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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sing, sing a Soong


On this most socialist of national holiday weekends, what could be more apropos than to pay our respects to one of modern China's most revered women, Soong Ching-ling (Sòng Qìnglíng 宋庆龄). Born into an influential family, she and her two sisters married into the upper echelons of Republican China - Soong Ai-ling 宋藹齡 (the oldest) tied the knot with H.H. Kung 孔祥熙, a wealthy banker and politician, while the other sister, May-ling 宋美齡, hooked up with Chiang Kai-shek 蔣中正. But it was Ching-ling who arguably came out on top by marrying none other than Sun Yat-sen 孫中山, the first president and "founding father" of the Republic of China 中華民國, who is also a revered figure in the People's Republic 中华人民共和国. As Madame Sun Yat-sen's mausoleum is only a short drive from our housing compound (and having already seen just about everything else there is to see in Shànghăi 上海), we made our visit on what turned out to be a glorious May Day (well, May 3) afternoon.

The sign that greets you as you enter the Song Qingling Exhibition Hall 宋庆龄陈列馆 sets the tone. Truth be told, other than marrying Sun, and choosing to side with the Communists at the end of the Chinese Civil War (proving that she could tell which way the winds were blowing at that time), it's hard to see what made her "one of the greatest women of the 20th century". But as this is an officially-sanctioned museum (and free of charge to visit), it's best to keep such potentially heretical musings to oneself and just enjoy the photographs:


Sister May-ling with Chiang. Attractive, Christian and fluent in English, it was she who mesmerized the U.S. Congress, and convinced the American public and its elected officials that it was better to side with the right-wing dictator of a corrupt regime instead of trying to find common ground with the new leadership of the world's most populous country:


Mr. and Mrs. Sun Yat-sen. I was surprised to learn that their 1915 wedding took place in, of all places, Tōkyō 東京, though the captions didn't explain why:


Soong's wedding dress:


Soong pictured with General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, probably talking about their mutual aversion to "peanuts". The general's career was ruined in part by Ching-ling's sister (the one who slept with Cash My Check):


Here Soong is seen with Máo Zédōng 毛泽东. While the exhibition hall covers her work with the Communist Party, including her stint as a deputy in the National People's Congress 全国人民代表大会, no mention is made of what Soong went through during the Cultural Revolution 文化大革命:



In contrast to the hagiography of the exhibition hall, Soong's outdoor tomb was surprisingly modest:



Also low-key was the statue nearby, unlike the figure depicted holding doves of peace in the museum foyer:



Skipping the "celebrity cemetery", we walked over to the small international cemetery near Soong's tomb, where my daughter checked out the grave of a Japanese couple, Mr. and Mrs. Uchiyama 内山:



There were some recognizable surnames on a few of the tombstones with strong connections to Shanghai, such as Sassoon and Kadoorie...:



...and some headstones explaining why these non-Chinese are buried here:



But most of the grave stones gave no information other than the person's name:



The grounds also contain a sad children's museum. Although there are displays extolling the recent successes of the Chinese space program, quite a number of the so-called "hands on" exhibits were not functioning properly, and everything looked as though it was laid out in the 1970's and hadn't been updated since. Of most interest were the mini propaganda comic books, which were being completely ignored by the kids present this afternoon, but were being avidly read by adults who presumably remembered them from their childhoods:



It was with a great sense of relief (especially from my Kuomintang 中國國民黨-supporting spouse) that we finally left the grounds of the Song Qingling Mausoleum for the short drive to that bastion of Japanese capitalism known as Takashimaya 高島屋, where an exhibit of a different kind was being held inside the department store:



It's been 25 years since Chibi Maruko-chan ちびまる子ちゃん made its debut in anime form on Japanese television. Amber used to watch the show when we lived in Taiwan, and judging by the crowds of young women present at Takashimaya this afternoon, it's also very popular in China:




Maruko-chan's enduring popularity is mainly due to the chord she strikes with Japanese women of a certain generation. The stories are based on the real-life experiences while growing up in Shimizu City 清水市, Shizuoka Prefecture 静岡県 of the manga's creater, Miki Miura 三浦美紀. I'm not sure what sort of connection is felt by Chinese or Taiwanese women born after the cartoon's debut in Japan in 1990, but the adventures of Momoko Sakura さくらももこ appear to be of greater relevance to the current generation than, say, Soong Ching-ling, demonstrating that there's still hope for the youth of China:





















Sunday, April 26, 2015

Bar none at the SWFC

It's a funny thing: I'm terribly afraid of heights. Watching YouTube videos of daredevils dancing around atop unfinished skyscrapers, of workmen climbing up radio towers or of Chinese hikers walking along narrow ledges while facing thousand-foot drops always leave me with an uncomfortable feeling in my bowels. Conversely, however, I find myself drawn, like a moth to a flame, to places such as mountaintop lookout points and skyscraper observation floors. Which is how we came to be in Pŭdōng 浦东 this afternoon (Saturday), to visit the 492 meter (1614 feet)-high Shànghăi World Financial Center 上海环球金融中心. Lonely Planet describes it as "astonishing"; "disappointing" would be more accurate...

Looking out over Lùjiāzuĭ 家嘴 after lunch at a Japanese restaurant in the IFC Mall, we were surrounded by the district's highrises. In the photo below, the building on the left is the Jīnmào Tower 金茂大厦, which we visited last October; on the right is Shanghai Tower, the second-tallest building in the world and due to open at some point later this year, though it'll probably happen after we've left:


I've been told that fifteen or twenty years ago, Lujiazui was still primarily a rural area:


Approaching the Shanghai World Financial Center. The building's most distinctive feature is the "bottle opener" at the top. The story goes that the original design called for a circular opening, but some people found that too uncomfortably close in appearance to the Japanese Red Sun, so the shape was changed to its present rectangular oblong. Every time I see this building, I always have the urge to drink a bottle of beer:


It wasn't cheap to get in - 180 RMB ($29) for an adult for a ticket to the 94th, 97th and 100th floors (children under 140 centimeters in height are half price, and the staff carefully measured my daughter to see if she should be charged the full price - she barely qualified for the child's fare). The views from the 100th floor (the top of the bottle opener section), unfortunately, were not spectacular enough to justify the steep cost (or to validate the guidebooks' enthusiasm). What had started out in the morning as a clear blue sky had turned a little hazy by the time we finally made it to the top floor, which isn't the fault of the company managing the observatory. However, they certainly could've installed windows that would've allowed clearer views (and photos). We saw more of Shanghai when we visited the Jinmao Tower and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower 东方明珠广播电视塔, both of which could be seen from the windows of the SFWC:


The view from the opposite bank of windows on the floor was actually more interesting, as the sprawl of housing developments stretched out toward the horizon:


We could also look down on a luxurious condo complex:


There was a lot of traffic on the Huángpŭ River 黄浦江:


The sections of the floor with transparent glass made Amber very nervous:



We then made our way down to the 97th floor, the bottom part of the bottle opener, where the views through the glass were marginally better:



My daughter felt better on more solid flooring:


The last floor, the 94th, had the least interesting views, but was the best of the three, thanks to the cocktail bar located there. The Shanghai World Financial Center lacks a 360-degree vista, but it does offer the Sky 94:


Back on terra firma, and walking through the nicely-landscaped Lujiazui Park (the statues need to go, however):



Amber made some foreign acquaintances there:


The verdict on the SWFC is that it isn't worth the exorbitant admission fee. That being said, the Park Hyatt Hotel between the 79th and 93rd floors probably does provide amazing views for its guests (if the smog cooperates and stays away). And as our time in Shanghai is starting to wind down, at least another item has been checked off the bucket list. Pudong accomplished...well, almost:












Saturday, April 18, 2015

Chengdu, Part 2: Big ass Buddhas

Size does matter

Our friends Barbara and Jeff seemed to have enjoyed themselves while they were here, but China is still China, after all, and there's only so much a sane-minded individual can put up during a visit. When I proposed during our four-day, three-night excursion to Chéngdū 成都 that the five of us make a day trip to Lèshān  乐山 to see the world's tallest Buddha statue, they blanched at the idea of riding two hours or more on a typical Chinese bus (as opposed to hiring a van and driver for the day) and decided instead to stay in town. And so it was that my wife, my daughter and I set out on our own to experience one of the country's better-known sights.

What does it say about our hotel room when the best view was to be had from the bathroom?

We actually arrived in Leshan in less than two hours' time from Chengdu's gritty Xīnnánmén 新南门 tourist bus terminal, then took a taxi to where the Grand Buddha 大佛 has been sitting for the past 1200 years or so. The driver didn't drop us off at the main entrance, but took us to another gate further down the road. However, upon discovering that at this window we could only buy the more expensive admission tickets that included entry to something called the "Oriental Buddhist Theme Park" (which we had no interest in seeing), we had the cab take us back to the main gate, where my wife was able to battle the scrum (with her husband acting as her bodyguard) to secure the more reasonably-priced admission tickets to the Grand Buddha (and a couple of other minor sights). Perhaps our friends had made the right decision to stay in Chengdu.

Once inside, we made our up the steps to where the Grand Buddha was carved into a cliff face overlooking the spot where two rivers, the Dàdù 大渡河 and the Mín, meet. Below us, sightseeing boats were doing a busy trade:


We approached the Grand Buddha from the top, beginning with an up-close-and-personal look at his massive head:



A staircase leading down to the base of the statue was already choked with traffic, even on a late Friday morning. One can only imagine what the place is like on weekends and national holidays:


It wasn't a pleasant experience making our down the steps (again, I was thankful it was only a weekday), but the views of the Buddha compensated:




There were smaller carvings in the cliff side, as well, to give yourself something to look at when the Grand Buddha was temporarily out of sight:


At last, we reached the bottom, where we could take in the statue in all its glory. It was finished around the year 803, and upon its completion, the swift river waters became calm and boatmen could proceed with their work in safety. It was truly a blessing that was achieved by dumping massive amounts of rock into the river during the carving process. The statue is 71 meters (233 feet) high; the ears stretch for 7 meters (23 feet); the shoulder span is 28 meters (92) feet in length; and each of the Buddha's big toes is 8.5 (28 feet) long. In short, the Grand Buddha is an impressive sight, an amazing feat of engineering and well worth the effort to get to Leshan:




The girls were impressed:


Amber provides a frame of reference:


With more time, it would probably have been interesting to have taken of one of the numerous sightseeing boats to get another perspective on the Great Buddha (for one thing, there are two guardians in the cliff side that are only visible from the tour boats). But with our time limited, and having had our fill, we kept walking along the steps away from the giant statue until we emerged onto this classically Chinese scene:


Before reaching the bridge, we ducked into the Máhàoyá Tombs Museum 麻浩崖博物馆 to examine a collection of tombs dating from the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25-220):



The small museum contained artifacts excavated from the tombs:



From the museum we crossed the arched bridge, and walked up and over the hill to Wūyóu Temple 乌尤寺, which was established during the Tang dynasty (the same era as the Grand Buddha), but later underwent significant renovations during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The main hall fronts the Dadu River:



Away from the main hall is the Luóhàn Hall, which houses around a thousand terracotta arhat figures (those who have reached nirvana), with no two being alike, as well as a statue of the Goddess of Mercy (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit; Guanyin in Chinese):



At this point it was 3 o'clock, and we had tickets for the 3:30 bus to Chengdu, but the timing didn't look too good. Amazingly, however, we made it...just. First, by hopping on a bus going back to the main entrance to the Grand Buddha, the place where we had first bought our tickets. Across the street, a taxi had just dislodged its fare and was pulling away, with Pamela in hot pursuit. Apparently, the driver saw her in his rear-view mirror, frantically waving her arms, and stopped. We made it to the bus station with about five minutes to spare; as the three of us were the last ones on the bus, the driver took off then and there. A typical lane-weaving, horn-leaning Chinese bus driver, he had us making good time back to Chengdu, until we hit the late afternoon rush hour:

From the bus station, we walked along the Wangjiang River, which would've been a pleasant stroll had not the Chengdu city planners decided the sidewalk would also be suitable as a dedicated lane for speeding, horn-blaring motorbikes:

Before reconnecting with Barbara and Jeff, the three of us had dinner at a chuànchuàn xiāng restaurant, a type of spicy hotpot using meat and vegetables on skewers (you pay by the skewer) that is a local specialty. Things don't get more authentic than this, right down to the greasy residue left behind when we finished. Our friends from overseas, being vegetarians, probably wouldn't have enjoyed the meal; they most definitely would not have liked the nearby public toilet used by restaurant patrons and everyone else in the vicinity:


We eventually made it back to the hotel just in time meet up with Barbara and Jeff, and catch a taxi to the Jĭnjiāng Theater 锦江剧场 for an evening of Sìchuān opera, a Chengdu musical tradition with a history going back some 250 years. Well, what we actually saw were snippets of traditional opera, along with lasers, special effects and civic boosterism, and all of it set to a techno soundtrack. The show was clearly aimed at tourists, especially non-Chinese ones, but it was thoroughly entertaining, with the highlight of the evening being the "face-changing" 变脸, in which the performers change the masks they're wearing with such speed that it feels more like a magic show than an opera performance (I didn't make any videos, but you can see an example here). The best part was seeing the puppet that not only could change its face like the human actors, but was also able to spit fire:





The next morning, I took a walk around the streets near out hotel, catching a glimpse of the elusive Chengdu Giant Panda as it was scaling the Uniqlo building:

The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base 大熊猫繁育基地 and the Great Buddha at Leshan made our visit to Chengdu a worthwhile excursion (with more time, I would've loved to gone hiking at Éméi Shān 峨眉山), but I don't think I would've liked living and working there. I'm sure there are a lot of great restaurants, as well as things to do at night, but the air quality is poor and the city is just, well, too Chinese at times. And as to what that means exactly will be left to your interpretation...: