A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

History or Transport? You Decide!

I blame tripadvisor.com. Why anyone should bother to read some of the tripe it contains remains forever a mystery for me. But they do, and I did, coming across postings such as:

I din't (sic) see many plaques to explain anything but, it is a wall and that is the main thing here / took the opportunity to visit the old city walls. They are not significant as most have been demolished to make way for roads and other developments / It's a nice stroll. The towers make a nice photo op / Once you get to the top of the wall, you can see part of the train station which allowed you to see various types of trains used in China.

I am meeting a friend in a coffee bar near Chongwenmen station and the Ming City Wall Park is only some 200 metres away, so – despite tripadvisor – after three years of prevarication, it seems like a good time to check it out.

The Ming City Wall Relics Park (明城墙遗址公园) has the longest and best preserved section of the city's Ming Dynasty city wall, which was first built nearly 600 years ago, in 1419, the 17th year of Emperor Yongle's reign. It ran for about 40 kilometres; but all that is left now is a section some 1.5 kilometres long, which used to be part of the inner city wall of Beijing. It is the longest section of the city walls remaining.

The Ming city walls stood until the early 1960s when most of the gates and walls were torn down to build the Beijing Subway, which runs underneath where the walls once stood. The subway's inner loop line turned into the Inner City at Chongwenmen to stop at the Beijing Railway Station, and did not need to run beneath a section of the wall at the southeast corner of the Inner City, which is why of the 40 km of the original wall, only this 1.5 km section was spared.

In retrospect, it seems almost criminal when you consider what was done to Beijing’s heritage. But the destruction started well before the 1950s. In fact, when the Beijing circum-city railway was built in 1915, the sight towers at the northeast and southeast corners were dismantled, and the side walls of the guard towers at these corners had arches built as passageways for the trains.

The barbican and sluice gates at Dongshengmen, Andingmen, Chaoyangmen, and Dongzhimen were dismantled for the passage of trains. The barbican at Zhengyangmen was dismantled to ease traffic in the Qianmen area. Numerous arches for trains were cut in the city walls; and the walls of the Imperial city were fully dismantled, except for the south to southwest section. By the end of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961), the outer city wall had been completely dismantled and the inner wall was halved in length.

After the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, people felt that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable. Underground bomb shelters, underground "supply cities", and an underground railway — the Beijing Subway — were commissioned. Work on the metro began on 1 July 1965 and a cut-and-cover construction was utilised, it being the quickest way of constructing the metro at that time. Since demolishing houses and relocating people would have been such a great undertaking, the decision was made to build the metro line where the city walls and moats were located.

If you look at the map of Line 2 of Beijing’s subway system, you can clearly see the path of the destruction from the stations’ names. The first section of walls to be removed was the southern portion of the Inner city wall, Xuanwumen, and Chongwenmen, leaving behind a 23.6-kilometre-long ditch. The second stage began at Beijing Railway Station in the southeast corner of the Inner city and passed through the sites of Jianguomen, Andingmen, Xizhimen, and Fuxingmen. Towers and walls were removed and another 16 kilometre ditch was created. A section of wall near Xibianmen about 100 metres long was used as a storage area for raw materials, and thus was spared from demolition. Another section from Chongwenmen to the guard tower at the southeast corner of the Inner city was spared, because the metro line veers there towards the Beijing Railway Station.

Beginning in 1972, in order to pave the 2nd Ring Road above the Metro, and to serve high-rise apartments and hotels in the Qianmen area, Beijing's eastern, southern, and western moats were converted to sewers and covered over.

What is left of the walls is indeed a sorry sight…

And what is left of them have had to be heavily restored, albeit where possible using original bricks. Some sections look much more authentic than others, though.

The inner city wall was 11.4 metres high and was topped with battlements that rose another 1.9 m. The wall was lined with brick and filled with earth, and was 19.8 m thick at the foundation tapering to 16 m at the top.

Thirteen buttresses, known as Dun Tai, protruded on the outside face of the wall at this location. They were constructed every 80 metres along the wall and allowed archers to fire at attackers from three sides, making it more difficult for the enemy to creep up unawares. Most are basically square, with the sides of the larger ones over 30 metres long. This one here is the largest, with sides of 39 metres.

Although very narrow, the park is delightfully laid out with a winding path bordered with flowering trees including apricot, peach and ginkgo. According to the official blurb, the design of the park aims at classical simplicity, with over 70,000 square metres of lawns, 110,000 flowers, over 400 large trees such as Chinese pines and scholar trees, and over 6,000 shrubs.

Even in late summer, these trees are sporting beautiful pink flowers which set off the wall nicely.

Everywhere there are signs warning visitors not to pass the grass; but I stick to the path and continue passing.

Of course, the park benches are filled, as always, with people sleeping off yet another exciting day in their lives. I’ve never known anywhere like China where sleeping has become a national pastime!

And lest anyone should even consider using the wall to practise their rock climbing skills, there are frequent notices warning them off even thinking about it.

Some notices are somewhat more blunt in their admonitions.

As one approaches the end of the park (walking from west to east, which I find out is by far the better way to explore this attraction) there is a buttress which looks to have been totally restored – so new it could almost have been constructed in the past decade.

And just round the corner, in what is now a car park, is an archway leading in to the guard tower at the southeast corner of the fortifications.

Now, these guard towers were located at the four corners of the Inner city walls. They were all similarly designed in the multi-eaved Xieshanding style, with grey tiles and green glazed edges. The towers were four storeys high and were fitted with 14 arrow slits on each floor. The sides facing the city also had true windows that could be opened for ventilation and light, while the arrow slits were only opened when shooting arrows or cannonballs.

Only the southeastern corner guard tower has survived. The northeastern tower was dismantled in 1920 and its platform in 1953. The northwestern tower was destroyed by Russian cannon fire in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion. Its platform was dismantled in 1969. The southwestern corner guard tower was dismantled in 1930 because of a lack of funds for maintenance, and its platform was dismantled in 1969.

This guard tower has now been made into a museum complex, which to my surprise turns out to be well worth the 10RMB entrance fee.

The Southeast Corner Tower was built from 1436 to 1439 and is a major state-protected historical site. Rising 29 m in height, it is the largest corner tower still standing in China. In its day it could house 200 soldiers and has ramps for soldiers and horses. During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the tower was attacked and captured by the Eight-Nation Alliance.

I hand my money over to the smiling lady in the “ticdet office”…

… and study one of the maps which helpfully shows where one is in the overall scheme of things…

I head for the Horse Way – a slope for mounting the city wall on a horse. It originally consisted of large bricks vertically laid one slightly higher than the other. But in 1988 the vertically laid bricks were changed into slab stone staircases in order to let visitors mount the city wall more easily.

From the top, just as the tripadvisor correspondent pointed out, you can get a birds’ eye view of the station and various trains chugging in and out. Hmmm; I try to contain my excitement…

… and move on to the main building on the ramparts which, unlike the lesser buildings around it, isn’t even marked on the map.

I discover that inside is a privately managed, non-profit contemporary art gallery opened in 1991 called the Red Gate Gallery. It is currently showing off an exhibition of crystal resin sculptures.

They’re quite nice in a weird sort of way, and some of the reds and blues are extraordinarily rich in their intensity.

Making one’s way up to the next floor, one comes across an “Exhlbltlon” of Beijing’s City Walls – similar to the one you can see inside Qianmen’s exhibition rooms.

There are loads of historical photographs of many of Beijing’s old gates, together with pictures of social scenes… such as this beheading at an execution site sometime in the Qing dynasty. Xuanwumen was to the west of Zhengyangmen and was the only way of getting to the execution ground at Caishikou. Accordingly it was also known as Xingmeng – Execution Gate.

You can even see one of the swords used to decapitate the unfortunate victims…

All the gates had a double entrance which included a watch tower for defence, just before the main entrance. Each was unique. For instance, the watchtower at Zhengyangmen was 38 metres high, 52 metres wide, and 32 metres deep, constructed on a raised platform 12 metres high. This gate, named "Qianmen", was for the exclusive use of the emperor. It had grey tubed roof tiles with green glazed tiles at the top. The southern side had seven rooms with 52 arrow slits, and the northern side had five rooms with 21 arrow slits. The eastern and western sides each had 21 arrow slits. The other Inner city watchtowers had exterior designs similar to that of Qianmen, with multi-eaved gate towers in the front and a series of five rooms in the back. Both the upper and lower levels of the watchtowers were equipped with arrow slits.

The watchtowers were connected to both the inner walls and outer walls by a structure called a barbican. Each Inner city barbican had a unique design. The barbicans of Dongzhimen or Xizhimen were square; the ones at Zhengyangmen and Deshengmen were rectangular; at Dongbianmen and Xibianmen they were semicircular. Most of the Inner city barbicans had rounded corners, which provided better sight lines and were more difficult to climb or destroy.

This was Zhengyangmen (正陽門 – literally 'Gate of the Righteous Sun'), completed in 1419.
Each Inner city barbican contained a temple, and the barbican at Zhengyangmen had two: Guandimiao in the west and Guanyinmiao in the east. But they were both dismantled during the Cultural Revolution.

And this is a close up of its gate tower.

Here’s a view of Fuchengmenwai in the early 1950s.

Meanwhile, when Xizhimen (西直門 – literally 'Western Upright Gate'), the last gate to remain fully intact, was being dismantled in 1969, they discovered another gate – Heyimen – which had been built during the reign of Yuan Shundi, in 1360.

This is what Xizhimen looked like in the 1920s – a splendid edifice if ever there was one!

They even have a lock from the original Chaoyangmen (朝陽門 or 'Gate that Faces the Sun') which was located at the midpoint of the Inner city eastern wall.

Chaoyangmen was Beijing's "Food Gate", through which many carts carrying staple foods entered the city. The gate was closest to the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, and wheat and rice from the south China plains arrived via that route. Much of the food was stored in warehouses just inside Chaoyangmen.

I’m particularly taken with this picture of a camel caravan passing by Guanganmen (廣安門 – 'Gate of Extended Peace') which was located slightly north of the midsection of the western wall.

(I’m afraid that after my Middle Eastern sojourn, I have a soft spot for camels!)

After a good half hour, I make my way outside again.

During the Qing dynasty the Eight Banners (military-administrative organisations of the Manchu) were responsible for garrisoning the city. The Pure Blue Banner was in charge of this section of the city wall and the stone slab preserved here was used to affix the Pure Blue Banner’s flagpole.

There’s also what remains of a cannon, liberally decorated with Chinese characters; but nothing to tell you anything about it.

From the top of these ramparts, you can see what remains of the top of the walls.

There are also three “Pu She” – houses in which the defending solders of the Ming and Qing dynasty stayed when they were on guard duty. These three were “authentically rebuilt” in 1988 according to historical records.

From the Dun Tai one can get a very good idea of the width of the defending wall and how the park has been constructed, hugging right up to it.

And down below there is a beautifully carved rock which sports what looks like a flower arrangement – but to be honest I have no idea as there is nothing to say what it is or what its significance is.

My visit over, I head on up to Jianguomen, home to the Beijing Ancient Observatory, built atop another section of the eastern city wall, to take subway line 2 on my journey home. I guess I will forever see Line 2 in a different light from now on. What would we do without it? But how much more amazing would Beijing be nowadays if such wanton destruction hadn’t been visited on the city by its own government!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

So what do YOU think that Ferdinand Marcos and Mao Zedong have in common?

I recently finished reading a book by someone who is widely regarded as the most honest politician in the Philippines. Yes, yes, I know you’re going to tell me that the words honesty and politician rarely can sit on the same line, let alone side by side – especially in the Philippines; but everything I have seen of Miriam Defensor Santiago appears to support the view that here indeed is one of those rarities – a politician that you can actually believe in.

She is notable for having served in all three branches of the Philippine government – judicial, executive, and legislative. She was named one of The 100 Most Powerful Women in the World in 1997 by The Australian magazine; and in 1988, she was named laureate of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service, with a citation “for bold and moral leadership in cleaning up a corrupt-ridden government agency.

In 2012, she became the first Filipina and the first Asian from a developing country to be elected judge of the International Criminal Court, but later resigned the post, citing chronic fatigue syndrome, which turned out to be lung cancer.

The fact that she had run in the 1992 presidential elections but was defeated in what was widely regarded as a rigged election is yet another blot on the history of the Philippines. Here one feels is someone who would have cleaned up Filipino society in a way that no other politician could ever do.

I was thinking about this amazing lady when I had the occasion to visit Ilocos Norte in the north of Luzon. Not only is there a museum dedicated to the memory of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, in the small town of Batac, but you can also visit the “Malacañang of the North” in Paoay – what used to be his official residence whenever the family travelled further up the coast.

Philippine society still seems divided on whether Ferdinand Marcos was a hero or a villain. No one can deny the excesses and corruption that were rampant under his rule; and most critics consider Marcos was the quintessential kleptocrat, having looted billions of dollars from the Filipino treasury.
(In the 2004 Global Transparency Report, Marcos appeared in the list of the World's Most Corrupt Leaders. He was listed second behind the late President Suharto of Indonesia, and was said to have amassed between $5 billion to $10 billion in his 21 years as president.)


According to a poll of over 13,000 people published on thetoptens.com, when asked “Do you believe that Marcos was the best president the country ever had?” 70.59 per cent said yes, with only 21.36% registering “of course not” and 5.82% saying they really couldn’t care less.

The only president that made me define myself as Filipino,” wrote one. “The best, smartest, disciplined, tough, true Filipino president of all time!” wrote another, while a third explained he was “like a father who spanks his child not because he's abusive but he loves that child and wants that child to grow up successful. If he didn't implement martial law, we would probably not be #2 in Asia during that time and worst of all, the United States would probably try to invade us again!

Well, I have talked of Paoay before in my blogs. It’s a lovely little place, dominated of course by San Agustin Church — which is hardly surprising given its stunning architecture that is not just a showcase of Spanish-era churches in the Philippines but also listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

Just along the shores of Paoay Lake stands the Malacañang of the North – an imposing structure that remains true to the old-rich Spanish architecture of the province. It’s a constant reminder of the Philippines’ not-so-distant past, when the Marcoses wielded power during Martial Law, ending with his ouster during the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986.

It only costs 10 Peso (about 15 pence) to get in, which has to be one of the best values for money I have come across so far in this country. It’s a huge house which gives one an impression of the style to which the Marcoses accustomed themselves. The detailed hardwood touches, the marbled floors, spacious halls and shell windows still give visitors an impression of how it must have looked during its heyday, though with so many tourist feet tramping through the place it’s amazing that it is in as good a condition as it still is. As well as a home, this house also provided a venue to entertain affluent local personalities and foreign dignitaries.

The best part is probably the luxurious view of Paoay Lake…

which the Marcoses would have gazed down upon each morning as they padded their way to their massive bathroom.

Naturally there are pictures of the Marcos family at every turn. This, after all, is a shrine to the Marcoses, in all but name. Short old Ferdi…

… positioned opposite glamorous Imelda…

With pictures drawn by the likes of Bong Bong – their son, who is still active in Philippine politics to this day …

… as well as Ferdinand the statesman…

with a well-kept study office showing how the great man must have toiled away when not counting his ill gotten gains.

By anyone’s standards, it’s a beautiful building, faintly reminiscent of the Coconut Palace that Imelda had had built for the Pope’s visit to Manila (but which he had turned down!).

Some of the pictures, too, are really rather nice. I quite liked this painting of Paoay Church, for instance.

And for those with a curiosity that knows no bounds, who cannot but marvel at the size of the Marcos marital bed – I mean Ferdi was diminutive, as I might have mentioned. So what hanky panky did Imelda get up to at night time that demanded such a big bed, one has to ask oneself!

Perhaps making more of an impression than the Malacañang of the North, though, is the Marcos Museum in the City of Batac, which showcases memorabilia of the late President. Within this property, which still belongs to the Marcos family, is a cluster of three houses.

Ferdinand Edralín Marcos was the tenth president of the Philippines, serving from 1965 to 1986, until removed from office by the “People Power” EDSA Revolution. He studied law at the University of the Philippines, attending the prestigious College of Law. He sat for the 1939 Bar Examinations, receiving a near-perfect score and graduating cum laude despite the fact that he was incarcerated while revising, having been prosecuted for the murder of a political rival along with his father, brother and brother-in-law. (The Marcos family took their appeal to the Supreme Court, which overturned the lower court's decision, acquitting them of all charges except contempt.)

Naturally the museum is stuffed full of artefacts such as this saddle…

… and family photographs…

… and there is much trumpeting of what an amazing law student Marcos was.

I guess one can hardly be surprised by the loving adoration heaped on the late President. This is, after all, a museum put together by his relatives, many of whom are still in the very epicentre of Filipino politics. But just occasionally, one feels they may have heaped a little too much froth on top of the cappuccino. For instance: “When his beloved Ilocos demanded his service, he could not refuse. From being a lawyer, Ferdinand became a lawmaker representing the second district of Ilocos Norte. The young representative was working for the people who entrusted their fate to the 'golden voice of the north'.”

Those who love historic photographs will be delighted to see such pictures on display as the Japanese destruction of the old Intramuros sector of Manila

But what is perhaps more eye catching is a display of some of the medals he was awarded as a staunch anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter during World War II.

His tales of daring-do must have been sheer poetry to listen to – especially the tale of when he led a 9,000-man guerrilla force into northern Luzon. Indeed, by the mid 1960s Marcos touted himself to be the most decorated guerrilla leader of World War II, having been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and Purple Heart among his many medals. Golly Gosh!
Such a shame that the Americans should then have chosen to trample over his fantasies and expose many of his claims as either false or inaccurate, with historian Alfred W. McCoy delving into United States Army records to show most of Marcos's medals were fraudulent. What spoilsports the yanks can be at times!

Early in his career, Marcos found the number 7 to be auspicious for him. In numerology the number seven represents perfection. So good old Ferdi insisted on practically every car number plate assigned to him to include the number 7. Later in his political career, he prevailed against Vice President Pelaez in the Nacionalista Party Convention with a striking 777 vote. Such an amazing coincidence!

The romantic tale of the promising statesman of Ilocos and the statuesque Rose of Tacloban is almost legendary. F&I came to epitomise what seemed to be the ideal Filipino couple. Aged 18, Imelda had been dubbed The Rose of Tacloban, Leyte, in the town's local flower festival. (She had also been given the monika of Muse of Manila at the Philippine International Fair and Expo of 1953.) On April 6, 1954, Ferdi fell in lust with her in a cafeteria and after just 11 days of chasing her, he got her to sign a marriage licence making her Mrs Marcos. How romantic!

Well, I don’t need to go into all the details about Ferdi’s life as a senator, president and thoroughly good egg. If you really want to find out about that, I guess you can always turn to Wikipedia.

To the right of the museum is a large house – but it’s well and truly locked up. Certainly not meant for the likes of the plebs – such as your favourite blogger – to visit.

But no worry. It’s also good to see that the commercial business ethic of your average Filipino still has a place in this most holy of memorials. Just along the path you can get a coffee (or rather you could if they had bothered to open) at the local “Storebucks”.

But that’s not the third building I was talking about earlier. (We are not told if the late great FM was a coffee drinker – though I somehow imagine he was more into a soothing mug of Milo or Ovaltine before he hit the mattress of a night with rumpy-pumpy Imelda.)

No. Building number three is much more sombre; and I for one was totally unaware that that very afternoon I would be coming face to face with El Presidente himself.

On September 28, 1989, Marcos died of lung, kidney and liver complications in Hawaii, three years after he and his family fled the country in the face of a nonviolent revolution which set an end to his regime. In a spirit of spitefulness, one can’t help but feel, the government of President Corazon Aquino denied the return of Marcos' remains to the Philippines; so they were interred in a private air conditioned mausoleum at Byodo-In, a Japanese Buddhist temple, on the island of Oahu.

But in September 1993, after having been kept in a refrigerated, glass-topped coffin inside an air-conditioned crypt for four years, Marcos' remains were finally taken to the Philippines after Fidel Ramos allowed Imelda Marcos to bring her husband's body home but refused her demand for a hero’s burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes' Cemetery) in Manila.

So his remains were interred in a mausoleum in Batac in building number three, next to the museum. And that’s where it will stay until the government yields to Imelda's demand for a hero’s burial (or not as the case may be).
Frank Malabed, Marcos' mortician, (this has to be a joke surely! Translate it into Franglais and you’ll see what I mean … mal à bed … tee hee hee) says it took him three weeks to restore Marcos' body so that Filipinos would recognize it. Hmmm must have been a pretty disgusting sight by then, I reckon. Local morticians apparently maintain it regularly, and everyone swears blind that the corpse is real, although many suspect it is a wax replica, and the real body was secretly buried.

Unlike the time I went to pay a visit to the late Mao Zedong (who also looks like a waxwork), I didn’t have to wait for more than about 10 seconds in Batac to be able to get in to see old Ferdi. Everywhere there are signs forbidding you to take any pictures, and there are a couple of bored looking security guards ready to pounce if you so much as think of getting your camera out of your pocket. Plastic flowers add a tasteful touch in the dim light, and distant canned music plays softly to put you in the right sombre mood.

All tiptoe softly through the moving tableau, wary of disturbing the great (diminutive) man’s sleep. I am sure that until such time as Imelda gets her wish for her hubby to receive a hero’s send off, FM’s many fans will be relieved to know that he is at least laid to rest in a termite-free zone.