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.

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.

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.