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.

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Ivory work of Guangdong

Four years ago I read news about the Chinese government destroying large amounts of smuggled ivory in an effort to curtail the illegal trade. Ivory trading is now banned in China, but most of the remaining trickle of illegal trade now passes through Guangdong. There is a reason for this. Ivory carving is an old traditional craft in Guangdong province. I had not connected these pieces of information until I saw the small exhibition of ivory carving in the Chen Clan Academy in Guangzhou. The 19th century oil painting of a mandarin on a sheet of ivory (featured photo) is not something that needs to be repeated today, since a work like this could well be executed on some other surface. It is an interesting style though; the treatment seems completely western.

The most stunning piece was one called “March into the Great Southeast”. This was carved by Guo Kang in 1958. The incredible piece (a detail from which you can see in the photo above) is carved from a single tusk. The rendering of the scenery and of an army toiling through it are stunning. This is, of course, a piece of propaganda in the style of Socialist Realism, but that does not subtract from its value as art. It translates the subjects of classical Chinese paintings quite accurately into this other medium.

The ivory carving of an 11 layer boat was made in 1990 by Pan Chuju. The details are stunning. Just that chain near the bottom edge of the photo, carved out of a single piece of ivory, would be a major technical job. The cantilevered bell, the decorative elephant heads, and all the little details are stunning. While I could appreciate the technical mastery involved, the piece somehow left me a little cold.

There were many smaller pieces. This small 19th century brush washer was typical of the exhibits. The artful asymmetry and visual balance places it quite definitely in the Chinese aesthetic tradition. The Family and I stood in front of this piece. As I thought about the kind of wealth and leisure that this piece implies, The Family said “Let’s go and see the paintings.”

Food on Di Shi Fu Road

One of the differences between India and China that hits you after a few days is the lack of dessert with meals. The Chinese like to order fresh fruit with lunch or dinner. I’d noticed this first when a colleague took me to a restaurant famous for Peking duck, and ordered fruits with the duck. Nibbles of fresh fruit actually enhanced the enjoyment of the fatty meat of the duck. Perhaps because of this, Chinese meals do not usually come with a dessert.

The first time I walked down Di Shi Fu road in Guangzhou, I saw this long queue outside the building which holds Guangzhou restaurant. I looked more closely at the counter to see what was being served. It looked appetizing, and I’m always tempted to stand in long queues outside food stalls, because the queues would not form if the food was not special. But I’d just come out of the restaurant, and while my spirit was willing, my stomach vetoed the idea. There was so much food to explore in Guangzhou that I never came back to this place, unfortunately.

Sour plum soup counters seemed to be everywhere across China. I liked the fact that the people at these two neighbouring stalls were spending their slack hour chatting with each other. I took several photos because I liked the effect of the steam and the light, but the pair never noticed me. Now, looking at the series of photos, I realize that the main story was not the light, but the two people here.

One place I kept going back to on this road was the little cafe off to a side called Waterworks (although the Chinese character only says water). It is typical of the new China; a few people have dedicated their time to making good coffee and they are working really hard at it. I was happy to help out their business, and I succeeded in my small way, mainly because their hours were quite long.

Ceramic socialist realism

During one dinner in China, after much alcohol had been downed with toasts, conversation turned to calligraphy. I was surprised to hear the general opinion that Mao Zedong was considered to have produced very good calligraphy in the classical style. Recently, seeing that the brochure of the Tate gallery’s exhibition of Social Realist art from China quoted Mao extensively, I realized that he was quite strongly aware of the potential of art to subvert or accelerate social change. As early as in the Yan’an conference of 1942, Mao made statements that prefigured the philosophical basis of what came to be called the cultural revolution. This is an example: “The life of the people is always a mine of the raw materials for literature and art, materials in their natural form, materials that are crude, but most vital, rich and fundamental; they make all literature and art seem pallid by comparison; they provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source.”

A part of the permanent exhibition in the Chen Clan Academy of Guangzhou is a roomful of small glazed ceramic pieces which are clearly made in the Social Realistic style. The pre-communist nationalist movement created a ferment in the art world, with many artists experimenting with western styles. This was carried to an extreme in Social Realism, as you can see in the examples here (notice the fedora carried by the man who takes the bull by the horn). Looking closely at these pieces, I realized that there is an individuality to each. Within the constraints of the system, they are still expressive of the artist’s vision. What else does one ask from an artist but technical mastery and individual vision?

The heritage of pottery

According to Wikipedia, the Chen Clan Academy was saved from destruction during the Cultural Revolution by local officials who converted it into a printing press for publication of the works of Mao Zedong. Today, it is saved from obscurity by making it into a museum of folk crafts. The first thing we noticed is pottery. Glazed pottery is, of course, one of the ancient Chinese arts, so we were very happy to find several cabinets full of wonderful pieces here.

The gold-painted glazes called Kwon-glazed pottery are perhaps what an untutored eye like mine recognizes most swiftly as Chinese pottery. Private collections all over India and Europe are full of these. Interestingly, these were only produced for export during the last years of imperial China, during the Qing dynasty, in Guangzhou. Plain pottery was sourced from Jingde town, and coloured and glazed to order. The Chinese government in 2008 recognized it as an intangible cultural heritage, like the other three styles that we saw here.

It is possible that Kwon-glazing was trying to rip-off the 1200 years old tradition of Fengxi porcelain. Pieces from this town in Guangdong province have bright colours on a high-gloss white background. The decorative pieces we saw here were well chosen examples of the traditional figures, largely drawn from opera and historical stories. I loved the dramatic poses, and wished again that I’d got to see the opera. This kind of pottery is also very visible in private collections in India and Europe.

The more earthy Shiwan pottery is actually my favourite. I like the thick and dark, but glossy, finish of these figures. The Family had collected a few small pieces during her student days, and my mother admired them hugely when she first saw them. The human figures are not elegantly operatic, but are in the style of peasants: sitting or working. I liked this pair of partridges clinging to a steep rock. This style comes from Foshan town in Guangdong province, and apparently developed during the Tang dynasty, perhaps 1400 years ago.

Nixing pottery from Qinzhou town in Guangxi province, near the Vietnam border, can be seen in every tea trader’s stall in China. These are the beautiful unglazed red earth teapots that I kept thinking I should buy. One of the cabinets here held several pieces which were not connected to tea. I learnt that over ten thousand people are involved in this craft today. The variation in colour comes not only from the clay but also by small variations in the temperature at which pieces are fired. The pieces are similar to others which are found across south Asia. My grandmother swore by the unique flavour imparted to food and water kept in unglazed fired-earth pottery, and I found that the Chinese also have variants of these feelings about the use of Nixing pottery.

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.

Guangzhou’s new town

We got off the metro at the Zhujiang New Town station and emerged blinking into this showpiece set inside the Tianhe district of Guangzhou. That elegantly curved shell of a building (featured photo) must be the Government Affairs Service Center. The gold building behind it was not a Trump Tower but something called the Nanyue Mansion. Behind that you can see the building which has the Agricultural Bank of China. We gawked, clicked a few photos and crossed the road to stare at a small plaza full of the whimsical public art of China.

It was lunch time, and I’d located a branch of a famous eatery in a building down here. This is the new central business district of Guangzhou. Banks and other financial institutions, government buildings and technology companies occupy the high rises in this new town. We’d first thought of finding a hotel here, before we realized that the Liwan district would be more fun.

The tower that you see above is not one of the tallest, but I found the shape very attractive. I wouldn’t mind an office in one of the flat diamond shapes cut out of the corners. I’m sure the view would be excellent. The tower stands right behind the opera house, and faces out towards the Guangzhou library and the Guangdong museum (below). These buildings together define the heart of the cultural center of the new town. Between them runs a garden (Flower City) which crosses several blocks in its north-south alignment. Below this garden lies the Automated People Mover (APM) rapid transit system. The APM connects the Canton Tower in the south to the Linhe West station in the north. Although the area was designed first in the late 1980s, businesses began moving in only when the APM was completed.

The Guangdong Museum was designed by the firm called Rocco Design Architects, who won an international competition for the design based on a puzzle called the ivory ball carving. To the north of this is the equally impressive Guangzhou public library, which I have written about earlier.

In comparison to these, Zaha Hadid’s design of the opera house looks dull at first sight. TheIFC building which looms behind it catches the eye instead. However, when we walked in, the usual touches of Zaha Hadid’s designs became obvious in the fractured perspectives of the interior. Each view is interesting, and the design creates lots of visual barriers which restrict the view, converting the space into many little nooks which each give an intimate feeling.

There was no show running. This seems to be a bit of a problem. International companies do not come here often enough, and the Cantonese Opera shows never seem to run here. Is there a little bit of a pricing issue at work? We couldn’t figure that out. The Family asked about tours of the interior and found that they are given in the mornings. We would have to come back another day. Our good intentions were not strong enough; we never came back for a tour. We took the APM and went on to see the Canton Tower.

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.

Window shopping

Years ago, when I first came to China, I walked into a bakery expecting to be totally surprised, but was terribly disappointed. There were only competently made variations of what you would find in a bakery across the world. I couldn’t believe it; so much of Chinese food is surprising and wonderful, why couldn’t bakeries deliver the same level of surprise? I still can’t believe it. After a decade I still can’t pass a bakery or a sweet shop without looking in to see whether there is a surprise waiting. Some of the stuff one sees now is a visual surprise, like the baked cats in the featured photo.

But many bakeries remain completely predictable, like the one you see in this photo. The Family and I were happy to sit down in this bakery in Haizhu district for a coffee and a cake (more of a late afternoon tea, actually), but there was no surprise other than the wonderful competence of the master baker. I’m beginning to get used to the idea that there are people in China who dedicate years of their life to perfecting a technique, whether it is baking or calligraphy. This kind of obsessive attention to detail was something I’d come to expect in Japan long back; now I’m seeing a blooming of the same excellence in China. It is a pleasure to bite into a slice of chocolate cake and forget for a moment that you are not in Vienna. Predictable, yes, but in a good way.

There are other places, now less fashionable, where I can still expect to be surprised. Walking about in Liwan district, I ducked into a crowded shop to look at the display of moon cakes. I call them moon cakes, but they aren’t really; it’s just that I don’t know the correct name for these traditional pastries. The fillings can be surprising. The Family and I could not agree on which one to try, so we packed two of each. It wasn’t a bad idea. We got to eat them all through the next day. Window shopping at bakeries is dangerous, you could gain weight.