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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While I was sleeping

“What did you do while I slept?” I asked The Family when I finally gave up trying to sleep through my flu. “This and that. I went shopping and I took lots of photos,” she said. We went out together in the late afternoon, walking again through the Liwan district.

She showed me the photos when we sat down. She’d taken the trouble to stop in front of each of the bronze statues that the city has installed on Shangxiajiu pedestrian street and photographed it. We’d both admired these pieces of public art which celebrate the heydays of Guangzhou, the 1920s and 30s.These bronzes are evidence of China’s renewed fascination with the life of those times. I had very few photos of them, and, in fact, The Family had discovered ones that I’d not even seen. The plaques below the pedestals did not give us any information on the dates of installation or the names of artists, but, of course, we do not read Chinese. Later we searched on the web but couldn’t find any information either.

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.

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.