Yellow Crane Tower

Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou have battled and got control of pollution in the city, but Wuhan has not yet. Added to the muggy heat of summer, it is at least as uncomfortable as Mumbai is before the arrival of the monsoon. So I should have been a little more careful about choosing to walk up snake hill to see the Yellow Crane Tower than I was. It was the most uncomfortable bit of tourism that I’ve done. But the view from above compensated a bit. The featured photo shows the Yangtze river, with the first Yangtze bridge of 1957, and the TV tower of Hankou on the far side.

The Yellow Crane Tower of today is a concrete structure completed in 1981 standing on top of the Snake Hill in Wuchang. The earliest references to the tower come from the 8th century, and agree that it was a watch tower on the banks of the Yangtze river. The rebuilding of a classical tower, famous in Chinese poetry, within five years of the death of Mao Tse-Tung, in the town where the first republican revolution took place, must have been a politically fraught act. I could not find contemporary writing about it, but it is interesting enough that I will continue to search.

The statue of Yue Fei (photo above) a little bit up the hill is a must see, if only because it allows you to stop and have a swig of much needed water from the bottle you remembered to take with you. Yue Fei was a 12th century general in the Southern Song dynasty, considered to be one of the great generals of Chinese history. His greatness has grown in the 20th century, as parallels were drawn between his situation and that of the communists in the war years.

I took the stairs up the tower and was immediately drenched in sweat. Fortunately, on the balcony on each floor there was a nice breeze. The interior was beautiful. I find it remarkable that even after the Cultural Revolution, China has managed to retain the skills of painting and calligraphy, sculpture and woodwork. In fact, not only retain, but create such a ferment that contemporary Chinese art is one of the most dynamic in the world.

This interior was not dynamic and contenporary, but more of a theme park. The two story high ceramic work of a yellow crane flying over a representation of the tower is a study in contemporary kitsch. Two women posed below it for a photo. One of the upper floors had a special room for visiting poets. I guess I will have to practice being drunk enough to mistake the reflection of the moon for the one in the sky before I am let into this room.

This kitschy park, a recreation of an imagined past, as unreal as the 19th century reconstruction of Carcassone in France, embraces its kitsch very openly. A huge bell can be rung for luck, and a man sits in front of it collecting money. Stone lions sculpted recently sport deep moss. Everyone knows that this concrete tower dates from decades after the destruction of the original site to make way for the Yangtze bridge, but thinks of it at the same time as a Taoist holy place. China shows how fungible human beliefs are. We just need to believe, and anything can come to stand for what we believe.

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Finding the Jade Buddha temple

I’d put off visiting the Jade Buddha temple in Shanghai for several years. Six months earlier when The Family and I had passed through Shanghai twice, we decided to visit other parts of the town. Now that I had half a day in town before catching a flight back home, I decided I must repair this oversight. How do you get there? The simplest way for me was to catch Metro Line 13 and get off at the Jiangning Road station. There are very useful maps inside metro stations telling you about the neighbourhood (I’ve painted the temple in pink in the map here), and I figured that I needed to take exit 3, walk back a little and then walk back west a bit until you hit the first cross road, and then take it two blocks south. In any case, the temple complex is visible as soon as you walk a few paces, so there is no worry about not finding it.

Temple walls are easily visible in China because they are often painted in the bright ocher colour that you see here. Online guides had been a little confusing about whether you can take photos inside, but I figured that this was China. People take photos constantly. I passed the wonderful red doors that you see in the featured photo, paid up my small entrance fee, and walked in. Families were busy taking photos. I felt quite at home taking a large camera out of my backpack.

The temple was first set up in 1882 CE to house a gift of two Burmese white jade Buddhas from the Jiangwang temple. It was abandoned after the Republican revolution of 1911, and restored by 1928. It took me some time to find the reclining Buddha. It is the smaller statue in one of the last halls in the north. Interestingly, it is not even the most prominent figure in the room. I left off searching for the other figure, which is on an upper level. I’ll definitely pass through Shanghai again, and this is as good a place to come back to as any other.

An official banquet

An official banquet in China is quite an experience. There is the round table with its Lazy Susan which is slowly loaded with more food than you think you can eat. The featured photo shows a small selection of a banquet. There is the amazing sweet and sour Mandarin fish; amazing for its knife work, the way the fish seems to grow quills as it is cooked. The duck-shaped dish above it contains slices of Peking duck, served with chapatis (yes, that is a more appropriate translation than pancake) and plum sauce. You can also see a wonderful mushroom called black fungus and an interesting dish of pork lung in chili sauce.

Niece Mbili looked at the photo of the menu (above) and asked “Which ones did you order?” She was blown off her feet when I explained that you don’t choose. Everything on the menu eventually arrives at the table, the dinner continues for several hours, and a lot of baijiu drunk during the dinner. I rather like the sweet pumpkin stuffing that you get in China.

Korea in Shanghai

I’d given myself half a day in Shanghai, because it is such a lovely city to walk around in. I decided to have lunch somewhere in Xintiandi. As I walked out of the metro station I saw something which was not there four years ago when I came here to look at shikumen houses: a whole new lane opened to tourists (featured photo). It can’t be too easy to live in such a place, with thousands of tourists tripping in and out. When I take a photo in such a place I make a mental bow towards the family altar of the household which might be inconvenienced.

I noticed a fairly long queue of people standing quietly in front of door number 4. The door was firmly shut, but the reason was clear from the plaque next to it. This small building was where the Korean Government was in exile during the years when Korea was under Japanese occupation. For me it was a little bit of unknown history, but clearly not to the Korean tourists who were going to wait another half an hour for the museum to open.

Nine years after the Japanese invasion of Korea, a democratic constitution was adopted by the provisional government, then in exile in Shanghai, in April 1919 CE. It took as its main purpose the nurturing of an independence movement in occupied Korea. This government had to shift to Chongqing after the fall of Shanghai in 1937. Eventually three years after Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945 (exactly 74 years ago today), the provisional government dissolved itself. The first president of the Republic of Korea was Syngman Rhee, who was also the first president of the provisional government.

I would have liked to see the museum, but I did not have too much time to finish my lunch before getting back to the airport. I’ll probably come through Shanghai again, so I resolved to come back to see this museum in the future. Right now I had a photo of the neighbourhood and the stone lined door which is the literal meaning of shikumen. I took a last photo and left.

Surprising Chinese Food

What could be surprising about Chinese food, you ask? Isn’t it all chop suey and sweet and sour chicken, spring rolls and sweet corn soup, chili chicken and gobi Manchurian? On my first visit to China a few years ago I was surprised at how wrong this is. Noodle soups were only a quick stop for lunch. After working my way through many pleasant surprises, I settled on stir fried veggies with slices of meat, lots of different kinds of veggies on the side, and a bowl of steamed rice as a default comfortable dinner.

For dinner with non-Chinese friends on my last visit to Wuhan, I walked into a nice large restaurant full of people. Negotiating a menu is no longer impossible, now that everyone is equipped with apps that look through the camera or translate speech instantly. It may still be hard to understand what the translation means (an example is in the photo above). One of the dishes we ordered was billed as a fish soup, and the lady who was taking our orders added that it had eggs. A little confusing, we thought, but let out order stand. The result was a complete, but pleasant surprise. It looked like a custard (featured photo) but tasted of fish soup. It came studded with mussels. It was one of most delightfully different things I’ve come across for half a year.

I forgot to take note of what it is called. Can an old China hand help me out with guesses about what its name might be? (Thanks to a fellow blogger, I now have an answer. It is called 蒸蛋羹, Zhēng dàngēng, ie, steamed egg tart, or 蒸水蛋, zhēng shuǐ dàn, ie, steamed water egg).

A weekday evening

One of the great stories of the end of the 20th century is the lifting of about half a billion people from China into the world’s middle class. That is about ten times larger than the middle class in India. When I return from a trip to China, people are always curious about how the Chinese middle class lives. They commute to work in buses and trains, and sometimes cars. Their day’s commute starts at about 5 in the morning, and ends between 5 and 6 in the evening. Dinner is early, so that by 8 they are free to relax.

The video you see here was taken in Wuhan on a weekday night. In most cities in China, when you pass by a housing complex you see something like what I captured in it. Women exercise with dances (there are two groups in this video), parents are out strolling with their children, there is a lot of socializing in the neighbourhood. It looks like a nice and relaxed lifestyle. But, of course, I haven’t lived it from the inside.

Three views of the Third Yangtze River Bridge

Last week I was in a meeting in Wuhan, a city that tourists overlook. This powerhouse city in central China was the origin of the successful Republican revolution which overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911, and, in succeeding years, became the capital of the nation for brief periods. One of its sights is the Soviet-era bridge across the Yangtze, the first modern bridge to be built across the river. That was in 1957. Other bridges have come up since then. I find the third bridge very photogenic. The featured photo is a view at sunset, just as the lights came on.

Walking between two tall brutalist concrete blocks, I looked up to see the nearest tower of the three and a half kilometer long cable-stayed bridge, lit up by the afternoon’s sun on the day of the summer solstice. This was a lucky shot because it had threatened to rain all day, and the sun had just briefly come out as I walked out towards the bridge. This is not a very famous bridge, having been completed in 2000 during a period of intense construction. Its main span is 681 meters, which makes it only the 31st longest span among cable-stayed bridges today. Still, I liked the looks of it.

It passes right next to the Hilton. I crossed a road and walked out under the bridge where a little riverside promenade has been built up. This was a cheerful place with families walking around. A toddler inspected me carefully as I took this shot, teetering and nearly out of balance. His father smiled at me. In most other countries my bright red phone causes people to recoil a little. In China it does not draw a second glance. Red (红 = hóng) is a lucky colour, and very common. What a strange happenstance that the colour of the French revolution of 1789, found its way through the Paris Commune, and its adoption by the Communist movements of the world to this country where it is the traditional colour of joy and luck.

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.

Snacking in Shanghai

It was a few hours after lunch, and as we walked around Tianzifang, I began to feel hungry again. What could I snack on? In China it is not hard to find snacks. We passed several kiosks selling skewered meat. That looked good, but did I want such a substantial snack at this time? I have a tendency to pass up perfectly good snacks until I get so hungry that I eat the first thing that I see.

We passed a nice little kiosk (featured photo) advertising a wide variety of things that I could eat. The Family knows how bad I’m at selecting snacks, and drew my attention to the various steamed dumplings. Dumplings! Do I look like a Kung Fu Panda? My attention was on the interesting looking popsicles. And was that an ice cream freezer there? I looked in. I’m never able to pass up an opportunity to take photos of ice cream. I’d just barely recovered from a flu the previous evening, and I wasn’t going to take a chance on catching another throat infection. So I walked away.

We passed a restaurant. It looked inviting. The Family knew that we didn’t have enough time to sit down at a restaurant and eat. She walked past. My hunger pangs were getting more severe by the minute, so I paused here. No menu hanging outside. I took a photo and walked on.

Somewhere nearby, inside a tiny lane we found the perfect place. Yogurt in many flavours! This was exactly what I wanted, a combination of sugar and proteins. The Family also likes yogurt, so we had our little snack here. Nice place, we said to each other as we sat at one of the tables and shared two flavours of yogurt. I was satisfied for a while, and then I said to The Family, “I think I need to eat something more.”

Tranquility recalled

As a tourist, perpetually on a short time-budget, I don’t seek out tranquility. So I’m all the more appreciative of it, especially when it comes on you inside the crowded and noisy Six Banyan Tree temple in Guangzhou, where people are busy exchanging money for spiritual satisfaction. I paused inside a hall with vast statues of various Buddhas and saw this scene. The image of the world’s most famous ascetic juxtaposed with a priest waiting patiently for his next customer was something one could not pass up.