A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Friday, October 19, 2012

In Search of BJ's Elusive Bees

It’s just as well that bees don’t have to rely on Google maps to find their way back to their hives. If they did, I seriously wonder if the species would become extinct over night!
Regular fans of your favourite blogger will know that I’m trying to work my way around Beijing’s 130+ museums. So when I heard about the China Honey Bee Museum (中国蜜蜂博物馆), there was no question that I should make my own pilgrimage to this shrine dedicated to the “simple” bee!
The problem is finding the blessed place. And once again looking it up on the web, everyone appears to have copied everyone else’s entries and I seriously wonder if anyone who has written about it has ever been there!
Google Maps, I find after trying three times to locate the place, has it marked at least 500 metres off course. Worse still they haven’t even got the local roads going anywhere near where they purport to go – as I can testify, having walked for two and a half hours, Google map in hand, and never finding the place. (Mind you, I do in the process get some spectacular views of Beijing from afar.)
Depending on whom you are wont to believe, the Bee Museum is located inside the Botanical Gardens, to the west of the Botanical Gardens, to the northwest of the Botanical Gardens, and to the north of the Wofo Temple (inside the Beijing Botanical Gardens). Do we see a pattern emerging here? We sure do!
I head on over to the Botanical Gardens with my friend Xuefei (well, that’s to say, I headed over to the Gardens on a previous blog visit) and she asked on my behalf a couple of staff at the Botanical Gardens Conservatory where we could find the museum. They had never heard of it!
She asked her friend Songkai, who works in the Academy across the road from the Botanical Gardens where it was. Sorry; he’s heard of the Bee Research Institute, but knows nothing about a museum there.
I make another journey out to the Gardens one morning, and ask two gatekeepers in my best Mandarin if they know where it is. One “thinks it is over there somewhere”, waving a grubby finger vaguely in the direction of the west gate, from where I have just come. Not much help there then.
I consult some of the notice board maps, liberally stuck up around the Gardens. No mention of the museum on any of them.
I am almost on the point of giving up believing that such a museum exists, when I get an SMS from Xuefei. Songkai, bless his cotton socks, has manfully made his way across the road into the Gardens (I presume he gets free entrance, being a researcher at the Academy?) and finds there is a museum after all. Go to Wofu Temple, I am reliably informed, and then go due west where I will see a sign for it. Hmmm. I wonder.
But now, full of hope, and with a song in my heart, I head on back to the north western most reaches of the capital.
One little trick I have learned from my last foray to the Gardens is that if you eschew the southeastern, the southern and the western entrances, and head instead to the northwestern entrance – which acts as a staff gate – and ask with a little-boy-lost-look for the Bee Institute (not very difficult to do if you really are lost!) you get waved through.
And sure enough if you keep your eyes peeled, you will eventually be rewarded with the sight of a notice board pointing to the “Institute of bees”. The only problem is that if you follow that direction, you end up in a building site and have bored looking workmen shouting at you asking what you want.
I put on my little-boy-lost look again (hey, I’m getting good at this!) and mutter out Mifeng bowuguan ma? at them. There is a hurried discussion and their leader points down a hill and goes into a torrent of incomprehensible Chinese. But I get the general idea and with a smile and a Xiexie, Zaijian I’m off in the general direction in which he points.
I come to a rather nice bridge over an expanse of water, realise I must have come too far by now, but stop to take some pictures before finding another park attendant on whom I once again can practise my pathetic rendering of Mandarin.
This time he points to a sign as if I’m daft or something. How could I have missed it? OK, it has faded badly in the sun over its lifetime of probably 19 years, but there as plain as plain could be are what look like the remains of some eyes and a striped body. Could this be what I am looking for?
I start walking up a hill. Is that a bouncy castle ahead of me? No! it’s a blow-up honey bee looking for all the world like an oversized sex toy. Is this how they entice the Chinese youngsters into their museum?
I find myself in the Bee Institute. But no sign of a museum anywhere. Now that my Mandarin has passed muster on more than a couple of occasions, I approach an old woman sweeping the path and ask yet again Mifeng bowuguan ma? Hmmm. Am I thick or something? Muttering under her breath she walks me round the corner and points at a low slung building. 中国蜜蜂博物馆! I’ve arrived!
Perhaps I should explain at this point that, according to a website, the museum was set up in 1993.
Not so, says another web site. It was set up in 1997.
Admission is 2 yuan says one site. Another says “Price: Cost money” without being overly specific. Yet another says it is free.
Opening Hours are from 08:00-16:30; or from 09:00 AM to 05:00 PM; but they all agree it is closed from November 15 to March 15.
This popular science educational base, located in the Hai Dan District, is all of 150 sq feet” says one American web site, which can’t even get the spelling of Haidian correct. Another site puts the size at 150 square metres, which I’m more inclined to believe.
See bee-keeping accoutrements and spend your afternoon engrossed in apicultural studies,” says another, forgetting that we’re talking about a micro-sized museum here. Anyway, I’ve come in the morning.
This bee kingdom possesses three exhibition halls,” gushes yet another web site that has been copied ad nauseam by others too lazy to go find it for themselves. “Little bees and their labor fruits contain endless knowledge.” I walk inside and count four rooms, though each one is hardly any bigger than my bedroom.
A museum guard is sitting in his chair fast asleep. Obviously no one expects visitors in this place, and I feel almost guilty when my muttered ni hao wakes him with a jolt. He smiles expansively, and I can imagine him going home later to his wife. Do you know we actually had someone visit the museum today, he will say. And can you believe it was a Laowai!
Stuck onto a wall is an introduction to the honey bee, translated into impeccable English. It starts by reminding everyone that “famous” quote of Albert Einstein, who once said “If the bee disappeared from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” (Except that according to my research, Einstein never said any such thing, the quote first originating some 40 years after his death. But let’s not allow the facts to get in the way of a good story!)
Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to pin a whole load of these unfortunate animals to a board and label it中华蜜蜂, or 'zhonghua mifeng' – Chinese honey bee.
That’s about as far as the English explanations go. After that, one is on one’s own, working out with the aid of some English headers, loads of pictures and diagrams (well, 475 according to the official blurb) and over 600 specimens the life and times of the common Chinese bee.
The main theme of the exhibition is 'Bees are friends of human beings', I read. The exhibits tell you everything you could possibly want to know about the origin and fossils of bees, the history of bee culture, the cultural links between bees and human beings, Chinese bee keeping resources, the biology of bees, bee pollination, bee products, and bee venom therapy… among others!
On entering this bee wonderland, one grows quite excited and feels as if he is wandering in the ancient world afar. All the bee fossils and specimens are vivid and great in style, expressing the history and life of the bee in every possible way. After learning the ins and outs of the interesting and particular kinds of bee dances, one may well understand the mystery of the insect world.” … or rather perhaps one would if one could understand Chinese.
Stuck up on another wall is a distribution map of nectar plants in China, from which I can only deduce that large swathes of the Middle Kingdom have no flowers at all.
There's a section on collecting honey, with a drawing of a woman being lowered down in a rope basket to raid a bee's nest, circa 500BC. “When entering ‘the kingdom of bee’, you will find yourself wandering in ancient times. Before your eyes are bee fossils and rock drawings which record the scene that people living 6,000 or 7,000 years ago are climbing the cliff to get the wild honey.”
Did you know that the word ''mi' (honey) was discovered in the inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC), which demonstrates that China has a long history of bee culture. Mind you, why anyone would want to inscribe the word Honey onto the back of a poor tortoise beats me.
Ah, here we come to an explanation of the dance of the honeybee. And also something about pheromones. And about swarming. But apart from that I’m not much the wiser.
My friendly doorman comes up to me at this point and with a lot of tsk-tsking and waving his finger in the direction of the camera I am led to believe that photos are not allowed. I wait until he is nodding off again before grabbing a pic of stamps around the world featuring… what else, but the honeybee!
Finally, I come to a model of honeycomb being put to good use. OK, so the worker bees may look like a South African rugby team, and the ones dressed up as Red Guards are, I think, meant to represent wet nurses feeding their infants, but at least we learn how they mix up the feed in plastic bottles and cart the bee-brats away on wheelie-cradles. You see, there is always something you can learn from these museums!
After 15 minutes I feel I have learned everything there is to know about Apis Cerana. The time has just flown by – in truth it feels like I came in only 14 minutes ago; and with tears in my eyes, I bid a fond farewell to my new doorkeeper friend and step out into the sunshine once more.
I stroll once again through the Botanic Gardens, finding the time to visit the public conveniences for a quick pee. Over the taps are signs in simple, plain Chinese and English. If only Google Maps were this easy to understand!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Travelling Through Shanghai's Time Tunnel

Unlike Beijing, Shanghai is not chock-a-block with museums. It probably has only about a tenth as many as the northern capital. But what it does have is certainly on a par…
One such museum which I would strongly recommend anyone to visit is the history museum on the lower ground floor of Shanghai’s iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower – you know the one… it looks like a rocket kitted out with pink balls!
Visiting the city during the Mid Autumn Festival, when the entire population of China appears to have nothing better to do than to wander aimlessly in front of me wherever I go, might not have been the best planned idea … but whereas said aimless wanderers all choose that same day to visit the TV Tower, your favourite blogger escapes the mad rush by heading downstairs while everyone else thinks of taking a lift to the top. Result? Massive crowds going up; empty aisles going down!

The museum’s focus is on the century it took for Shanghai to transform itself from the opening of the port in 1843 to when the communist nation was declared in 1949. Before the TV Tower was built, the Municipal History Museum had been opened in 1984 on the premises of the Shanghai Agriculture Exhibition, moving to a new location on the Hong Qiao Road in 1991 and thence 10 years later to Pudong’s take on one of Lady Penelope’s Thunderbirds.
Anyway, the blurb promises that “The consummate combination of multimedia technology and exquisite architecture models takes you travel in the time tunnel of Shanghai history.” So… let’s go on in and take a look …

The museum itself has a floor area of around 10,000 square metres. The over 30,000 items displayed are divided into five sections: "Trace back to HuaTing", "Style and Features in the Town", "Sketch of the Port-opening", "Foreign Settlement", and "Old footsteps in Shanghai”. The museum aims to try to reflect “the historical evolvement of the politics, economy, culture, society and people’s life in modern Shanghai”. And I have to say I think it does a pretty good job of that.
Now, friends of your favourite blogger know that I love old photographs; and in this museum there are plenty of opportunities for gawping at them. For instance, here is what the Bund looked like in 1893 – the 50th Jubilee of the founding of the settlement.

In 1901, Prince Zai Feng – who was the last Qing Dynasty ruler of China, (as Prince-Regent during the reign of his son the emperor Puyi) – went to Germany by way of Nanjing Road.

And 30 years after that, this is what Nanjing Road looked like in the 1930s

while this was the Fuzhou Road at the same time.

Once you are through these initial pictures (nicely given a sepia tint to make them look really old!) you find yourself in a room dedicated to transport.
Here’s an early trolley car model, representing the first trolley track route in Shanghai, which was officially opened for business on March 5th 1908. The first trolley line owned by the Chinese was put into operation five years later.

The well to do, of course, shunned trolley buses in favour of their sedan cars...

And as the century progressed, the better off stuck to their cars rather than hobnob with the low life. Here’s a Buick Sedan from the 1940s - a symbol of high end consumption in the metropolis.

I now realise that in following everyone else, I have skipped a room, and so find myself going back in time once more – this time to see a wedding sedan chair on show.

There are also horse drawn carts, more sedan chairs and even wheelbarrow chairs on display.

Soon I have found my way back to the proper route once more and climb the stairs into the second section - a maze of Old Shanghai scenes peopled with life-sized wax dummies. Here I can learn about country life as was, and city life as was, with dioramas of a tea-house, a cloth shop, a soy sauce & pickle shop, a bean curd stall, a salted aquatic products (ie seafood!) market in Xian Gua Lu, the dragon shaped wall in Yuyuan … the list just goes on and on, each with a highly detailed scene in low lighting…

Yes, there’s more… Chinese cotton production; wine shops; herb shops…

I turn a corner. Oh Yuk! How gross the Chinese are at times. Like most Chinese museums, the place is full of loos. But that would be far too civilised for some I dare say. It must be so disgusting to work as a cleaner here!

But wait … there’s more (no, not peeing brats… I mean the museum has loads more to see!)

The next hall is crammed full of scenes from Shanghai's foreign concession history during the late 1800s and early 1900s. A helpful sign tells us it represents “The Metropolis Infested with foreign Adventurers”, and then goes on to remind us that in 1840 the British launched the Opium War as a pretext to invade China.

Naughty Brits! There’s also an explanation of the “mixed court” – After Shanghai became a treaty port, the foreign powers seized part of the city’s administrative and judicial powers, representing an important symbol of Shanghai’s semi-colonial status.

Of course, one can’t forget the opium smoking houses, which could be found scattered along all the streets and lanes. Many solicited customers with girls (now, there’s a novel idea!) and they were called Flowery Smoking Houses. The numerous opium dens, we are told, were part of the gloomy side of old Shanghai.

Looking at the painted walls, it seems to me that old Shanghai was really a rather nice place to live in – assuming of course that one had money! Here’s what Huaihai Road – then called Avenue Joffre – looked like. Joffre, BTW, was the commander-in-chief of the French army during WW1.

As a result of its multinational colonialist status, Shanghai quickly became the nationwide centre for newspapers and information in the 1920s. Wangping Street, which is where more than 10 famous newspapers began production at the end of the Qing Dynasty, became known as Newspaper Street.

Naturally, sex was never far below the surface of this heaving metropolis, and the city’s dens of ill repute are also captured for all to gawk at…

… including a model of one of the call girls. I notice that here there are no explanations given in English of what is going on. Perhaps the images speak loudly enough by themselves!

And anyone who despairs nowadays at how sex is used to sell all kinds of products need only come here to see that the idea is anything but new! Why this girl is holding her box of ciggies while she already has a lit cigarette in her holder is anyone’s guess. But look at her left hand. Something definitely a bit deformed about her, I’d say!

This poor devil, on the other hand, looks like she has pigged out a bit too much on the confectionary someone has given her. She looks as if she’s about to throw up at any minute!

I have mentioned in a previous blog about the Jing’an Temple. There used to be a well in front of it from which its bubbling water gave it the moniker of “bubbling well” (ok, so what else would you call it!). The spring water gushed out day and night, and it was widely regarded as the 'Sixth Spring of China'.

And here it is a few years later. The buildings and the people have changed, but not the well, which was abandoned when Nanjing Road was widened; but in 1999 when the new subway line 2 was being dug, the original well guardrail was unearthed, and after reconstruction, the spring was relocated to the crossing of Huashan Road and West Nanjing Road, where it regained its former charm – or so we are told.

Shanghai also became the financial hub in the region, given its international status. Both foreign and Chinese currency circulated together. But in the 1930s, the head offices of the Central Bank, Bank of Communication and Bank of Peasants started using the same money, and Shanghai’s position as the financial centre was consolidated further.

Something else that Shanghai typically “made its own” was to supply the opera trade with costumes. There was a concentration of various opera troupes including Peking, Kun, Hu , Yue, Gunagdong, Xi and Yong operas, and the top suppliers all set up shop in Shanghai. Here’s a reconstruction...

Peking Opera became very popular in Shanghai, and the Dangui Tea House was the earliest theatre offering this kind of entertainment for its customers. Two were built – one on 1867 and the second in 1884.

There was also a district known as “Small Garden” which was a popular name for the area around the present Guangxi Road and Zhejiang Rpoad, adjacent to Fuzhou and Shantou roads. The concentration of recreational facilities led to the emergence of nearly 100 shops which specialised in selling women’s shoes in fashion at the time. Can you imagine squeezing into something as small as one of these shoes? It must have been so painful!

After the 1911 Revolution, when men no longer wore pigtails, people started visiting the barbers more often and by the 1930s there were about 1000 large and small barber shops in the city. I love this depiction which is a bit like something out of the Frankenstein films, don’t you think!

I’m nearing the end of my trip through Shanghai’s time tunnel. From here until the exit one walks through a huge collection of yet more pictures and lithographs. Here’s a few more for you to enjoy…
A forest of masts…

Reflection of ship masts on the Huangpu River…

Shanghai-Wusong Railway’s Opening to traffic…

A girl from a wealthy family on a wheelbarrow sedan…

Mid lake pavilion in Yu Yuan…

I emerge into the daylight once again, now knowing everything there is to know that is worth knowing about the history of Shanghai. What a fabulous museum!