All was calm, but not quiet

To say that we arrived in Shillong on Christmas Day would be to stretch definitions a little. We left Guwahati airport on Christmas morning, but the Clan Bus made very slow progress. It was after five in the evening when we rolled up to Laitumkhrah. Not only had the sun set, it was pitch dark on the road. The Family was not going to let the family loll back on their cushions. We had tea and broke open the Christmas hamper we had bought from Bandra. Then, suitably ballasted by the wonderful plum-cake, we set out to the well-lit cathedral on Laitumkhrah main road.

The grounds were bustling. A good fraction of the population of Meghalaya is Christian, and the area we were living in not only had this cathedral but also a Baptist church, a Pentecostal church, and a Mizo church. We passed bunches of impeccably dressed young people hanging out in the church grounds. I spotted tea being served and made a beeline for it. I can’t overdose on caffeine. A long queue shuffled forward quickly, and I soon had a steaming cup in my hand. What was that flavour? Niece Tatu identified it, “Bacon, isn’t it?” Everyone clutched their cups and set out to explore the place. I stuck to the little chapel on the lowest level (featured photo). A large statue of St. Mary dominated one wall; this must be St. Mary’s Chapel, I brilliantly deduced. A priest stood near the entrance smiling at people and shaking hands with parishioners. Niece Moja plonked down on a pew and started catching up on her messages.

I planted myself outside the chapel. While The Family and a few others went to explore the cathedral on the upper level, the rest of us took photos of each other in different combinations. It turned out that the cathedral was closed, but there was enough of interest to see. I looked for a refill of the bacon tea. Niece Mbili was game. We found some biscuits to go with it. The place looked cheerful with the lights and people, but there wasn’t much happening. It seemed to me that families were coming by to greet the priest, chatting briefly with acquaintances, and leaving. Younger people hung out a little longer before leaving in groups. Soon we had our fill of the lights, gathered stragglers, and left. We were faintly disappointed. We’d expected buskers and music groups, but maybe we were a day late for that. Luckily we had walked, because the traffic was a nightmare. The next day was going to be long.

(All photos by The Family; it seems that while taking photos of people I forgot to take photos of the place we were in.)

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Plato’s coffee shop

A search for coffee in Shanghai one morning brought home to me Plato’s theory of forms. Plato famously put forward the notion of ideal forms and our perception of them in terms of what we call todau Plato’s Cave. In this analogy, we live in a cave, and the ideals roam outside; we perceive them only through the shadow they throw on the cave wall.

I saw this small coffee shop and walked into it. There were a few customers waiting at the bar, a few at the small table behind, sipping their lattes. The number of baristas was larger, and they were really busy. I waited at the bar, and eventually someone took notice of me. “May I have an espresso?” I asked. There was a double take. “Ok, have you ordered already?” The girl at the counter asked me. Some gears wouldn’t move in my head. “Uh. No. Can you take this as an order?”

As we talked, her phone pinged multiple times, and each time she would swipe at something on the screen. The mud slowly slid off the cogs of my mind, and the machinery started grinding. This was a place which took orders by some phone app. Customers were walking in briskly, picking up their orders and leaving. I noticed this as my order was entered into a queue. Eventualy my mental machinery noticed that there was no payment being made. So the credit transaction was also on the web. This was truly Plato’s coffee shop. Almost everything was on the web, and I was only seeing the shadow of this commercial venture in the brick and mortar shop in front of me.

Sure enough, when I received my coffee and asked whether they would take cash or card the machinery ground to a halt. About seven people had a conference. “Cash,” was the answer. I didn’t have exact change. There was a hunt for change. Someone had to go out and get change for me. I was beginning to feel sorry that I’d disrupted this smoothly functioning venture by actually walking in off the street. Office goers gave me discreet lookovers as they took their lattes and walked off.

Process automation seems to always exist in the world of ideals. I seldom find project designs which can also exist in our cave of shadows.

Litchi Bay

On our last day in Guangzhou my flu was at its peak. I slept all day in our hotel room while The Family explored the parts of Liwan district that she’d wanted to go back to. At three in the afternoon I woke feeling better, and we decided to go have a small snack in the historic Panxi restaurant, and explore the Litchi Bay scenic area around it. This involved a walk down Enning Road, which was charming enough that we didn’t mind doing it again.

The “scenic area” was a sprawling garden between two canals connected to the Pearl river. A few days ago we’d spent our first evening in Guangzhou loitering by the Pearl River in Shamian Island. We sat down below the massive trees which you see in the featured photo and talked about how we’d been next to the water during every sunset in Guangzhou.

If we’d come here earlier we might have been able to take a boat through the canals, but right now they were coming in to moor. We stood near the jetty and saw little nuclear families of China disembarking, little children excitedly running around as soon they got off the boat. Streetlights were slowly coming on, and we had to begin thinking of our dinner. In China this was already past dinnertime, and most people were thinking of their post-dinner entertainment.

The Chinese middle class seems to have more leisure time than in India. A group of friends playing cards (or some other game) together in the evening is not uncommon at all. Not all the people in this group seem to be retirees. Also, Chinese cities, even vast cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai, have lots of gardens and open areas where young children can run around playing. This is so very different from the daily experience in a city like Mumbai. China, for all its different political system, has been building a comfortable lifestyle for its middle class. The disposable income of the middle class definitely exceeds twice that of their Indian counterparts, resulting in much better quality of goods and services in their cities. The public transport, and the entertainment areas are just two aspects of this difference.

This has been done without sacrificing a traditional lifestyle. We discovered basins of fruits drying in the sun by the roadside. It was such a wonderfully domestic sight on Enning Road. We stood there and watched locals wander by, probably talking to each other about the odd foreign couple looking at nothing in particular.

Earlier in the evening when we walked past this very ordinary door, I did a double take. There are really two ferocious dwarpalas guarding this house. The brickwork is common in this area. I never gave in to my great desire to scratch at the brick to find out whether this is just cement paint over red fired clay bricks (which we saw in the Yongqing Fang complex) or cinderblock bricks. If you happen to know, please let me into the secret in a comment.

This cannot be an everyday sight even in Guangzhou. The guy in the chicken costume was playing a little flute and saying something. I suppose the explanation is fairly mundane, perhaps an advertisement for a restaurtant, because in spite of this outlandish costume he didn’t seem to attract too much attention. It is common in China for people to stand outside shops and shout out to passersby to attract them; sometimes walking down a commercial street feels like a war on your ears. But this was pretty unique.

We briefly considered walking into that fancy looking restaurant across the square from Panxi. It seemed like a welcoming place. But I was too tired to cross the road. I stood at the corner and took a few photographs. There was a dinner-time quiet, very few cars on the road, and not too many people. Bicycles are not as common today as the iconic photos of Chinese roads from the 1960s and 70s could lead you to believe; but in the Liwan district I found many people on bicycles. Maybe I’m imagining things, and a quick look at statistics would prove me wrong, but it seemed to me that electric scooters are more of a thing in Shanghai. In Guangzhou bicycles are still preferred to these electric scooters.

Coffee is relatively expensive in China, but I like a shot of espresso in the late afternoon. We found a nice cafe next to a canal and sat down with a cup each and watched the restaurants across the canal slowly fill up. Since it was our last evening in Guangzhou we talked about what we’d missed (all the memorials and museums related to the Republic) and the wonderful unscheduled things that we had seen. When we chose to stay in Liwan district we had some inkling that we would see the China outside the guide books, but we had not expected to be so thoroughly charmed by it.

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.

Setting the Zhujiang on fire

Shanghai is the acknowledged party town in China, but Guangzhou is no less. We spent the early part of an evening on top of the Canton Tower, taking a spin in the space pods. The rides here are great fun. I chickened out of the free fall, afraid of the state my spine might be in after a drop, but I regret missing it now.

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And late night, walking back home, there is always street food. China is fun.

Sunsets in Guangzhou

Let me end the year without fuss with two sunsets from Guangzhou. The city once known as Canton is a place where the water and solid land intermingle. It is a city of islands and bridges, perfect for sunset photographs.

This was an interesting year. Hope your next one is even better.

The six banyan trees

Our temple circuit of the Yuexiu district of Guangzhou had taken in Confucianism, Islam, Daoism, and was to end with the Buddhist Temple of Six Banyan Trees (Liurong Si). Unlike the other three, Buddhist temples in China are never oases of peace or calm. People come here to ask for their needs, and it seems that enough people feel that their prayers and answered to keep more coming. Crowds peak before the national university entrance exams (the gaokao), but this was off season.

On the day of the New Year’s Lantern Festival there are long queues here to light incense. As we entered, a monk seated at the door handed us some of the sticks to light. We looked admiringly at the obviously powerful Dwarpalas. One of them serenely played a lute while crushing evil-doers under his feet. Another kept a watchful eye on a pagoda, presumably this very one, while doing heavy crushing with feet. Being pretty non-evil, we passed unscathed to deposit lit incense sticks into the large pot in the middle of the courtyard kept for this purpose. We are not only non-evil, we are also polite guests.

Between the Dwarpalas was an enormous laughing Buddha. It is so strange that a wandering monk who roamed another country, preaching the virtue of becoming nothing (nirvana), has become confused with jolly old Ho Tei, a monk from the 11th cetury CE. We went into the Daoxian Baodian (Great Buddha) hall to see the three brass statues that are supposed to have been made in the 17th century CE, during the time of the Kangxi emperor. These Qing dynasty statues (featured photo) represent Amitabha, Gautama, and the Apothecary (left to right). I liked the pink lotus flowers with hidden LEDs in the ceiling above them.

The statues of the Buddha in a niche outside the pagoda which you see in the photo here was decidedly different in style. The features are Indian, for one thing. The very ornate bronze piece below the pedestal could be from the Indonesia or Thailand, but the simple brass one could well be from India. There was no plaque here which I could translate. The other photo shows a martial figure. At first look I’d thought it could be the emperor Ashoka, but then found it could perhaps be Weituo, a general who had a hand in recovering the relics after they were stolen.

The Flower Pagoda (Hua Ta, above) is the center of the temple. It holds the ashes of a particularly saintly Cambodian monk, which the temple was constructed to hold. The pagoda would have been built in 537 CE, rebuilt after being destroyed in a fire in 1057 CE, survived the Mongol invasion, but had to be rebuilt after another fire in 1373 CE, and restored in 1900 CE, during the last decades of the empire. The name of the temple has an equally tortuous history. It was called the Baozhuangyan temple at the time of its founding, then became the Changzhou temple, and later the Jinghui temple, before a 10th century poet, Su Dongpo, named it after the six banyan trees he saw here. The banyans are long gone.

The famous five

Although I’d managed to figure out the shortest walks between the various temples in this neighbourhood of Guangzhou, I hadn’t factored in the time that it would take us to see each of them. So, by the time we arrived at the impressive gate of the Temple of the Five Immortals (Wu Xian Guan), we were pretty far behind our schedule. Still we paused to admire the two stone qilin flanking the entrance. The qilin are described in the West as unicorn, but these had no horns. They are shown with the head of a dragon, but with an animal body with four hoofed legs. These had a body which looked scaled, but probably represent flames. Qilin are shown in flames. Their use as doorkeepers in this Taoist temple probably has the symbolic meaning that only good people can pass between them.

It seems that the five immortals arrived in this place during the 9th century CE riding goats of five different colours, and gave a present of rice to the people of this place. This said to be the origin of the name of the city; according to this etymology, Guangzhou means the city of goats. We never got to see the five goats statue in nearby Yuexiu park, so it was good that I’d taken photos of the stone goats in this temple. These are apparently the petrified remains of the goats that the immortals rode. According to plaques inside, the temple was founded in 1377 CE, in the spot where a shrine stood earlier. The main wooden structure is said to have survived since the founding of the temple. Given the many disasters which the city passed through, I wonder how accurate this claim is. However the woodwork is certainly admirable.

An important thing to see here is the stone with a couple of depressions. These are called the footprints of the immortals. The bit of water which has collected in the depression and the large number of turtles basking on the stone make it an obviously lucky and powerful spot. We joined the few other people who were busy taking photos of this site. North of the stone is a small garden, which looked inviting. We walked along it and saw the famous bell tower called the First Tower of Lingnan (below).

The tower holds the bell cast during the founding of the temple, and therefore dating back to the foundational years of the Mings, and the early years of the Hongwu emperor. Since China was still in an unsettled state at this time, I wonder whether the idea was to use this bell partly as a military warning system. The founding of the temple carried the symbolism of a China reunified under an emperor who claimed that he was the Son of Heaven. The bell is massive, and the tower apparently serves as a resonating chamber for it. As we left I wished we’d had the time to explore this place more slowly.

The Smooth Pagoda

It took us a little effort to find the address of the Guang Ta (meaning smooth pagoda). Not unsurprisingly, it can be found on Guangta Road. It is a quiet neighbourhood, and when we got to the 36 meters high structure, it was unmistakable. A man sitting and watching me take photos called out from inside a shop “It is more than a thousand years old.” I was surprised that he spoke English, and turned to thank him. The earliest version of the tower is supposed to have been built on this spot in the 7th century CE, so it was about 1300 years old. Tradition has it that it was Abu Waqas, one of the companions of the prophet, who arrived in Guangzhou and had this minaret and the associated mosque built in 627 CE. There is some controversy about this claim, although the date of founding of the mosque is unchallenged. I could imagine the confusion that a tall structure like this must have created locally, leading to it being called a smooth pagoda. In any case, it has long been regarded as a landmark in Guangzhou. This is likely to be of fairly recent vintage.

The Huaisheng Mosque has burned down and been reconstructed many times, but its date of founding would make it one of the oldest mosques anywhere in the world. Having seen the Grand Mosque of Xi’an some years ago, we were prepared for the very Chinese layout, with a succession of courtyards leading eventually to the prayer hall at the northern end, which you see in the photo above. The large paved courtyard in front of it is meant to hold people who do not fit into the main hall. We peered through the doors of the hall. The layout is what you expect in a mosque: a minbar (pulpit) at the western end next to the main mihrab (prayer niche). In front of this is a large open hall which would, during prayers, hold the ranks of the people who come here to pray.

The calligraphy above the minbar captivated me. I don’t read Arabic, but I could figure out that the leftmost group contains the characters for Allah. The calligraphy is recognizably Arabic, but the look is influenced by Chinese writing. It is interesting in the same way as the architecture of mosques in China. The basic purpose of the mosque is retained in the minaret, the prayer hall, and the courtyard. However, the architectural sensibility within which these elements are placed are very different from the design which has spread with the Arab diaspora. The 13th century churning of the world in the wake of the Mongol invasions must have brought the two traditions into contact, but did not destroy them. The thought that the world is large enough for these two styles to coexist makes me happy.

I turned around to see that another group of visitors had arrived and were busy taking photos of each other. They were speaking some dialect of Chinese, but had distinctively different features. I suppose they were visitors from one of the western provinces. As you can see in the photo, the woman is wearing a headscarf and the men have caps; this is a strong indication that they are muslims. You can also see a low fence around the courtyard. This is said to have been built during the Tang dynasty, although the modern version is made of concrete.

As we left we saw that above the exit was a juxtaposition of two different traditions of calligraphy. The Arabic has the pride of the place, but below it, embedded into the stone, is an incription in Chinese. The Chinese calligraphic tradition asks us to admire the fluidity of the strokes. The Arabic tradition emphasized the decorative quality of the entirety of the inscription. It is interesting to see them together.