a preponderance of radios dating back to the 1920s, such as this one-valve Westinghouse...

Or this five-valve Guarantee from a couple of years later.

Likewise there are very many German radios from the middle of the century, bought from other collectors, together with advertising posters of the period from which they were made...

And here is a Nordmende – a common enough radio brand in my former days...

There are also plenty of transistor-type radios, such as these Chinese ones,

Together with some early stereo receivers. Here’s a Saba ME19 from the early ‘50s.

Nor should one forget satellite receivers with crystals to control the exact pickup frequencies – very useful when you are tuning into distant shortwave stations. Here’s a Grundig Satellit 3400 Professional.

And who remembers Walkmans (or should that be Walkmen!) which were ubiquitous until MP3s made them almost obsolete over night.

Next up is a gallery depicting the evolution of China's television from the 1950s to the present day. If the truth be known, these sets are not very exciting to look at, and of course, the country’s TV systems are not old enough to show the old-style vertical cathode ray tubes with a 45 degree mirror affixed for viewing that almost every TV museum in the West will have on display.

There’s also scant mention of home video recorders – I didn’t see an actual machine here at all, though there was a rather higgledy-piggledy pile of VHS tapes that made passing mention of it. But no DVD recorders at all, not to mention solid state.

On the sound recording front, there are a few cylinder recorders on show (here’s a ‘Nouveau Phonograph BB’ with assorted cylinders).

And there’s even an explanation of how they worked, compared with ‘Digital Versatible Disc’ (stet) methods of recording.

Again, no mention of recording onto 78rpm discs, which was the principle means of recording hi fidelity during the WWII days, but oh joy of joy, they had on display a wire recorder – something that I had never seen before.

Wire recording was the first type of magnetic recording technology, in which a magnetic recording is made on thin steel wire which is pulled rapidly across a recording head, which magnetizes each point along the wire in accordance with the intensity and polarity of the electrical audio signal being supplied to the recording head. By later drawing the wire across the same or a similar head, the varying magnetic field induces a similarly varying electric current in the head, recreating the original signal. Wire recording initially had the advantage that the recording medium was already fully developed, while tape recording was held back by the need to improve the materials and methods used to manufacture the tape. The brief heyday of wire recording lasted from approximately 1946 to 1954.

Compared to tape recorders, wire recording devices use a nominal speed of 61 cm/s, making a typical one-hour spool of wire over 2km long. But because the wire was extremely fine, having a diameter of 0.10 to 0.15 mm, it was possible to hold it all on a spool less than 3 inches (76 mm) in diameter.

Of course, there are also a number of tape recorders – this home machine being a Chinese version of a standard Grundig, for instance (what? Do the curators really not know how to thread up the tape around the heads?).

Or this semi-professional multi-track TEAC from the 1970s...

There are even Grundig dictation machines from the same era.

And here’s a Chinese version of a professional portable machine that I used to use in my BBC days. Oh happy memories!

Too much excitement? How about stereo radio-cassette machines then, of which, again, there is a plethora on show?

Or a small section on microphones, showing some types in use during the ’40s and ’50s.

There’s even a lovely poster depicting a recording of a piano being made at the turn of the century. Don’t you just love it!

as well as 78 rpm records..

There are also old gramophones (here’s an old Chinese model from the 1930s)

together with loads of old posters...

And these merge into a newer collection of what we used to refer to in old Blighty as ‘Dancette’-style players.

And don’t you just love this old 1950s ‘1502’ stereogram, which is a wonderful piece of furniture in its own right.

And there’s loads of other stereograms shown too.

You’ll not be surprised that there are loads of old cameras...

And mobile phones too...

...even an extensive catalogue of bricky Nokia phones that I used to use in years gone by.

There are even loads of old loudspeakers...

...that used to be used to blast out instructions to the masses during more turbulent times in China’s recent history.

What typewriters have to do with movie projectors and radios is anyone’s guess.

But there are lots of old ones on display,

including this old rotary head non-QWERTY model from Germany.

And barber chairs? There are no signs. Maybe these too have been old props.

And who can forget the poster of the classic Marilyn Monroe pose as she stepped over that air duct in Seven Year Itch?

We’ve finally come to the end of this treasure trove of goodies. To put it all into some kind of context, there’s a mock up of a family living room during the Mao era (though it is hardly convincing).

Trust me when I say I have barely lifted the cover on all that is on display in this wonderful museum.

So how come not a single person of all my many Beijing media contacts has ever heard of this place, let alone actually been there?

The Beijing Daqi Radio and Movie Projector Museum is located 500 metres east of Xiaobao Village Ring Island, Songzhuang Town, a one hour journey by bus from the centre of Beijing. Take the 808 or 809 from Dabeiyao Dong and alight at Xiaobao roundabout, two stops from the end of the route.