A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

You don’t have to be a philistine to enjoy 798 – but it sure helps!

I have to admit that being the philistine that many believe me to be, I had never in my life heard of 798 District in Beijing, until my friend Sushmita (in Dubai) mentioned to me that she had been taken there as part of a press familiarisation trip. I’m sure I nodded sagely at her and promptly placed the aforesaid information in the archive file that occupies a large percentage of my cranium.

But they say information is never wasted and you can imagine my surprise when talking to an artist friend in BJ who happened to mention the galleries and exhibitions at 798 that I was able to regurgitate the little information that had not quite been purged from my memory and come up with – "oh, you mean that complex of East German factories built in the 1950s that have now become a centre of the artistic revival in China" … or words to that effect.

798 Art Zone (798艺术区) is a part of the Dashanzi area of Chaoyang that houses a thriving artistic community - often compared with New York's Greenwich Village. Although it is known as Factory 798, this was only one of several structures within a complex formerly known as Joint Factory 718.

The Dashanzi factory complex began as an extension of the "Socialist Unification Plan" of military-industrial cooperation between the Soviet Union and the newly formed People's Republic of China. By 1951, 156 "joint factory" projects had been realized under the Chinese government's first Five-Year Plan. Factory 718 was built by the East German government with funds earmarked for the Soviet Union as reparation for World War II and was one of six large sites producing top-secret components for the Chinese military until the 1990s.

It was constructed during the late 1950s and early 1960s, just before the Sino-Soviet split, a so-called example of harmonious collaboration between Socialist countries. Its Bauhaus-inspired designs were also meant to showcase (to selected observers only, of course) Mao's vision of China's future as an advanced Socialist state founded on heavy industry and Communist ideology.

The plant came to an inglorious end in the 1990s, when the Chinese government began rolling back its subsidies for state-operated factories. A large number of the buildings were left vacant, some the size of football fields, many of them flooded with natural light. This situation opened the door for some canny officials from the Central Academy of Fine Arts who were looking for an inexpensive factory site for its sculpture department. Soon after, they were joined by a self-proclaimed group of independent artists desperate for a new home after their efforts to create an artist village elsewhere had provoked more restrictions from Communist authorities.

The 798 area is a fascinating collection of streets to walk through, cordoned off from the bustling metropolis of Beijing the other side of a low wall. Here you will encounter “art” to meet all tastes, from left overs of the East German factory days exhorting the workers to pull together for the common good…

to something that appears to be a cross between Alice and her White Rabbit mentor that would surely make Lewis Carroll spin in his grave.

At weekends especially, the place is packed – and not just by foreigners. The Chinese appear as attracted to the weird and wonderful as everyone else here and it is hard to imagine anywhere else on earth that sports as many poseurs per square metre.

The district is also beloved of advertisers, fashion photographers and Chinese couples who want to have their engagement photographs taken in this artistic wonderland.

While I was there I must have counted at least a dozen photographic sessions taking place – and from the bored looks of some of the gallery keepers, this was obviously a daily occurrence.

The art on display ranged from the frankly tacky to some quite interesting pieces, though being the arch philistine, I am not going to tell you which were my favourites.

Keepers of public parks who have a problem of what to do with storing their plastic chairs overnight, could maybe get an idea or two from one particular artist who made some into a tunnel that appeared to have everyone wanting to walk through it from one end to the other for some inexplicable reason.

And then again there was more tat and more tack around practically every corner, though some did bring a smile to people who happened upon these works of art unexpectedly.

If you are prepared to walk off the paved pathways and into some undergrowth, you could if you were lucky come across some nice graffiti that was totally unknown to those treading the straight and narrow.

The art was not just by Chinese artisans, though. 798 has become a Mecca for artists from all over the world. One of China’s neighbours – the DPRK – even has its own exhibition of Korean Military inspired art, though the gallery was totally devoid of human interest when I strolled by.

In keeping with the area's "community spirit", most galleries and spaces don’t charge either exhibitors or visitors. Instead, they generally sustain themselves by hosting profitable fashion shows and corporate events.
Italy was out in force when I passed by, lecturing in Italian at bemused Chinese passers by who nevertheless were happy to pick up free red-white-and-green pens and red-white-and-green iPhone holders. As I don’t have an iPhone I picked up three pens instead, reckoning on them coming in useful one day. No one seemed particularly interested in the prize exhibits which had been flown in from Florence and Milan especially for the occasion. The Chinese obviously prefer free give-aways.

Around a couple more corners, the famed Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery was showing off the works of a Chinese photographer who had superimposed what looked like Geisha girls onto mono-toned prints extending for some two or three metres along their walls. An example of never mind the quality, feel the width, I thought. But then what do I know?

Slightly more uplifting – though only for half the visitors to 798 – was a display of sculpture in the conveniences of one of the many cafes that jostle cheek by jowl with the galleries.

Kitch is also on open sale in the many side stalls that have obviously got their customers pretty well sized up.

One stall even sells bohemian canvas wallets with alluring texts printed on the sides for the mass international market who, it must be said, have not yet discovered this collectable art form.
Examples: Reads wife’s book, listens to wife’s words, instructs the management according to the wife, is the wife the good soldier?
Or how about: Chairman Mao praises me good at chat
Or: Just want to elegant turned behold luxuriant wall
Or: Don’t and I than I’m too lazy and than you
Or: During working I feel sad, when see beautiful girl I am exciting

So, that looks like my Christmas present dilemma is solved for this year at least!

All the while you need to be looking over your shoulder as you walk down the narrow streets to make sure you don’t get mowed over by one of Beijing’s speed-crazy taxi drivers (motto: charge at pedestrians first; ask questions later). The authorities have obviously got the traffic problem all sorted out, though, with signs that let people know what they can and cannot do (though I never did find out the definition of “appropriate”).

But for me the pièce de resistance comes as you get to the eastern end of 798 and find yourself wandering into 751 D•PARK: Beijing Fashion Design Square. OK, when I was there, there was no sign – apart from yet more photographic shoots – of anything remotely resembling fashion, but what you do find is a train and some rusting machines standing at the gate of 751 factory, where coal gas was once produced for the city for more than 40 years. It has now become a huge workshop for fashion designers.

751 was the power supplier for the whole factory area; and in 1964, it expanded and began to supply coal gas for neighbourhoods nearby too. By the end of the 1980s, it was providing one-third of Beijing’s coal gas.
However, in 1997, natural gas came to Beijing as part of the city’s effort to clear its air. In 2003, the 751 factory ceased production and all that was left behind were abandoned workshops, old train engines and rails, rusting machines, twisted pipelines, tanks and chimneys.

In March, 2007, D•PARK was established at the site of 751 factory, when it was designated as the venue for China Fashion Week. The workshop was rebuilt into a hall for catwalk shows, for up to 500 spectators. A huge tank where coal gas was once stored was given a new life as a venue for fashion shows and exhibitions. A captivating and unusual setting, the iron tank was a perfect place for spectacular parties.

751 D•PARK gained fame from the fashion shows it has hosted for China Fashion Week ever since. The old factory, in its incorporation with modern art, is blessed with a unique ambience. The train engine at the entrance, which served the factory for decades carrying coal and oil, is now a favourite subject of photographers and tourists.

For philistine-me, this is what art is really all about.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Special Me Is a Suave Dude

I’ve had it on good authority that I’m someone special. No, I really mean it. Today I was told on no fewer than three occasions – while visiting Beijing’s Yashow market - that because I was such a special person, they wanted to offer me a special price on their shirts and trousers – simply because I was a special customer. OK, I didn’t ask what made me special, as it was obvious they could see genius when it stood in front of them; but it was nice to be recognised as such.

At one stall they were selling Armani and Paul Smith shirts, but one hears so many stories of fake goods being sold that I wanted to know if these were genuine or not. “Of course they genuine, Meester. See here Armani label. Here Po-well Ser-meeth. No fake here!”

Suitably impressed by their reassurances, I soon had found five shirts that I could add to my winter wardrobe (winter is fast approaching now with daytime temperatures plummeting from their summer highs).

Attached to each shirt was a certificate of authenticity – just in case sceptical little me needed more persuasion. The Armani shirts even had their original price left on – somebody must have been careless and forgotten to take them off. A whopping €230; but obviously the RMB has appreciated a lot in recent days as I was able to bring down the price of each shirt to 48RMB (or €5.5).

Armani, I think, must be falling on hard times. On the band holding the shirt in place on the cardboard backing, was a reminder that this is a famous brand, just in case they were dealing with non-fashionistas, perhaps? But I would suggest that Giorgio writes this notice in Italian next time, just to make it sound more authentic.

No such problem for Paul Smith who is obviously better known in the Chinese market place.

But I was intrigued that both the Armani and Paul Smith shirts had been pinned up in exactly identical ways. Could it be that they now share a common manufacturer over here in China to save on costs?

This to me would make perfect sense as they also both give away a free plastic bag, tucked alluringly into the folds of the shirt – a surprise gift when you unwrap the shirt from its cardboard housing.

Not wishing to drop names or anything, but I have personally met Paul Smith in one of his favourite coffee bars in London’s Covent Garden. Next time I see him I must remember to have a word with him about his packaging. OK, so the guy can’t be expected to oversee every aspect of every type of packaging; but I think even he might be a little surprised by a label on one of his bags telling us that “This bag is NIT a toy” and we should therefore “keep away from CHILDDREN”. Maybe he needs to get himself a new copywriter?

Yes, I know it is easy to be a clever so-and-so, and if both Paul and Giorgio are looking to cut costs then I can understand their reluctance to pay good proof readers. But it does make a difference to us fashionable guys about town who can appreciate quality when we see it.

Special little me paid out 240 renminbi for the five shirts as the store keeper suggested that maybe I had some friends who also could spot a bargain like this. Telling myself to remember to spread the word, I headed off to the floor selling men’s trousers where Mr Armani had also been busy.

Were these trousers genuine? I asked the trouser sales lady? “Of course they genueen Meester,” she said looking suitably shocked. “See it says so here on label.” And indeed it did. How could anyone be so doubting, I asked myself.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Searching for the Moon Rabbit on Mid Autumn Festival

It’s felt like weeks coming – a bit like the run up to Christmas in the West – with all the supermarkets clearing their shelves to make way for mooncakes as the Chinese prepare for their Mid Autumn Festival. You can’t go anywhere without someone trying to sell you a box of these mooncakes at vastly inflated prices.

The Zhongqiu Festival (中秋节) is one of the four most important Chinese festivals, and mooncakes are regarded as an indispensable delicacy on this occasion, being given between friends and family while celebrating the festival.

Typically, mooncakes are round or rectangular pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter and 4–5 cm thick. A filling usually made from lotus seed paste is surrounded by a relatively thin crust and often contains yolks from salted duck eggs (to symbolise the full moon). They are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea. If you are on a diet, mooncakes are definitely not for you as each one contains the equivalent of around 1,000kcal.

Nowadays it is customary for businessmen to present them to their clients – in the west we would probably regard them as miniature bribes – though not so miniature when you consider that every employee of the “bribed” company would be expected to receive a box.

Mooncake production is labour-intensive and few people make them at home. Their price usually ranges from 500¥ to 3500¥ (around £5 to £35) for a box of four, although cheaper and more expensive ones can also be found.

One day, over a week before the Festival begins, I am invited up to the HR office where I work to collect a box of my very own mooncakes. Everyone in the company is being given a tin box with 12 inside; and these ones have been made in France, that international hotbed of mooncake manufacture .

What? You didn’t know that the French are famous for their moon cakes? Haven’t you seen the advertisements on the inside of lifts? On street posters? On TV? “France Moon Cake” it reads; “Exploring Great Taste”. And to emphasise the point, there is a small replica of the Eiffel Tower which looks remarkably like the one in Shenzhen (but then, who is going to notice?). Why a French delicacy should be advertised in Chinese and English instead of in Chinese and French, I am not sure. But hey, no worries!

Gratefully clutching my special present I stroll back to my office where one of my colleagues tells me that the festival is intricately linked to the legends of Chang E, the mythical Moon Goddess of Immortality.

Around four thousand years ago, during the reign of the legendary Emperor Yao, the earth had ten suns circling it, each taking its turn to illuminate the earth; but one day there was obviously some supreme cock-up resulting in all ten suns appearing together, scorching the earth with their heat. The earth was saved by a strong and tyrannical archer named Hou Yi, who succeeded in shooting down nine of the suns.

One day, the oh-so-naughty Hou Yi stole the elixir of life from a goddess; but, his beautiful wife Chang E decided to drink it herself in order to save the people from her husband's tyrannical rule (or maybe she just didn’t like those stretch marks and sagging boobs starting to appear on her body? Who knows how a woman’s mind really works!).

Well, after drinking it, she found herself floating all the way to the moon. The dastardly Hou Yi decided that he loved his beautiful wife so much, that he refused to shoot down the moon. Phew! What a relief! Maybe he wasn’t such a rotten cad after all.

Chang E now lives with a Jade Rabbit who pounds medicine for the gods. Apparently you can see this rabbit if you look at the dark areas to the top of the full moon: its ears point to the upper right, while at the left are two large circular areas, representing its head and body.

Anyway, Hou Yi built himself a palace in the sun, representing "Yang" (the male principle), in contrast to Chang E's home on the moon which represents "Yin" (the female principle). Once a year, on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Hou Yi visits his wife. And that is the reason why the moon is so full and bright on that night.

Well, call me a sceptic if you like, but I have to admit to having a few nagging doubts about this story. I mean – where will the rabbit get his ration of carrots and lettuce? Not to mention the fact that NASA astronauts have never – to my knowledge – mentioned seeing a rabbit lolloping around the surface of the moon.

What is in less doubt, however, is the fact that mooncakes were used as a medium by the Ming revolutionaries to secretly distribute letters to overthrow the Mongolian rulers of China in the Yuan dynasty. A guy called Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) and his advisor Liu Bow’en (劉伯溫), circulated a rumour that a deadly plague was spreading, and the only way to prevent it was to eat special mooncakes. (Huh! A likely story. You’ll probably find his brother was actually a baker who wanted to improve his business.) The wily Zhu realised that the Mongolian upper class didn’t eat mooncakes (thinking of their figures perhaps?). This prompted the quick distribution of mooncakes, which were used to hide a secret message coordinating the Han Chinese revolt on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month.

Today, mooncakes are causing just as much controversy. Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that the Beijing authorities had decided to impose a tax on mooncakes, as they can be considered a non-cash benefit and therefore are subject to income tax. Unsurprisingly, Global Times reported, this has sparked an outcry in the Chinese capital.

A poll conducted by the microblogging service Weibo found that 96 percent of users opposed the tax and many Chinese said they would prefer not to receive mooncakes at all. What a surprise!

Personally I haven’t seen any rioting in the streets over the proposed mooncake tax, but you can imagine my consternation when two days before the festival holiday began I was called upstairs once again by HR to collect yet another box of mooncakes. Why am I receiving a second box, I ask wistfully, thinking all the while about being taxed for benefits in kind. Apparently they were given by some outside company hoping to curry favour with the powers that be where I work. But no one appears to know who the donor company was, and certainly no one seems to care.

Back home, I unwrap the box to find six mooncakes beautifully wrapped inside. There’s even a little box containing plastic forks, which I would have thought spoils the overall effect somewhat.

Eventually the holiday begins and to award myself a special treat, I decide to try one of the French mooncakes with my mid morning cup of the hot and steaming. Although they actually look quite light and delicate, the moment you pick one up you realise that they could each be used as a door stop, or at the very least as a paperweight, should someone be fool enough to leave a window open with a desk full of paperwork.

I bite into my special treat … and wonder why anyone would make a fuss about these things. Inside is a salty round duck egg yolk, around which is wrapped some lotus paste and a plain dough pastry enclosing it all. Not what I would describe in any way as a must-eat-treat.

I gingerly try another bite, reminding myself that I shouldn’t be so rash as to make instant judgements. But my first opinion is redoubled with the second bite and finding myself fast losing the will to live, I leave the remaining half mooncake on the plate and try to wash the taste away with my hot cuppa.

Another mid-Autumn festival delicacy is the hairy crab, otherwise known as the Chinese mitten crab. They say that a dish of steamed hairy crabs is always the highlight of the family reunion dinner.

However, what is popularly regarded as the ultimate in hairy crabs - those from Yangcheng Lake in East China's Jiangsu province, have in the main been absent from the dinner tables this year, since the Yangcheng Lake Crab Association in Suzhou announced that this year's crab fishing season would not start until Sept 17, five days after the Mid-Autumn Festival. Apparently they won’t reach full maturity until then and although some crab fishers may catch a small number of hairy crabs before then to cash in on the holiday, these crabs will not be entitled to be called Yangcheng Lake Crabs.

Hairy crabs are usually sold in a pair, one male and one female. A 125-gram female and a 175-gram male were priced at 80 yuan in 2010. One of the most expensive pairs - a 175-gram female and a 250-gram male - was priced at 200 yuan. The price reached a peak of more than 250 yuan last December. During the holidays, it is customary for each family member to get a pair of hairy crabs.

As I am working over the holiday period, I never get to taste a crab, hairy or otherwise (steamed fish with leek rice and oyster sauce is my call that night). But on the way back from work I look up at the sky to see if I can see the Jade Rabbit in the moon. Unfortunately the cloud cover is too strong, and I never do get to see the rabbit.

Over on TV, CCTV15 have been playing moon-related music for much of the day with Au Claire de Lune, Moonlight Sonata and Blue Moon (sung by Pavarotti) played on more than one occasion.

Meanwhile on CCTV3, the presenters of the various light entertainment shows all take part in a singathon featuring them warbling in front of various moon backdrops (all of which, bar two, feature crescent moons rather than the full moon celebrated at the festival). Reminiscences come to mind of the UK’s Red Nose Day when BBC presenters do wild and stupid things in order to raise money for “good causes”. I mentally make a note that these guys should not for one moment think about giving up their day jobs.

Back at the office, two of my fellow workers come up to me, their eyes flashing happiness and bonhomie. Have a mooncake! they cajole.  It’s chocolate. Sooo yummy. You will like! You will like!

There on a plate lies half a mooncake – chocolate in colour, including the egg “moon” inside. I grin a thank you, hoping they will leave the cake on the plate on my desk and then go off and offer their largess to someone else while I casually slip the proffered offering into the bin below my desk. But for once the gods are not smiling on me. They hover and wait for their “foreign expert” to bite into the morsel so as not to miss the cherished moment, and I have no alternative but to comply and sport one of my well rehearsed, devastating smiles.

Thank you so much, I whimper hoping desperately they won’t take this as an open invitation to offer me a second piece.  But luck is once again back on side and off they go to be generous to someone else.

So now I am in a quandary. Who don’t I like enough to give my 11½ uneaten mooncakes to as a present? Perhaps the dog belonging to the neighbours next door? Or maybe I should auction them off on eBay? After all, they say you can sell anything on eBay. Could this be the ultimate challenge?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Patience has its rewards

At last! After being here in Beijing for two whole months, I am finally the proud owner of my very own internet connection at home in my apartment.

Until this week I have had to take in my laptop to the office and piggy-back on the office wifi in order to read my eMails and do all the hundreds of unspeakable things I like to get up to on the web. It’s no use trying to use my official work computer as the techie boffins have disabled just about anything that could be deemed useful in any way whatsoever. (Why do techies tend to do this? Are they so insecure in their jobs that they need to exercise some kind of ultimate control over the hapless end user so they have to be called for even the most menial of tasks?)

The reason it took so long is that it is well nigh impossible to find anyone in a Chinese telecom company who speaks a word of English. So the obvious solution is to ‘borrow’ a friendly Chinese speaking friend to act as interlocutor. I’m lucky in that in the office is the perfect Chinese ‘geek’ – Andrew - who not only can interpret for me but also knows what he is talking about when it comes to things technical.

The problem, though, is that his job has taken him to the wilds of both Shanghai and Shenzhen in the past few weeks, and when he came back it was the wrong time to apply.

Wrong time? Oh yes; he is absolutely right. When you sign up to a service such as a simple internet connection here, you pay by the month; so it makes no sense to sign up near the end of the month and pay for a number of days that by definition you have not been able to use.

Eventually Andrew and I plump for an auspicious day, this being the 3rd of the month when we are both able to visit the China Unicom shop a short bus ride away from where we both work. We walk in, Andrew gets a queuing ticket, he finds out we are likely to be waiting around half an hour and we walk out so that he can light up his ‘fix’.

We go back in 20 minutes later to collect a clutch of forms all – naturally – written in Chinese. Andrew fills out the necessaries as I embarrass myself by showing him my passport photo and admitting my true age (39…. again!) which he double checks against my passport to make sure I am not pulling a fast one (who me????).

Our number is called. We wander over to the desk and a rapid quick fire of conversation ensues while I am totally ignored by the girl who is looking after us.

Andrew translates as the girl pauses for breath. I have struck lucky, it appears. Special offer: for a limited time only I can pay for a year and get two months subscription off. Far too good to be true. If I had come last week I would have had to pay an extra 330RMB – or just over £30; and that doesn’t include having to pay for the missed weeks at the beginning of the month. Lucky Brian!

But wait! The gods must really be smiling on me today. I am to be given a new landline too. No matter that I already have a company landline in my apartment. Now I will have two landlines to choose from and can presumably phone someone in stereo.

But it gets EVEN better. Another special deal especially for special little me means I will be given a special mobile SIM card. But I already have a Chinese SIM. No matter. This special one gives me 300 minutes of talk time every month for free to anyone in China. Not that I know anyone in China that I want to talk to for 300 minutes every month. But I tell myself not to be so precious and just to be grateful! Puh. Some people are never satisfied!

What? Can the gods really be making this my red letter day? For to top it all, I will ALSO be texted a special voucher worth 100 RMB off anything in a little mail order catalogue I am given.

Yeah, OK; the catalogue is all in Chinese; and the SMS will be in Chinese; and I would have to order online – in Chinese - and that’s not to mention the fact that my current mobile doesn’t display Chinese characters; but let’s not quibble. For I have been singled out by the powers above to be the lucky recipient of China Unicom’s largesse. Why can’t I just be grateful FGS?

Now, I should maybe point out at this juncture that applying for a Chinese internet connection should surely come with a health warning. For although I am blessed by China Unicom’s generosity, it does come at a price. And it’s called RSI. Sign here, I am asked; and here; and here; oh and don’t forget to sign here; and you’ll need to sign this document; and here; and also this one; and don’t forget to print your name next to this signature; and here; and here; and……. well, you get the drift.

Ten sheets of paper later and with my signature starting to look more and more like Chinese (traditional, not simplified) I am handed a large wad of paper; and an installation CD; and a SIM card; and a mail order catalogue (in Chinese); and a 2D instruction booklet (in Chinese). I can pick up an envelope at the reception desk, the girl informs Andrew as we stagger away from her, so as not to lose anything. But the envelope handed over to us is too small for the remains of the tree we have just used up, so I stuff it all into my ‘man bag’ and we go out into the sunshine once more.

Do you wanna open a bank account now, Andrew asks me? But it’s Saturday afternoon. No worries; the banks are open seven days a week in China. We head off to a branch of the China Merchants Bank that Andrew thinks well of.

We walk in and are met by a smiling receptionist who gives Andrew a couple of forms to fill out. Not for the first time am I reminded of an old programme for the disabled on BBC’s Radio 4 which was called “Does He Take Sugar” – a reference to the fact that disabled people tend to be totally ignored while their minders are asked all the relevant questions.

The bank is modern and pristine, and, Andrew adds (and I wonder if this is why he likes this bank so much) you get free orange juice and coffee. We have almost got to the stage of plonking our sit-upons in the comfortable chairs when our number is called.

This time there are only two forms to fill in; and I am asked to think of a six-figure security number for my bank card. The choice is easy. My staff number from BBC days of old has stayed in my memory for decades, so this, I decide, will be the number. Except…. Does it start 14 or 41? Oh, OK; got it now. I am asked to key the number in twice and a bank card is produced out of thin air. It doesn’t have my name on it. Instead it belongs to “Beijing 0 CN”. But I guess I can live with that.

I hand over a 50RMB note as my initial deposit, take a red sweetie out of a bowl lying enticingly in front of me, we thank the charming bank teller and head off to the coffee station.

Except there is no coffee today, although there are two jugs – one with an orangey coloured liquid and the other which looks a dark plum colour. Andrew tries the latter, just manages to stop himself spitting it out onto the floor and quickly pours himself some of the orange coloured liquid which passes for a feeble imitation of cat’s pee. He searches for somewhere to deposit the half filled cup while I read some of the user friendly notices pinned up by the management.

I am now weighed down with more paper as we head back, knowing that internet installation day is now scheduled for four days hence.

Can I contain my excitement? I guess I can. The installation man is due to arrive at 11 and Andrew is standing by at the other end of a telephone in case I have problems. But the only problem is that Mr Installer turns up at 1030 just after I have made myself a cup of tea which turns quietly tepid as my attention is taken up with other things.

He seems surprised to see I already have a landline. He tries dialling out on it but has no luck. How do you say in Chinese “try putting a zero at the front of your number my good fellow”? My mind turns temporarily blank as I struggle to find the right words.

He mimes to me that he is going downstairs to investigate and I mime to him that that is perfectly OK with me. He disappears; I slurp up some tepid tea; he reappears; I abandon the tea and help him pull back the bed behind which is the wall socket he needs to get to. He attaches his little grey box of tricks, punches in a few numbers and then produces an Ethernet wire and a router from a box. I point to the power socket on the floor; I point to the Ethernet input on the computer and we both grunt to show we understand one another. Perhaps his grunt is a little more practised than mine, but after all this is his profession and I am convinced he has done an awful lot of grunting with foreigners before. In terms of gruntability I must concede to this master grunter.

Before I know it my screen comes alive with google.co.uk. But to make really sure it is working, he punches in weibo.com, as you obviously can’t trust these foreign web sites. Sure enough, weibo comes in loud and clear. I am shown the little icon that has magically appeared on my screen. He double clicks it. Unsurprisingly a Wireless Network Connection Status box appears. He smiles and closes the box. He then insists I double click on the same icon. Unsurprisingly a Wireless Network Connection Status box appears. I smile and close the box. We both smile. He indicates another wire hanging out of the wall socket and in true Marcel Marceau fashion I am given to understand that this is where I plug in my telephone. The fact that I don’t have another handset isn’t of course his worry, so I nod eagerly to show I have got the gist of what he says.

I sign another three times on bits of paper, and am handed a blue sheet from a sheaf of pages onto which my signature has magically forced its way.

His job now done, my smiling technical engineer heads for the door. Xièxiè, I mutter feebly; Zàijiàn!

Byeebyee, says my new friend as he heads off towards the lift.


Friday, September 2, 2011

It's Lotus Time in YMY

I sometimes wonder what it must feel like for the descendents of history’s not-so-reputable characters as they look back over the legacies their forebears have left. I’m not necessarily thinking about the likes of HM-the-Q who is distantly related to that thoroughly reprehensible fellow Henry VIII … I mean that is going back just a little too far.

But what of the likes of Sadam Hussein’s grandkids; or the future Gadhafi heirs; what of the distant offspring of Goebels or Himmler or Stalin?  Come to that, what of 20-year-old James Andrew Charles Robert Bruce?
Let me explain. James A.C.R.B. is destined to become the 17th Earl of Kincardine once his father and grandfather have done the decent thing and popped their clogs. But not just the Earl of Kincardine; for his other more famous title will be the 13th Earl of Elgin.

Aha. I hear sounds of pennies falling into their designated brain slots. For as we all now remember, it was the infamous Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine who is still renowned for his removal of marble sculptures (commonly known as the Elgin Marbles) from the Parthenon in Athens.

In the process of removing the Marbles, he discovered that he was unable to remove them from the Acropolis without cutting them up into smaller pieces. During the controversy caused by the removal, Elgin was accused of being a dishonest and rapacious vandal, notably by English poet Lord Byron. In 1816 the Elgin marbles were deposited in the British Museum, where they remain to this day, much to the annoyance of more than a few whingeing Greeks.

Bad enough, you might think for poor young J.A.R.C.B. How he must have been bullied at school for the acts of his forbear.

But wait! As if that wasn’t burden enough, the next Lord Elgin - Sir James Bruce – seems to have been equally as horrid as his father. In fact the beastly little man, who in 1857 became High Commissioner to China, led the bombing of Canton and oversaw the end of the Second Opium War by signing the Treaties of Tianjin in June 1858. On 24 October 1860 Elgin also signed the Convention of Beijing, which stipulated that China was to cede part of the Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong to Britain.

Hurrah, I hear you shout, as you realise what a brilliant tactician Mr Elgin was in securing HK for the Brits. The problem is that it is no longer that for which he is most remembered, least of all in China, that is.

In October, 1860, not having received a Chinese surrender and (he claimed later) wishing to spare Beijing itself, this rotter ordered the complete destruction of the Yuan Ming Yuan (or Old Summer Palace) outside Beijing in retaliation for the imprisonment, torture, and execution of almost twenty European and Indian prisoners.

Known for its extensive gardens,  buildings and works of art the "Garden of all Gardens" (万园之园), or Gardens of Perfect Brightness, to give it its proper name, was destroyed by 3,500 British and French troops over three days. It had been a complex of palaces and gardens eight kilometres northwest of the walls of Beijing and had been built during the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty resided and handled government affairs.

Even to this day this act of wanton destruction is considered a disgraceful act of vandalism and something regarded in China as a symbol of foreign aggression and humiliation. Elgin and his troops also managed to loot many treasures from the Yuan Ming Yuan and took them to Britain; but unlike the marbles, most ended up in private collections.

These Imperial Gardens were actually made up of three gardens: the Garden of Perfect Brightness proper, the Garden of Eternal Spring (长春园), and the Elegant Spring Garden (绮春园); together they covered an area of 3.5 square kilometres (860 acres). They were almost 5 times the size of the Forbidden City, and 8 times the size of the Vatican City.

Being the culture vulture that I am renowned to be, I decide it is high time to trot off to the north western corner of Beijing to see what is left of this barbaric episode in history. Those clever planners in the Beijing Subway have had the bright idea to position a station, right by the entrance to the park, called Yuanmingyuan; so all I now have to do is meander the couple of hundred metres along the pavement – sorry, “walkstreet” – to get in.

The park has become the venue for a series of annual festivals, including the Spring Outing Festival, the Lotus Flower Festival and the Chrysanthemum Festival. From June to the end of August it is the turn of the Lotus flowers to be given pride of place….

and lest you should have difficulty making out a lotus bobbing on the surface of one of the many lakes, the park planners have made it a little easier for you….

 … which I feel is a shame, as the lotus and water lilies on their own are spectacular enough for my simple taste.

Huge great swathes of lotus and water lilies grace the surface of almost every stretch of water in this Garden of Gardens, but still the powers that be have “enhanced” the view by planting plastic lotus flowers right in the foreground, though if you look carefully you can still see the real thing in the distance.

The day has already turned somewhat murky and the umbrellas have opened up in anticipation of the rain that is to come – though experience has now taught me that the Chinese have their umbrellas up most of the time anyway, for if there is no rain, there is bound to be a smattering of sunshine forcing its way through the smog, and horror of horrors  no self respecting Chinese (or Asian for that matter) wants to get any browner than nature intended.

I head for an area in which red prayer tapes have been hung up by the feckless Chinese in hope of better things to come.  

but now which way to go? That is the question. Luckily the park is filled with helpful maps and signposts, and if following everyone else’s bottoms is not clue enough, then I can always fall back on such useful guides.

As I meander further away from the first of the gardens, nature starts being allowed to come into its own. The lotus flowers and water lilies are allowed to impress by themselves without artificial help, as I head along the side of yet another lake.

Others, too exhausted to walk the 2 kms from one end of the trail to the other (or maybe because they too would like to see a lotus flower close up) take one of the many boats plying the waters.

 Truly it is a splendid sight, with the large lily leaves in the foreground setting off to perfection the lotus flowers behind.

We are respectfully requested not to pick any flowers as we walk along the paths, but in truth I don’t actually see any for the picking (maybe some dastardly person ahead of me has ignored the signs?). 

 Of course, food is never more than a gnat’s whisker away from your average Chinese, and at the Yuan Ming Yuan the administration has made sure that its customers’ stomachs remain happy.

Finally I get to the far end of the park where the most striking ruins are found. Unlike the Chinese-style structures which were constructed of wood, the complex of Western-style buildings were made of stone. Their construction began in 1746, the 10th year of Emperor Qianlong' s reign. Situated near the northern wall of the Garden of Eternal Spring, these buildings were designed by the Jesuits Castiglione and Benoit. They included the Observatory and Hall of Tranquility, which were decorated with fine fountains and pools in the style of Versailles. In addition, their roofs and walls were embellished with glazed tiles in brilliant colours.
A few ruined stones of these European buildings still stand on the site today - reclaimed by the Chinese government in the 1980s and turned into a historical site.

I have to say though, that as a ruin, the stones are underwhelming in the extreme. Did I really walk 20 minutes through the drizzle to come and see this? I mean, apart from the muddy ground (surely they could have laid down some crazy paving or some tarmac) there isn’t even a plastic flower or someone in a gorilla suit to brighten the place up. 

Feeling somewhat despondent, I plough on, only to come across China’s answer to Hampton Court – a maze through which the umbrella’d locals wander backwards and forwards trying to find the pagoda in the middle. I guess this is one occasion on which the taller Europeans have the advantage: OK, I admit it. I cheat and peer over the walls looking for the quickest route to take. 

 Feeling somewhat numbed by the now-driving rain I head on back towards the southern entrance, where my patience is rewarded by a plastic peacock …

… not to mention a butterfly which presumably lights up at night time…

I head on out to the confines of Subway Line 4 once again as I make my way back into town. It is obvious that for some the excitement has all been far too much. I think I know how they feel.