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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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.

First day of vacations? Feed fish

Schools and colleges close today for winter. Wondering what to do over the next few days? I have one idea from the large pool in Guagnzhou’s museum of Cantonese Opera. People do this everywhere in China. Go feed fish.

The result is really colourful.

Some day I must remember to carry a little bit of boiled rice with me when I go walking through parks in China. Apparently that’s a harmless thing to feed them. And it is easily found.

Encountering Cantonese Opera

I walked past the ornate door which you see in the featured photo and entered the world of Canton Opera. I don’t ever think of looking for shows of Chinese Opera when I’m in China. I’d spent a month in Beijing and the thought never entered my head. Now I was in a museum dedicated to Cantonese opera, and kicking myself for not thinking ahead to check whether there is a show to see. This looked so interesting that The Family asked “Why didn’t you think of getting tickets to a show?” I don’t have a defence. But now that I think back, buying tickets to a show in advance has never worked out. The worst was the time that The Family’s handbag with her passport was stolen before we could get to Vienna for the concert by the Staatsoper for which I had bought tickets.

The Cantonese Opera Museum (粤剧艺术博物馆 Yuèjù yìshù bówùguǎn) is a large complex on Enning Road. For people like us, with no previous exposure to this form, it was an interesting introduction. There were short explanations of the early history of the opera, how it was carried to Guangdong by the Song emperor when he fled the Mongol invasion in the 12th century, and its subsequent flowering. There were explanations in good English. I read about the different kinds of stories, and the history of touring companies. When I got to the props I was really astonished. Wouldn’t you be if you came across a cabinet with the variety of headgear that you see in the photo above?

The clothes they used on stage were equally gorgeous. If I’m not mistaken, the blue robe with the dragon on it is supposed to be used in a style of plays called man. The long white parts of the sleeves are special to this form, and are used to express elegance and refinement. The other set of robes is then used in the style called mou, which is more action oriented.

The false beards and hair, the boots, were placed next to a screen which displayed an actor applying make up. This is a very elaborate process, and can take hours. The elaborate makeup reminded me of Kerala’s kathakali. Later, when I watched a video of an actor on stage, the exaggerated motions again reminded me of kathakali. I wonder whether there is a connection between these forms of dance theatre. There was contact between Kerala and Guangzhou during the Ming era, so it is not impossible that there was a bit of cultural exchange.

These costumes look so colourful that I’m sure we would have enjoyed a show. Cantonese opera is supposed to be full of song and exaggerated movements. We watched some of the videos in the museum and resolved that the next time we are in southern China we will try to get tickets to the opera. After all, they have an unbroken tradition stretching over eight centuries. And I’m sure I’ll enjoy seeing the false beards and wonderful hats that the characters will wear.

We had not expected anything like this when we arrived, and left feeling happy with all the new things we had seen. And that includes the beautiful glass paneled door which you can see in the photo here.