Lingnan life

In Guangzhou you can’t help reading about the Lingnan style of architecture, without learning much. The old classical Lingnan style was built around the structure of life of those times. The high-rises of today are the same across all of China. When you try to find out more about the modern Lingnan style you are referred to examples: the Chen Clan Academy or the lobby of the White Swan Hotel in Shamian island. What I understood was that the Lingnan architectural style referred to adaptations to the warmer climate of southern China, including the materials used. As an example, the open verandahs of the Museum of Cantonese Opera that you see in the featured photo channel air over water to cool the surroundings.

I walked through the museum asking myself whether I could think of it as an example of the modern Lingnan style of architecture. The wood and clay tiles that are used in these roofs could possibly count. The clay tiles insulate against heat. The decorative fired black clay panels just below the roof are holdovers from older Lingnan architecture. So this combination would count as Lingnan.

The large pool and the cascading water from the rocks in the middle of it are definitely in the Lingnan style. Chinese gardens from across the country use water and rocks, but such a large open pool, not shaded by trees, is unlikely to be seen in Shanghai or Beijing. Pools there reflect the greenery of large overhanging trees. This one does not have the feel of the pools and streams in the Summer Palace of Beijing or in Shanghai’s Yu garden.

This part of the complex induced a sudden sharp burst of nostalgia. The banana trees and the coloured glass panels in windows reminded me of one of my childhood homes. The combination of hot-climate plant and glass designed to block out the sun would definitely make this part of the vocabulary of the Lingnan style. In fact, walking around the neighbourhood you can see many more examples of these glass panels on doors and windows.

A Bougainvillea flower floated on a stream full of carp. This was again typical of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. This plant does not grow well in the cold of China to the north of these provinces. In fact when we flew in to Guangzhou, the sight of Bougainvillea growing in the city made me think of the balcony of our flat in Mumbai where we have managed to get two of these plants to grow. The carp is common across China, so between the two, this is a Lingnan voice speaking.

The building above the museum has a tower with the upturned corners which some people say typifies this style. I also liked the adaptation of modernity in the simple rectangular glass windows. They would not be out of place transplanted to the Barcelona Pavilion. The building stands next to the pool whose photo you saw above. So, together, they take modernity and Lingnan’s old architectural vocabulary and merge them together.

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Around Shillong

The thing I usually enjoy about traveling is talking to people who see the world differently and seeing the world they have built around themselves. I was a little apprehensive about traveling with my clan of cousins and nieces: would we be sitting somewhere chatting all the time? That’s a lovely way to spend time, but then why not go to nice beach resort and stay there? To my surprise, traveling with the clan turned out to be very interesting. I was surrounded by chatter and Instagram at all times. But also, everyone was happy to take in the kinds of things others wanted to do. This meant that the number of things we could each do was smaller than what each of us might have wanted to do on our own. What we gained was that we did things we wouldn’t have done otherwise. So here is my view of Shillong; please add a soundtrack of constant ribbing and laughter, and conversations about what to do next.

I love these little local restaurants of Shillong. The food you get is simple: rice and meat, ja and doh. The Family is not into tiny roadside eateries. Niece Moja was on a keto diet and refusing all rice, but Niece Mbili was game for anything, including jadoh. I’d tried jadoh snam (jadoh cooked in blood) on my previous trip to Meghalaya, but this time around I didn’t get to try it again. These small restaurants are clean, very crowded at lunch time, and invariably serve jadoh. We passed the place you see in the photo above at a time when service hadn’t started. Momos are a big draw too, but to my experience it is treated as a snack and you need to go to different places to get them. Usually a cart piled with steamers will be waiting at the exact spot where the urge for a momo or two comes over you. What a coincidence!

This century old building, now turned into a hotel was the most distinctive Assam style house that I saw. This beautiful style uses some brick and mortar, but also a lot of wood and always has corrugated metal roofs. The chimney sticking out of the roofline in this connects to an old fireplace. Hotels have switched to electrical heating these days, fortunately, but a century ago a blazing fire would have kept you warm in a draughty place like this.

In the evenings these little restaurants in Shillong attract their regular clientele. They seem very special to this part of the country: serving up a small selection of food, mainly momos, and tea, they fill a social niche which cafes do elsewhere. We noticed groups of young people gathering at these places quite often. I liked the look of this place as we passed: bright colours, a mural on the wall, seating along the sides, the kitchen right behind the counter.

Shillong peak was inaccessible on the one day we could actually make up our mind to go there. Not a problem for us. We stopped for chai at a roadside restaurant and found a good view. This must be well-known, because a large friendly signboard told us that we were standing at Lumpdeng View Point. Shillong looked warm and welcoming in the late morning sunlight. From here we could see that the Assam style houses have not given up the good fight against the concrete monsters. Perhaps the monsters will win in the end, but perhaps heritage conservation movements will kick in to preserve some neighbourhoods before that cancerous growth kills the town.

The Emperor’s Lane

Tianzifeng is a tourist magnet which we’d missed when we first visited Shanghai a few years ago. Tianzifeng is famous for preserving a piece of Shanghai’s architectural heritage by changing its usage. In the second half of the 19th century Shanghai and several other concessionary port towns of China developed neighbourhoods (called lilong) with two or three story brick houses. This style of architecture is called Shikumen. At one time over half the houses in Shanghai were built in this style.

The construction boom of the early part of this century began to replace Shikumen style neighbourhoods with modern high-rise apartments. The area called Xintiandi was actually torn down, and then in a belated recognition of the historical importance of this kind of architecture, was rebuilt in the old style. In Tianzifeng (literally, the lane=fang of the emperor=Tianzi), on the other hand, the old neighbourhoods were retained. This is obvious when you enter the narrow lanes which now hold clothes, design, and jewellery shops, along with an equal number of restaurants. There were crowds, but very few were foreigners.

We were happy to see that not all the houses had become shops. This will never again be the organic neighbourhoods of the kind that we’d seen in Beijing’s hutongs, or the Li Wan district of Guangzhou, but there are a substantial number of people living here with doors firmly closed to tourists. The high walls and strong doors are the origin of the the word shiku men (stone gate). When this style was new, the walls jealously guarding their sliver of garden would have been much talked about.

If you are wondering why I don’t have the full door in the frame in the photo above, this photo shows you the lane in which it stands. These narrow streets make up the lilongs of old Shanghai. The lane was not wide enough for me to stand back and get the whole door into the frame, although my phone camera does have a wide angle. We walked out of the lanes into the high-rise neighbourhoods of modern Shanghai. Right opposite the exit was a large mall with three stories of food stalls near the street level, and other shops above. Life is changing rapidly in China.

Family holdings

Four of us were dawdling in Mawlai. When I’m with nieces then every few steps seems to be an Instagrammable opportunity. Our progress down the lane towards our Clan Bus was very slow. While they Instasnapped their stream of consciousness, I began to push my camera through every closed gate I could see to take photos of the houses behind them.

These were really picturesque houses. many built in the old style with slanted corrugated metal roofs. Meghalaya builds against the monsoon. After all, Shillong is only 61 kilometers from Mawsynram, which is the wettest place on earth. Mawsynram gets 11.8 meters of rain a year. Shillong gets 3.3 meters of rain a year, which is substantially larger than what Mumbai gets. So I wasn’t surprised to see the pitched roofs.

I was also not surprised to see the verandahs. These were placed where you could drip off excess water if you got drenched in rain before reaching your house. Also, it would be great to sit on one of these verandahs with a steaming cup of chai watching the rain. The houses were very similar to the style that I’d seen in Kerala, which is another place which gets heavy monsoon rains.

As we were busy photographing the houses and exclaiming over the well-maintained garden each had, a lady who’d been tending the garden came out to talk to us (you can see her in the featured photo). After asking us the usual questions (where were we from, what were we doing there, was this our first trip to Shillong) she started telling us about the houses. It turned out that she and her sisters owned three of them. The others were owned by other grand-daughters of her grandmother. Halfway through this description it dawned on me that among the Khasis property is held by women, and passes from mother to daughter. When I threw a question about her brothers into the conversation, it sank without a ripple. She wished the best of luck to the nieces as we left.

Shanghai re-deco

With a boom in 1930s nostalgia, China is adapting. Some of this adaptation is dusting off forgotten landmarks, some is redecorating things. Sometimes for an amateur like me it is hard to tell the difference. The Family and I walked down Hankou Road in Shanghai, and came to a building with a facade which confused me a little. If there had been no balconies here, I would have immediately thought of it as an Art Deco building. But the balconies break the clean lines which I always associate with this style.

The Family said “We can take a closer look, if you want.” So we walked into the lobby of the hotel. The port of Hankou stands on the Yangtze river and has lovely Art Deco buildings. Was Hotel Yangtze on Hankou Road an Art Deco building? The illuminated glass ceiling of the lobby confused me. It could be Art Deco, but the lobby looked cramped. Most Art Deco buildings somehow manage to look airy and grand, no matter how small a space they occupy.

The staircase came down in a nice sweep, but again managed to look cramped. The corridor between the lobby and the entrance could have jumped out of a 21st century re-imagination of a Flash Gordon movie. But was it real? The circumstantial evidence was too overwhelming. I noted down the name of the architect, Li Pan, and thought I would look it up later. I did, and I couldn’t find him listed among the names of the architects involved in Shanghai’s Belle Epoque. Nor did old guidebooks list this property as something to watch out for. But of course, hotels change names. Even street addresses change: roads are renamed, buildings renumbered. The problem seemed unsettled.

Eventually I found a Li Pan: an architect practicing today, also called Paul Lin Pan. And that opened a key. According to the somewhat confused records that I have found, the hotel was designed by a Li Pan in the Art Deco style and completed in 1934. However the renovation in 2007, also seems to have been done by a Li Pan, and it has been panned for adding extra touches, like the “zig-zag lines” on the facade, which weren’t there in the original. I wonder whether this confusion of architects has something to do with the Chinese cultural attitude to authenticity (I have been confused by this again and again). Comparing a picture in an old postcard with the new facade shows at least this difference. So this falls somewhere in the spectrum between real and fake, not far from real Art Deco.

6 o’clock at the Bund

The lights came on all along the Bund at precisely 6 in the evening. The western bank of the Huangpu turned into a bright gold colour which suits all the banks which look out on the river. The Family gasped, and I think a ripple ran through the crowd as everyone turned from looking across the river towards Pudong to behind them. The Family loves this area; ever since I’d proposed a trip to China, she had her heart set on an evening strolling along the Bund.

It’s worthwhile coming by early. We’d crossed Zhongshan East Road just before the sun set and seen the high walls of the bund covered in a vertical garden. The Bund is a flood control wall (as the Hindi word indicates) built in the 19th century at the time that Mumbai’s merchants, Victor Sassoon, the 3rd Baronet of Bombay, and others, settled north of the Chinese town and poured money into developing this new city. This is a history that is slowly fading from the memories of both sides of the Himalayas, but deserves to be remembered.

The green coloured pyramidal roof that you see in the featured photo belongs to the Peace Hotel, formerly Victor Sassoon’s flagship Cathay Hotel. The domed building in that photo (at the extreme left) is the Bank of Taiwan. This stands on Jiujiang Road. Across the road (The nearest building in the photo above) is the Forex trading center, and then the large frontage of the Bank of Shanghai. A few more banks down there is an area full of nice bars with good views.

Across the river lights had slowly come on in the modern high-rises of Pudong. Unlike the Bund, these lights are not coordinated. This is a delightful sight, which The Family and I enjoy every time we see it. The 470 meter high bulb-on-a-stick of the Pearl Tower, the dark bulk of Shanghai Tower (at 632 meters, China’s tallest, and the second highest building in the world), and the bottle-opener shape of the 492 meter tall Shanghai World Financial Center dominate the view. We didn’t want to cross over to that side today. After chatting with groups of Indian tourists who needed someone to take their photos against this iconic background, we climbed down from the Bund.

We walked west along Fuzhou Road for a couple of blocks. This is an interesting part of Shanghai. Most of the buildings date from the late 19th century until the Japanese invasion. It is an urban historian’s delight, with beautiful buildings and interesting histories. Unfortunately, Shanghai’s Museum of Urban Planning does not say much about this area. I would love to walk around this part of the city with a detailed guidebook of a kind that does not yet exist. It would certainly be as interesting as walking around Manhattan south of the 59th street. At the crossing of Jiangxi middle road and Fuzhou Road we came to this interesting set of buildings openings into a circle. We took a few photos and walked north.

Two blocks northwards is East Nanjing Road, the spectacular pedestrian shopping street which is usually so crowded; the lack of crowds indicated peak dinner time. We walked away from the Bund towards the warren of streets with interesting restaurants closer to Renmin Park. Ahead of us, the double spires of Shinmao International Plaza rose almost a hundred meters from the roof of the building to touch the 333 meter mark. This would be tall anywhere else, but in Shanghai it is an also-ran.

The Baron of Bombay in Shanghai

Charmed by Guangzhou, we landed again in Shanghai. In some ways this remains our favourite Chinese city. We’d taken a hotel on Nanjing Road for the night since The Family wanted to stroll again on the Bund. Unknown to most Chinese, Shanghai bears a close connection with India, especially in the 70 years between the American Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China. This was a time when Indian merchants traded extensively with India. The word bund, is of course, a Hindi word meaning a flood control wall. That’s exactly what Shanghai’s Bund was built to be. Another connection is with Mumbai, through Victor Sassoon, the 3rd Baronet of Bombay, who in the 1920s and 30s invested several millions of US dollars (of that time) in Shanghai, created a real estate boom, and is said to have owned 1800 separate properties in downtown Shanghai. The Baronet was different from other traders. His family had sunk money into the development of Bombay in previous generations. Now he put his wealth to work at the development of Shanghai.

The most famous of his properties is the one originally called the Cathay Hotel, and now the Fairmont Peace Hotel (featured photo). Sometimes called the Sassoon House, this first high rise structure in Shanghai was completed in 1929. The Art Deco building has a granite face, and a pyramidal roof on the Bund-facing side. The hotel’s guests included Charlie Chaplin, Bernard Shaw, and Noel Coward (who wrote his play Private Lives while he was here). During the Cultural Revolution the Gang of Four stayed here. When I told The Family about its once-famous Jazz Bar, she wondered whether we should go in for a drink. As we discussed this, she turned and found that we were standing in front of an obviously Art Nouveau structure. This is the southern half of the Peace Hotel, and was called the Palace hotel when it was completed in 1908.

We pushed through the revolving doors into the lobby and took a few photos as a bemused guard looked on. This hotel once had Sun Yat Sen as a guest, and was later commandeered by the occupying Japanese Army. I wondered whether the elevators here run in their original channels. This building, after all, had the first elevators in Shanghai. The mechanism would have been replaced long back, but it is unlikely that the lift shaft would have been reconstructed. We gawped, and then slipped away to the Bund.

Bruce Lee lived here

There’s the standard Bruce Lee related lore which everyone knows. He was American by birth, lived mainly in Hing Kong, and was the star of four full length movies made in the last four years before his death at the age of 33 of cerebral edema. There is a long page on him in Wikipedia which I read after I realized that his father, Hoi-Chuen Lee, was a famous star of Cantonese opera, and lived for a while in the Yongqing Fang complex on Enning Road in Guangzhou. The stories that go along with the recent renovation of this complex are that this was Bruce Lee’s ancestral home (false, because his paternal grandfather’s house is in Foshan town in Guangdong province, close to Guangzhou) or that young Bruce grew up in this house.

This is not impossible, although I couldn’t find independent documentation. Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940 while his famous father toured the US in Cantonese opera shows in the Chinatowns of that country. At the end of 1939 Guangzhou came under Japanese occupation, and his parents took him back to Hong Kong when he was three months old, and just before Hong Kong came under Japanese occupation for almost four years. Immediately after the end of the war, Hoi-Chuen Lee resumed his acting career, and could have spent brief periods in Guangdong with his wife and son.

The Yongqing Fang complex has turned into a mixed use neighbourhood which allowed me to see the Xiguan style of housing up close. This is the kind of development that has allowed Shanghai to retain its old Shikumen style architecture in the areas called Xintiandi and Tianzifeng. Like those areas, this place is filling up with trendy little cafes and restaurants, and art galleries, cheek by jowl with people living in some of the houses. The mural that you see in this photo captures the unique style of doors that I saw on Enning road (the panels on the back of the hands). This mural was a very popular selfie point.

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We made a beeline for Bruce Lee’s father’s house. From some photos I’d seen in a travel guide, I’d expected a small museum dedicated to Bruce Lee inside. Surprisingly, all that had been stripped away. The house was bare, but with enormously decorative internal doors. Since everything but the brick and woodwork was stripped away, the bare house was a great place to view Xiguan style houses. I walked up the wooden stairs which you see in one of the photos in the slideshow above. The Family refused to make this climb. Upstairs were a few rooms and an open terrace which looked out on the street. It wouldn’t be a small house for a family of three.

The place was full of slightly disappointed fans of Bruce Lee. You could tell who the fans were if you stood by a painting of the star on the rolling shutters of a neighbouring building. All the fans would come and pose here. I indulged in a little more of ambush photography here. My favourite fan was the lady who had her husband pose very reluctantly in front of this portrait. I discovered that The Family was a Bruce Lee fan when I was co-opted to do a shoot of her in Kung Fu poses in front of this painting. I wonder whether someone ambushed our photo session.

I liked the redevelopment because I’m a tourist, but it surely must feel like a bit of an imposition to the people who still live here. I wouldn’t have wandered through these alleyways unless if they hadn’t been restructured to draw in people like me. I understand that Xiguan, and Enning Road, were desirable addresses until the Japanese invasion, but fell into bad times after that. The opening of the museum of Cantonese opera and the renovation of this Yongqing Fang complex are part of Guangzhou’s efforts to rejuvenate the area. This will of course undermine the quiet charm of this currently low-key part of town, but eventually it may be a good thing for Guangzhou.

I was not surprised to find a cafe like this in the complex. I’d expected very high quality espresso, and I was not disappointed. China has reached the stage where a young person can dedicate several years of his (or her) life on doing a little thing very well and make a decent living by it. This young barista here does coffee and cakes well. We sat here and discovered that the morning had gone by, and we were running late for lunch again. Eventually we found a Japanese restaurant in the complex and sat down for a quick lunch.

But before that I could indulge in my new passion for ambush photography. It is, of course, a form of street photography, but differs from the usual runs of street photos in that you ambush a group of people who are posing for another camera. It could be a professional movie or fashion shoot, or a group of friends taking each others’ photos, or a photographer and her model, or a person taking a selfie. Ambush means that your camera captures what was meant for another camera. This photo came out well, and when the group realized that I’d taken their photo there were the usual questions about which country we came from. We left after sharing smiles.

The discrete charm of Enning Road

Tourist guide books don’t talk much about the Liwan district of Guangdong. A bland entry in Lonely Planet pointed us towards Enning Road, with the Bahe Opera’s guild hall. When we go there late in the morning we were totally flabbergasted by the gentle charm of the place. This was not what we had expected at all. This was a superlatively relaxed neighbourhood, where time seems to have halted in the 1930s. We were so charmed that we kept going back here.

Street signs pointed out the one thing that we knew about this area. The Family asked “Have you heard of Litchi bay?” I hadn’t yet. But looking for it gave me an entry into the literature on this area. A century ago this was the western end of the city, so the area was called Xiguan (western customs gate). The Lizhi bay was a maze of water channels which permeated the area and connected to the Pearl river (Zhujiang) immediately to the west. It was home to the Bahe guild of the Cantonese opera, and it was said that you could always hear music in Xiguan. We didn’t, but then Cantonese opera has fallen on relatively bad days.

We walked along admiring the atmosphere we saw. The photo which you see above was one I took quite randomly just because I liked the sun filtering through the trees. We walked through arcaded roads and admired the roadside eateries where people were already sitting down for lunch. This reminded me of the Xintiandi area of Shanghai, where we had walked into back streets and tried to find lunch at one of the simple and crowded eateries there.

We passed a moon gate. I’d come to associate moon gates with gardens or other ceremonial entrances, but here it just served as an entrance to a block of houses. Was this moon-gated community special in some way? There was no way for us to find out, although I would have loved to hear the story behind it, if there is one. Should we go in, I wondered. The Bahe Guild Hall closed at noon, so I decided to hurry on.

It took us some time to find it. When we saw that the road signs no longer pointed to the Guild Hall, we realized we’d passed it. I asked someone, and they looked at the phone and directed us back down the road. The Family was certain that an interesting set of doors was where it was located. There was no sign giving the name of the place, but after asking a few more people, we found that it was indeed the place that The Family had noticed. Unfortunately they seemed to be closed for the day. The doors were barred, but not shut. There was no one around who could let us in. We decided to explore the area a bit more.

One of the specialties of Enning Road is brass. Near the Bahe Guild Hall we saw a brass worker tapping away at his wares. A basin was shoved under a leaky tap to catch the drips of water that inexpert plumbing had not stopped. Next to it was a bench. I sat down and observed the man at work, while The Family looked more closely at the things on display. This shop specialized in kitchen-ware, and about half of the things on display would be perfectly at home in an Indian kitchen. The other half is special to Cantonese food with its reliance on steaming and braising.

There were other shops which specialized in the little bronze and brass pieces which would be perfectly at home in a tourist’s suitcase. We stopped to admire the laughing Buddhas and the dragons, but stayed on to examine the rabbits and ducks. The pieces on display were clearly interesting enough for locals as well. Guangdong was the origin of the first Chinese diaspora, and there are many ethnic Chinese people who live in the US, but remain strongly rooted here. I wondered whether shops of this kind also cater to their tastes.

The most obvious architectural feature of Enning Lu is the arcaded street. Another is the very distinctive doors that I saw here, and nowhere else in Guangzhou. The patterns of the red, white, and green glass are consistent across the whole neighbourhood. I wonder whether one business made a killing supplying doors to all the houses on this road. When I saw a bicycle parked in front of such a door, I realized that there was a photo which captured the spirit of the place. China today is a place which embraces modernity, perhaps even defines it in some ways. At the same time it clings to certain aspects of the past. The combination of a modern bicycle and a century-old door seems to be a nice visual to say this.

We discovered a museum of Cantonese Opera a little further down the road, and then came to a little warren of lanes which contains a house where Bruce Lee may have grown up. We had not planned on spending time at any of these places. In our earlier visits to China we’d found that this is another country where you can have wonderful experiences just walking around, following your nose. So our planned schedule in China now allows for serendipity. We also admired other specialties of this street, such as furniture. The prices were comparable to those which we would pay in Mumbai, and the pieces looked nice. If we’d needed something then we would have tried to figure out shipping. But since we were not in need of furniture, we could just admire the pieces.

Eventually, when we walked back down the road towards the nearest Metro, we passed the Bahe Guild Hall again. This time the doors were definitely shut. We admired the two layers of safety: the scary guardians at the back, and the more mundane sliding bars across the front, secured with a single chain and lock.

The Chen Clan’s Place

I had a quick look at the history of the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall of Guangzhou before we left India. It came highly recommended, but I was faintly disappointed to see that it was built as recently as 1895 CE, and that too by two Chinese-Americans who returned to Guangzhou. The intention was to provide a training academy for the Imperial civil service examination to young men (I don’t think women took the exam then) from the 75 families of this clan. Within 15 years the exams were history, and the clan turned its holdings to other ends.

An exit from the Chen Clan Academy metro station deposits you right at the door of the complex. The free standing gate which we saw (photo above) is a staple of travel posters and coffee table books about Guangzhou. I’d seen this photo of the gate in a book in our hotel room, and had no idea where it was. I was surprised and happy that it was here.

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The decorations on the external walls are stunning: whether they are representations of birds (as in the featured photo) or googly-eyed lions, phoenixes goosing pigeons, scenes from Cantonese opera or the countryside (as in the slideshow above). The clay images overwhelm your eyes, and I found that I had to examine them one by one in order to make sense of them. Not being tuned to the asymmetry of the Chinese decorative style also presented a problem which I had to resolve by scanning these clay images very slowly. The result was that it took me a long time to just walk into the complex.

The entrance is past these grand doors with their painted dwarpalas (heng ha er jiang in Mandarin). I saw many of these fierce guards painted on doors in Guangzhou. I suppose that by the late 19th century CE every one wanted their doors to be guarded by such guardians. Space must have been too precious to install the statues that earlier would guard temple doors. So the paintings were a neat cultural evolution. I was so engrossed in looking at the arms and armour carried by the dwarpala that I nearly missed the lion-head knockers on the doors.

I guess I will write another post about what we saw inside. But one thing that I need to put into this post are the lovely doors we saw inside. They are a little battered today, but they are elegant in a very understated way. “Quite different from the rest of the decorations” The Family said when she saw them. I wondered how they escaped unscathed through the cultural revolution.