Follow by Email

Sunday, March 29, 2015


With the girls in Taiwan yet again, I went away this weekend to Guăngzhōu 广州, China's third largest city with a population of 12 million. Those of an older persuasion probably know it as Canton; in any event, it's the capital of the booming Pearl River Delta region. Getting there was a nightmare, however. Due to some official business that I had to take care of earlier in the day, I had reserved a late evening flight on Friday evening from Shànghăi' Hóngqiáo International Airport  上海虹桥国际机场, with a scheduled departure time of 8:30 that was supposed to have me at Guangzhou Báiyún International Airport 广州白云国际机场 by 11 p.m. Chinese airports are notorious for their delays, unfortunately, and my flight departed two hours late. It was 12:30 in the morning by the time the airplane touched down at Baiyun; 1:30 by the time I made it to the front of the queue waiting for taxis; 2:30 by the time I finally checked into the Guăngdōng Victory Hotel 广东胜利宾馆 on historic Shāmiàn Island 沙面岛; and, after unpacking and taking a shower, 3 a.m. by the time I was able to crawl into bed. Not the best of starts to the weekend.

Shamian started out as a foreign concession in 1859, and became the site of a number of Western-style buildings constructed by British and French traders, many of which have been restored in recent years...:

...but I hurried through the streets on Saturday morning as I made my way to the nearest subway station, for my destination was arguably the closest thing Guangzhou has to a "must-see" sight: the Mausoleum of the Nányuè King 南越王墓:

Zhao Mo 趙眜 was the second ruler of kingdom of Nanyue, the borders of which spanned from northern Vietnam to southern China. Considered a weak ruler, Zhao Mo died in 137 BC, but his tomb remained hidden until 1983. As a result, it was never looted, and thus turned up a veritable treasure trove of archaeological finds. The actual tomb is in the rear of the museum, and visitors can take a look in the chambers:

This is all that's left of one of the concubines that was buried along with Zhao Mo:

The most celebrated artifact displayed in the museum is Zhao Mo's jade burial suit, consisting of 2291 jade plates bound with red silk thread. It was believed at the time that jade could preserve a body following death:

More than a thousand burial artifacts were recovered from the tomb, many of which are displayed in the museum. Among the items are jewellery belonging to the concubines who were interred with Zhao Mo, although the unfortunate women had not yet reached the natural ends of their lifespans at the time they joined their king in the mausoleum:

The museum also presents artifacts illustrating the lifestyles of the people of Nanyue, from elaborate works of lacquer to more mundane items like cooking vessels:

Leaving the mausoleum, I rode the subway across Guangzhou to seek out another museum, this one located in the Zhūjiāng New Town 珠江新城 area. The contrast with the 2000-year-old Nanyue kingdom couldn't have been more jarring as I walked past the surreal opera house and the surrounding high rise buildings:

I soon found myself in a huge plaza:

On the other side stood my next destination, the equally enormous and weird-looking New Guangdong Museum 广东省博物馆:

Inside the free-of-charge facility were displays on the flora and fauna that used to inhabit the region:

Windows provided views of the outside world as I worked my way down from the top floor:

Scenes of Guangzhou from days gone by were recreated:

This dragon boat was too long for the whole craft to get in frame:

Kāipíng 开平 is a city 140 kilometers southwest of Guangzhou that is noted for its diāolōu 碉楼, watchtowers combing eastern and western influences that were built in the early 20th century by villagers who had made money working overseas as coolies. This exhibit is probably the closest I'll ever get to seeing them:

It wouldn't be a Chinese museum without displays on ceramics and porcelain...:

...though this plate made just last year has an odd juxtaposition of  19th- and 21st-century scenes:

For me, the highlight was the exhibition on Cházhōu woodcarving 潮洲木雕, with its astonishing level of craftsmanship:

The spacious interior of the museum. By this point, I was "museumed-out"; the New Guangdong Museum alone probably requires spending most of the day to properly appreciate all its exhibits:

It was with a not inconsiderable sense of relief that I left the Zhujiang New Town area. With its combination of "anything goes" when it comes to architectural designs (reminiscent of Tōkyō 東京 at the height of the Japanese "bubble economy" バブル経済) and the Chinese love of enormity, I found Zhujiang dehumanizing in its brutalism:

I fled back to the subway system and traveled to the Xīguān 西关 area, where old Canton is still holding on in places, though even here urban renewal is making inroads:

Lonely Plant's China guide recommends a stroll down Ēnnìng Road 恩宁路, though the "cultural relics" that the LP writers maintain must be seen in order to make a visit to Guangzhou complete weren't all that special, especially if you've already visited similar neighborhoods in other areas of China:

I returned to the Victory Hotel on Shamian Island in the late afternoon, and had dinner outside at a place called Lucy's:

In the evening, I met up with a friend from Shanghai who is now living and working in Guangzhou. Three Tsingtao beers 青岛啤酒 (to go with the two I had earlier at Lucy's), one Moscow Mule and a Rum-and-Coke later, I returned to my hotel and staggered upstairs to my room.

I spent the next morning (this morning as I'm writing this) walking around Shamian following breakfast. The island is small, being only 900 meters from east to west and 300 meters from north to south. Like Shanghai's Bund 外滩 and Xiàmén's 厦门 Gŭlàngyŭ 鼓浪屿, Shamian owes its current popularity with Chinese tourists to the buildings (including several old consulates) left behind by the Westerners who lived and did business there during its time as a foreign concession. The main street, Shamian Dajie, is a pleasant stretch of buildings and trees:

The Bank of Taiwan building was constructed in 1913, in the days when the island wasn't (ahem) part of China:

The most popular site on Shamian seems to be the French-built Church of Our Lady of Lourdes (1892) 天主教露德圣母堂, a popular locale for couples having their wedding photographs taken. I wanted to go inside to have a look, but the Sunday morning mass was still going on and the interior was packed:

For me, the most attractive building was the Shamian Clubhouse - the 1907 "Red Mansion" is a splendid example of British colonial architecture, though it proved impossible to get a picture of the entire facade of the structure:

The morning walkabout concluded with a stroll through the park facing the Pearl River 珠江. Soon afterward, I took a taxi back to Baiyun Airport. Karma, which had been such a bitch to me on Friday, made amends this afternoon, as my return flight to Shanghai was on time:

The verdict on Guangzhou, gleaned from my very limited stay? Imagine Hong Kong without the British legacy (you know, civility, rule of law, those sorts of things). From a sightseeing point of view, the city can be safely skipped by the tourist traveling through China. However, for those who find themselves living and working in the country, Guangzhou does seem like as good a city as any in which to do so. It has all mod cons and from what I've been told, there are numerous eating and entertainment options. The climate is warmer than much of the rest of China, and the air quality not quite as awful (though today was pretty bad).

And, besides, Hong Kong is only a couple of hours away by train.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Out with the old, in with the new

My daughter has been taking Go (Ch: 围棋; Jp: 囲碁) lessons ever since we arrived in Shànghăi 上海 almost two years ago. Periodic competitions are held at various locations around the city - if the player wins three games in the allotted amount of time, he or she gets promoted to the next level. Amber started out at level ten (for beginners) and has since progressed to the seventh level. This morning it was time to take part in another tournament, this one held at one of the sites of Expo 2010, which as I understand it was quite a big deal at the time in Shanghai. As parents were not allowed to watch their kids play, I took the opportunity to walk around the area and see what was left of the exposition which supposedly introduced Shanghai as "the next great world city". Judging from the rusting and padlocked facilities of whatever pavilion once stood on the site where today's Go competition was held, greatness was fleeting:

The site is now partially occupied by something called the Crossfire Pro-League, symbolized for some reason by a large plane parked on the tarmac:

While my wife and mother-in-law (visiting from Taiwan) waited for our daughter to finish playing, I went for a walk. Across the street was the former Russian pavilion, now standing unused:

Next to it was Lithuania's pavilion, which used to invite visitors to "Discover Lithuania inside". Inside the gutted building this morning were two angry stray dogs. It's a good thing I don't believe in omens, because Vilnius will be our next post once my tour in Shanghai is completed:

I couldn't see if the huge Africa Pavilion has been re-purposed for anything, but the former Nigerian pavilion is now Chocolate Happy Land:

Much of the former Expo 2010 is now an apocalyptic-looking wasteland, testament to the folly of governments that spend billions on national vanity extravaganzas such as the Olympics, the World Cup and the like, only to be stuck with expensive white elephants once the parties are over. It was with a sense of relief that I found myself at Hòutān Garden 后滩公园, a welcoming green space located alongside the Huángpŭ River 黄浦江. The river itself is spanned by the impressive Lúpŭ Bridge 卢浦大桥:

There was a steady flow of barges, ships and other watercraft on the Huangpu as I walked toward the bridge:

It used to be possible for tourists to take an elevator to the top of the bridge's arch, but this doesn't appear to be the case any longer:

On the other side of the Lupu Bridge:

A pair of old cranes now serve as an observation deck:

No complaints about the weather today as the sky was relatively clear and the temperature was comfortable. The skyscrapers of Pŭdōng 浦东 could easily be made out: 

The Mercedes-Benz Arena  梅赛德斯奔驰文化中心 , one of the iconic buildings of Expo 2010, is now used for concerts:

It was at this point that Pamela called to say that Amber had finished, with the good news that she had won three out of four games and had been promoted to the sixth level. I made my way back under the Lupu Bridge...:

...past the derelict Lithuanian and Russian pavilions...:

...and back to the welcoming arms of my family. The four of us then took a bus (we had earlier taken a taxi from our compound to the site of the competition) to the new home of the Shanghai Art Museum 上海美术馆. The old museum had been housed in the former clubhouse building of the Shanghai Race Club, one of the many elegant Western-influenced buildings that give Shanghai its unique character among Chinese cities:

Now rechristened the China Art Museum 中华艺术宫, it has taken over Expo 2010's China Pavilion, a massive edifice. And I do mean massive:

My daughter demonstrates just how large the museum is:

While it's good to see the pavilion has found a new purpose in life, the sheer scale is just too vast to house the former Shanghai Art Museum's collection:

The art itself is of the modern and contemporary variety, which in this context meant too many stirring portrayals of comrades happily working to build New China:

Fortunately, some of the other artworks harked back to earlier times without any politically correct overtones:

The new facility did provide some good views from its upper floors:

Amber illustrates the excess of space in the new museum:

Pamela watches a cartoon, which were the only installations that held her attention:

The real reason Communism died was that even when repressive regimes allowed their artists some creative leeway, the results were still ghastly:

My daughter proudly displays her calligraphy skills. She's more adept with a writing brush than she is with a hairbrush:

The problem with the China Art Museum doesn't lie with the cost to get in - it's free, actually (except for special exhibitions). Unfortunately, being an officially sponsored exhibition space means the artwork displayed within has to conform to the Party line. And even the more interesting works tend to get swallowed up by the sheer size of the former China Pavilion, making it hard to appreciate the development of modern Chinese art. Before we leave Shanghai this summer, I hope to get out and see examples from contemporary Chinese artists that aren't shackled by politically-imposed restrictions. Anything has got to be better than this: