A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Leaping Greatly...

If the Slow Boat brewery taproom has a reputation for serving the best burgers with its excellent range of craft beers, and Panda is the best decorated (but serves the worst craft beer IMHO), while Jing-A is the most overpriced and Arrow has the scruffiest premises, then Great Leap must surely take the prize for having the noisiest taproom in Beijing.

Great Leap Brewing (大跃啤酒 – Dàyuè Píjiǔ) operates three brewpubs in the Chinese caital (together with an offsite brewery in a converted farmhouse in northern Beijing, near the Great Wall) – two in the Dongcheng District and one within spitting distance of Sanyuanli market (in my view, one of the best covered markets in the city).

Its first premises, which opened in 2010, were set in a classic hutong (alleyway) in Beijing’s Gulou neighbourhood near the Bell and Drum Tower. It is still on my to-visit list, though Wikivoyage describes it as quite possibly the most difficult bar to find in Beijing!

But tonight we are going in search of the one near Sanyuanli – in Xinyuan Street, to be precise. At 530 square metres it has a reputation of being the largest brewpub in mainland China.

Finding the premises isn’t the hardest thing about this location. Finding a way in is! In the main road is a door, which though clearly marked…

… still has people trying their luck. Walking round the corner has another entrance – except it’s not, either. (出口- chūkǒu – means exit!)

But once you have got this far it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to turn clockwise through 300 degrees to find the real entrance!

The name "Great Leap" was, apparently, chosen to reflect the risk the two founders were taking when setting up the business, as well as alluding to the Great Leap Forward, that ill-fated economic development programme launched by the late Mao Zedong.

Before you even enter the premises, you are accosted by a list of just some of the 40 brews they get up to. There is always a minimum of 12 on offer, but they also have many varieties produced on a seasonal or rotating basis.

The blackboard over the bar area lists the brews currently on offer. As well as bar seating, there are plenty of tables where the patrons are scoffing in to a plethora of snacks… The place is heaving; and with not one, but two birthday celebrations this evening, the noise levels are already reaching a high count of decibels.

In common with the majority of the other taprooms in BJ, Great Leap proudly shows off its equipment as a backdrop to the décor. It’s all a far cry from the boring old Tsingtao and Yanjing beers that Chinese are so familiar with…

Even the birds-nest of barrels and pipe-work are on display to add to the atmosphere…

And a nice touch for Beijing (which has such a bad reputation for the quality of its air): an air purifier is positioned close to the bar area more, I suspect, as a marketing gimmick than actually doing much useful (though perhaps I am being unfair in this regard?)

Great Leap and Slow Boat take differing approaches when it comes to the ingredients they use. While Slow Boat imports practically everything, including malt, hops and yeast (China’s food is forever in the news for some tainting scandal or other), Great Leap uses local hops and highlights a range of Chinese ingredients, from Sichuan peppercorns and Yunnan coffee beans to organic honey from Shandong province and a variety of teas, such as Tieguanyin oolong. It currently produces well over 300 kegs a month, ranging from pumpkin to mocha stouts, as well as bog standard pale and blond ales, retailing for about twice the price of a Tsingtao or Yanjing.

Just as with the other craft breweries, you can plump for a sampler tray if you’re not quite sure which ale floats your boat. My friend is very taken with the sound of a Banana Wheat Hefeweizen (ABV 5.5%) “made with 100% domestic wheat and barley malt with a traditional Bavarian wheat yeast to bring out natural banana flavours and subtle spice”. Well, you can certainly smell a tinge of banana, but IMHO it is lacklustre and is nothing I’d write home about!

The Cinnamon Rock Ale (ABV: 6.2%), is somewhat better. It is brewed with whole bark Chinese cinnamon and Chinese rock candy. “This ale finishes dry with a subtle spice and the rock candy ferments fully to remove any lingering sweetness. Made with 100% locally malted barley and 100% local Qingdao flower hops from Xinjiang and Gansu,” we are told. Pleasant enough, but I don’t think I would actually rush back for more of this brew.

Little General IPA (ABV 6.5%), a medium full Chinese IPA, is much more to my liking. “Hoppy but not irresponsibly so,” the blurb continues. “Made with indigenous unprocessed whole flower Qingdao flower hops from Xinjiang. Named after the only patriotic hero – Zhang Xueliang – to be recognised by both China and Taiwan”… before the final flourish: “the Little General is an act of balanced beauty”. Yes, I will definitely go for this little beauty again.

And finally Great Strong Smoked Ale (ABV 5.5%). For some reason the official blurb is pretty quiet on this one. Yet for me it is the crowning glory of the evening. With strong hints of Austrian smoked cheese (yummy, yummy) it is one brew that seems to find instant favour with everyone.

And lest you can’t remember which is which, the well-trained 'fúwùyuán' makes sure to place the glasses in the requisite order according to the invoice.

Naturally a glass, or four, of craft beer would probably be too wet without an accompaniment of bar snacks; so we order a vegetarian pizza which turns out to be extremely good … much better than it looks, actually.

But although the beer-battered onion rings with honey-mustard dressing look pretty tempting, they are oily in the extreme, and by the time we are halfway through them, our stomachs are complaining.

The seasonal hand-cut sweet potato fries with horseradish aioli dip also look PDG, but they are as dry as the beers are wet, and it is hard labour to even get through half of them. Hmmm, perhaps the beers aren’t too wet after all!

Nope… on reflection those beers are neither too wet nor too dry.

Now who pinched the remains of that Great Strong Smoked….?

Friday, April 22, 2016

It’s tulip time again in Zhongshan!

You've got to hand it to the Dutch … they certainly know a thing or three when it comes to marketing to the Chinese. Whenever a flower bursts into bloom here in BJ, you can bet your bottom kwai that there will be a load of happy-snappy people with their iPhones, Canons and Nikons shooting pictures for all they are worth.

And just as the Chinese learned pretty quickly that the world loves their scruffy pandas (yes, they are scruffy, for all their so-called cuteness!), the Dutch use their national flower – the tulip – to woo the rubber-neckers in return.

Hence, it can have been no mere accident that the then-Princess Beatrix of Holland (now the reigning queen) gave a whole load of tulips to China way back in 1977, when China and Holland created diplomatic ties. The gardeners in charge of Zhongshan Park (中山公园/中山公園) must have thought Christmas had come early. More tulips were added in 1996, and to celebrate a good thing, they decided to hold a tulip festival to milk it for all it was worth; and the Dutch, pleased to oblige, have been donating 300,000 bulbs every year ever since then.

The park normally charges a 3 RMB entrance fee; but despite that, it is one of the least visited parks in Beijing. But come April time, that all changes. They charge 10RMB entrance, and the place is packed! Mind you, as I wait my turn in the queue there are two tourists obviously from out of town having an argument with the ticket girl… “But we haven’t come for the tulips,” they are insisting; “we came instead to see the normal sights of Zhongshan. Now can we please get in for 3 kwai?” (That, I have to admit, is probably a very loose translation, LOL!) But the ticket girl is obviously hardened to such entreaties, and insists they pay the same price as everyone else; while “everyone else” are starting to lose their patience with these cheapskates.

Now, if you have ever been to the Netherlands in the spring, the chances are that you will have visited the legendary Keukenhof tulip fields which really are a staggering sight. But if you haven’t, then I guess you could be forgiven for thinking this park is pretty staggering too, albeit on a very (very, very) much more diminutive scale.

As we surge into the park, there is a splash of red and yellow that everyone wants to be photographed in front of. But these aren’t even tulips, FGS! They are petunias and violas. Never mind; they are flowers and that’s what counts, it appears.

And then, as we turn the corner, splashes of actual tulips greet the eye – over 100 varieties apparently are grown in the park. Everyone has their phone or camera out and it soon becomes pretty difficult navigating one’s way between the jutting-out bottoms along the path. But at least the signs requesting people not to trample on the flower beds appear to be having some effect. These signs are everywhere, perhaps due to the fact that a couple of weeks back, hoards of tourists at the annual spring expo in Jiangxi province liberally helped themselves to the myriad displays of tulips on show, decimating the entire place.

It’s almost as if these people have never seen a tulip in their lives before. Or maybe they have finally found an excuse to try out their zoom lenses on cameras they bought ages back and then couldn’t quite work out what to do with them?

Whatever the reason, there is certainly more interest in the two-colour tulips, in particular the red-and-yellow ones. Could this be because they are the national colours? Perhaps. But certainly they are very attractive, meticulously arranged against a backdrop of thousand-year-old Cypress trees.

The subtle shades of the red-turning-to-white varieties are equally stunning, though they get much less attention:

The problem, if indeed problem is the right word, is that there are almost too many of this wonderful flower, and tulip fatigue is beginning to set in…

… though the double varieties are certainly eye-catching, even if they are past their prime…

Yet again a splash of red-and-yellow tulips takes centre-stage amongst others of their peers…

And lest anyone actually cares what it is they are actually gawping at, there are a few rather niggardly signs listing some of the varieties on show. No one pays them the slightest attention.

The problem is that with Beijing’s dry climate (today the humidity level barely touches 20%) the tulip season lasts only a fraction of the time it does in Europe, with the result that if you blink, you are likely to miss the best shows. And we all know that there is nothing as sad-looking as a tulip long past its prime…

But worry not! For Zhangshan is not just famous for its tulips, even if this is the tulip festival. Equally impressive, in a totally different way, are displays of buddleia which give out a sweet scent to the passers by.

There are even a few specimens of peach and plum blossom still out in the more shaded areas, where they have come into bloom slightly later than their colleagues in sunnier climes.

But to my eye, even if this is tulip and buddleia time, what is even more impressive is the display of peonies which are having to share centre stage with their floral rivals. They are wonderful, and to my mind they simply have to be the best-loved perennials of all time.

Now, of course, along with plum blossom, the peony is a traditional floral symbol of China, where the ‘Paeonia Suffruticosa’ is called mǔdān (牡丹). It is also known as fùguìhuā (富貴花) meaning "flower of riches and honour" or huawang (花王) – "king of the flowers", and is widely used symbolically in Chinese art.

The colours stretch from red through to white with everything in between. Quite stunning!

And while most are still snapping away with their cameras and selfie-sticks, I come across an artist who is actually sat in front of a peony that he is doing a wonderful job of copying (though why he doesn’t just take a photograph of it and copy that, I’m afraid I have no idea).

Lest one forgets, however, Zhongshan Park was formerly the altar in the Ming and Qing Dynasties where emperors at that time offered sacrifices respectively to the God of Land and the God of Grain every February and August of the lunar calendar. But it appears that the great unwashed have little time for history or anything that doesn’t have flowers bursting out in profusion. The area around the square-shaped Altar of Land and Harvest is virtually empty, and those that have ventured into this corner of the park have obviously either lost their way or are looking for yet more varieties of plants to take shots of...

After all, having one’s photo taken with a piece of real history isn’t nearly as exciting as sticking one’s head through a cardboard cut-out for yet another picture op, with a graceless looking windmill as a backdrop, is it? (My… those marketers from the Dutch Tourist Board must be rubbing their hands with glee!)

But this cute pussycat is not so impressed. He has obviously seen it all before, a thousand times over. Humans! you can see him thinking, as he stifles yet another yawn before closing his eyes and dreaming of… well, whatever it is that bored-looking moggies dream about when they have a surfeit of time on their hands…

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Isn’t this Beijing’s most amazing up-market mall?

Casting my mind back to the days of yesteryear, it was when I was at university that I first came across the works of the celebrated surrealist artist Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech – a.k.a. Salvador Dalí. I had been looking for some free posters with which to decorate the bare walls of my accommodation and happened to be passing the office of French Railways on a day out in London. I had been walking into various national tourist offices asking them for some of their posters and was delighted when SNCF gave me a set of six by the then not-so-well-known Dalí.

My then-GF was very much into modern art and drooled over the posters; and I guess I will always kick myself for handing them over to her in a fit of generosity. Nowadays I think that virgin set would be worth a mini-fortune!

So what’s that got to do with Beijing, I hear you asking. Well last weekend I was taken out to lunch by some amazing people who told me we would be going to a restaurant in FangCaoDi (芳草地). “Where?” said I. “ParkView Green… you must know it!

But in my ignorance I didn’t … until we arrived and I recognised a building I had walked past many times (normally at night time) just ten minutes away from where I live.

I’d often wondered what packs of howling wolves were doing posing outside on the pavement, but after a while nothing really surprises you in this amazing city.

But once we were through the revolving door with a Miss-Piggy-with-Attitude posing seductively in the central display part…

… and having then passed a contraption that defied logic (was it a machine? a sculpture? a work of art? what on earth was it?) …

… not to mention a farting bull (which has been described – perhaps a little unfairly – as being possibly the ugliest statue ever unveiled) … well, I was already hooked and determined to revisit later in the week.

(If you read the blurb, the bull sculpture by Chen Wenling represents Wall Street. Actually it’s called ‘What You See Might Not Be Real’, which is meant to suggest that the Chinese economic bull can’t go on eating up natural resources without, well, letting off some toxic steam. Clever, what? The devil figure being pinned to the wall could be the Western world’s economy; or another interpretation is that it personally represents Bernie Madoff, who took pyramid investment schemes to a whole new level.)

Chen Wenling first gained fame for his 'Red Memory' sculptures, a series of oversized boys rendered in vibrant red lacquer. There’s a whole load of them here too.

But I digress…

Parkview Green FangCaoDi is one of China’s largest sustainable architecture projects. It’s a hotel, shopping and commercial hub which was the first structure in Beijing planned for sustainability. Designed by Hong Kong-based architects Integrated Design Associates, it features a floor area of 200,000 sq m, and was designed with energy efficiency as its number one priority. It is also the first of BJ’s buildings to make use of a 'microclimate' as a means of minimising energy consumption.

The building encases two nine-storey and two 18-storey towers in a transparent 'envelope', and the resulting 'buffer zone' is a contained environment within which the climate is relatively uniform. The structure has no air conditioning. Instead, the whole interior space acts as a solar chimney, with the 89m highest point of the pyramidal form drawing warm air up and out of the building. The office and retail areas are ventilated through underground ducts and in the summer, ventilation louvers – installed at the top of the envelope – allow the warmest air to escape, creating an upward flow. As it escapes, cooler air is drawn up from the bottom of the building, creating natural ventilation. Clever stuff!

Yes, but what about Dalí, I hear you pressing me. Hold on – I’m getting there!

According to one of ParkView’s web sites, “Parkview has supported Chinese art for the past 50 years and Chinese contemporary artists for over 20 years. Its art collection includes the largest Dali collection outside of Spain, numerous artworks by western masters, an invaluable collection of imperial Chinese stone Buddhist carvings and a substantial collection of contemporary Chinese art amounting to over 10,000 works.” I’m already hooked!

The next day I make my way back to PVG – and before I even head inside, I first do a tour of the outside.

How come I never noticed all the artwork surrounding the building before? Well, I guess bronzework doesn’t show up very well at night time; but here are a plethora of Dalí sculptures, one after the other, facing the street…

'Reina Caracol' from 1974:

'Reloj Blando', also from 1974, featuring one of Dalí’s signature melting clocks..

There’s even a rear entrance archway which certainly looks like it could have been a Dalí piece, but there is no sign, that I can see, to confirm this:

Further round the building there is what looks like an aircraft carrier suspended next the pavement, though again there are no signs to tell us what it is, or who it is by…

And back around at the front once more there are a couple of marching soldiers, which I think are by a famous Chinese artist, Qin Fengling:

Now, I hate to point this out, dear managers of PVG, but your collection of Dalí – though undoubtedly large (I counted 14 bronze sculptures, but there could have been more for all I know) – is certainly not the largest collection outside Spain.

With the exception of the Dalí Theater-Museum created by Dalí himself in his home town of Figueres, Catalonia, the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida – put together by Reynolds and Eleanor Morse – has the world's largest collection of Dalí's works, that includes 96 oil paintings, over 100 watercolours and drawings, 1,300 graphics, photographs, sculptures and objets d'art, and an extensive archival library. (I’ve been there, and it is a fabulous collection. Definitely a must-visit museum if ever you find yourself in Florida!)

But let’s not be ungenerous. For PVG is indeed an amazing place. I mean, how many shopping malls have you ever spent nearly two hours in, without going into a single shop? Join me now on the inside…

There’s no denying that the shops in the main cater for people with money, and plenty of it. As the old expression goes, if you have to ask the price of the items on display, you are probably unlikely to be able to afford them!

But you can happily forget the shops (though the restaurants are well worth a visit). Every nook and cranny of this space is taken up with modern art – not just the likes of Dalí, but very many international modernists and plenty of up and coming Chinese artists such as Chen Wenling, Huang Mingzhe, Li Chen, Yang Tao, Zhang Huan, Zheng Lu, Luo Jian, Ren Zhe, Fan Xiaoyan, Li Hui, Fan Yourong, Li Na, Guan Yong and Xia Hang, to name but a few. If like me you have never heard of most of these, it really doesn’t matter. That well-worn phrase “something to please everyone” surely comes to mind.

For instance, on the second floor you will come across works by Xia Hang, such as this ‘Roadbuster’.

Xia Hang was born in 1978 in Liaoning Province in China's far north, and graduated in 2002 from the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts. The explanatory notes posted alongside read: "Without volume, a dot is the origin that is pushed to the edge of the universe; a line, meaning countless dots, the trajectory of dots, and a magnified dot, is a closed line and the boundary of space as well. It is the trace my fair tale left."

Errr, no, I have no idea what that means either! But there are other works by this artist, of which more in a moment…

How about Japanese artist Aya Takano, born in 1976 in Saitama? She specialises in Japanese comic and sci-fi characters. Here’s her ‘White Dog’ which is made of wood, styrofoam, cotton and cloth…

There are also regular temporary exhibitions showing, such as this one which has some of its exhibits on display in the 798 art district as well as here in a gallery on the second floor at PVG.

It’s not a big gallery (it opened in 2013 and covers a total area of only 338 sq m), but remember we are inside a shopping mall. There’s certainly enough to keep you occupied for a good 15 minutes or so

At the front you can see a doggie by Seungkoo Lee.

He’s quite cute in a static sort of way. Or how about Wei Kun’s ‘Elephant’? I’m not sure I’d want to part with 80,000RMB (£8,000) for it, but I guess it’s pretty clever…

If pooches and elephants aren’t really your thing, you could stare at some 3D art – here’s 'No!' by Zhou Ya Ling.

(I have to say, however, that I am not impressed by this piece. I actually have a computer program which was released as freeware over 10 years ago and which can create very much better stereoscopic pictures than this!)

Back to Qin Fengling again, and an acrylic of the Ba Gua diagram – or ‘arcylic’ as the caption insists on telling us...

And this, unfortunately, is typical of many of the captions to be found in PVG. If they do have an English translation, it’s a shame that no one has ever thought to copy-edit them. Many works, however, don’t even have a caption at all, leaving you to guess even who the artist is.

Although the majority of the art works are sculptures, there are a number of paintings to be seen, not least in private art shops that have sprung up inside the mall. There you are exhorted not to take photographs… Why, the very idea never crossed my mind!

Sometimes it is difficult to judge whether something is a piece of art, or is advertising one of the shops… but maybe it doesn’t actually matter. The coffee shop that this belongs to:

And the Deli-France that this Eiffel Tower belongs to:

are somehow enhanced by these simple artistic decorations. Everything just seems to fit in together and the essence of an art centre is enhanced by these simple advertising sculptures.

The blow-up monkey doll and the lotus flower that opens and closes periodically are hard to miss…

…while a display of cows hanging from the rafters might enhance the superiority that vegetarians may well feel about themselves!

There’s a side of PVG that calls itself ‘Parkview Arts Action’. This is an organisation that aims to use the power of art to raise awareness of critical environmental issues and inspire change among global communities. Their web site tells us that their “ambition is to support and encourage debate between arts, business and scientific communities, advocacy organisations and the public around environmental sustainability”.

Parkview Arts Action currently has a programme of biannual touring art exhibitions, the first of which is called ‘On Sharks & Humanity’, which features over thirty artists. The exhibition has already been shown in Monaco, Moscow and the National Museum of China in Beijing. Future exhibitions will focus on air and water pollution, as well as issues related to recycling. A mini-version of the exhibition is shown here and features works by ten contemporary Chinese artists, depicting humanity’s charged relationship with sharks (well, that’s what it says!).

There’s a foreword to the exhibition that tells the visitor: “Part of a holistic experience, it encourages the audience to overcome a fear of the unknown, challenge prejudices and understand this mysterious creature and its crucial role in the marine ecosystem. In so doing it compels the audience to turn from apathy to take action.”

All laudable aims, no doubt, but seeing some plastic blow-up sharks hung from the ceiling fail miserably in their attempt to affect your favourite blogger’s cynical view of the world, I’m afraid.

Not that it just contains shark-shaped balloons, of course. You can also marvel at the more than 70 pieces of transparent plastic that form the outline of a shark. ‘Don’t Copy II’, by Li Jiwei, is a four metre long sculpture suspended in mid-air and “illuminated”, we are told in all seriousness by parkviewartsaction.com, “with X-rays”. Oh come on! If they really must insist on using the Baidu Translate web site, they should try to do a little better than this!

The artwork symbolises the relationship between shark and humans, and offers a multi-level analysis on the value of life. The artist has represented the multiplicity of this anlaysis (sic) by using transparent materials. The concept has been combined with the spatial aspects of the piece.” (Does anyone actually understand – or care – what these words actually mean FGS?) “Don’t Copy II is an attempt to instil a respect for nature in people, and encourage them to analyse their own behaviour within society. By adapting our behaviour now, we could save ourselves from a future populated with clones.”

(Actually, I wonder if I’m the only visitor to think that cloning could well be the answer to the Chinese love of shark’s fin soup?)

Liu Zining takes a different approach. His ‘Looking at you looking at me’ painting of a shark’s eye is visually captivating, but again the explanation that “the indignant and sorrowful expression in the shark’s eye is intended to provoke us to consider the effects of our violent attitude towards sharks, humanising the animal’s emotions and encouraging us to view them as more than a violent predator,” leaves this visitor, at least, unmoved; and to be told that Liu’s “artistic style is expressed though the use of colour and perspective to explore visual power” makes me wonder what all other artists in the history of mankind have been missing out on all this time!

Xia Hang (remember him? We marvelled at his motorbike a short while back) is not so pretentious. Or maybe his publicists ran out of such epithets.

‘To Poseidon’ is a steel sculpture in which “the shark is portrayed as a war ship, a soldier of Poseidon, strong and resistant to attack. A sense of transience is evoked through the idea that the different elements that make up the sculpture can be disassembled and reassembled in a different form. In this way the sculpture is reminiscent of a toy, subverting the serious themes expressed through its materiality.” He’s rather cute actually!

Sharks aside, there’s plenty more to catch the eye in this amazing mall. The fact that I took over 200 photographs on this one visit is testament to that!

Standing proud on the ground floor, for instance, is this shiny character saluting to the passers-by. Alas we are not told anything about him.

But this clever piece called 'Empty Bundle' by Yang Tao has fulsome notes attached. “The artwork stretches through the entire height of the building producing a diverse range of visual experiences from different levels and angles. It uses thin silk threads to carry out a random temporal and spatial intervention into the exhibition spaces.

The artist describes with a nice degree of frankness the problems with its installation, with nine failed attempts: “What kind of viewing experience will be produced by bundling a ray of light in silk thread?” he asks. "For the work of art, execution became more important than the information it carried. The changes in thinking that took place in the bundling process transformed the original expression into an act with infinite threads. As the artwork neared completion, I wasn't thinking of anything and I had forgotten my original idea."

How refreshing!

I have to admit that my favourite piece in the entire shopping mall – called 'Beetle Sphere' – is by an Indonesian artist called Ichwan Noor.

The accompanying blurb tells us that this 180cm sphere is made from “aluminium, ployester (sic), print (I think they mean paint!), and real parts from a VW Beetle of 1953-vintage”.

Ichwan Noor, it turns out, specialises in mammoth sculptures of morphed cars; and this Beetle is one of a series of five spherical and cubed vehicles by the Jakarta-based sculptor. Way back in 2011, the artist created a VW made into a perfectly angular cube. The piece was voted “favourite artwork” at the Indonesia Art & Motoring Exhibition; and one of his cars on display at an exhibition in Hong Kong sold for $88,000 shortly after the show opened.

When you look at the morphed shape of the sculpture, it’s pretty hard to believe this was ever a road worthy car. The amount of metalwork that he must have employed is amazing. Even small elements like the tail lights don’t protrude from the shape of the sphere.

For me, this has to be the epitome of art!