Food and art fair

The Family had already explored the route our evening’s stroll was to take, so the walk was more purposeful than usual. We gawked at life on the streets of Guangzhou as we walked up Di Shi Fu road to a pedestrian section of the Kangwang South Road. A fair was in progress. I love these little fairs whether they are the Christmas markets of Germany, the weekly farmer’s markets of rural India or a different flavour of fair in China.

My eyes caught on my favourite Chinese sweets, versions of the Indian chikki or tilkut (tilgur). Nuts or sesame seeds are bound together with sugar or molasses. Wonderfully high calorie snacks. When I first found them in Japan, I was astonished. Then I found them in Korea and China. I suppose they independently invented, although it does not seem unlikely that Buddhist monks would carry these as sustenance as they trudged across Asia. In any case, this seems to be too humble and readily made to be carried as trade goods.

I tore myself away to get caught at the stall of dried fruits. This is something done well all over Asia, from the west to the east. Having seen the incredible variety in a food market in Xi’an a few years ago, my guess is that it came to China from west Asia over the silk route, and then from China it spread to the rest of Asia. I’m guessing, but one reason this might be true is that the only dried fruits in India are those that came directly from trade with Arabia. China and India had very little contact in the last thousand years. Even today, if you see dried pineapples, jackfruit, or Kiwi in India, it is likely to have come from Malayasia or Thailand.

Food was the main purpose of the fair, of course. But the peculiarly Chinese touch was that there was a large area where an art auction was in progress. I’d noticed in Guangzhou how invested people were in art: it was not uncommon for people to be seen doing painting or calligraphy, and it was not uncommon for others to stop and watch. Here in the middle of the fair I saw people were buying paintings and works of calligraphy at the auction; those are the red plastic covered tubes in the hands of people.

The Family and I stood there and watched the auction for a while. We are ignorant of the niceties of calligraphy, but the quick brushwork and washes of the paintings were techniques I’d learnt as a child. The mastery of these methods was very evident in the work being shown. Chinese contemporary art is very avant garde, but it seems to be rooted deeply in traditional techniques. The auction proceeded rapidly, much too rapidly for us to follow. We enjoyed the paintings as they were displayed one by one, and then walked back into the thicket of food stalls.

Jade market

On previous trips to China we found that the semi-precious jade (玉 yù) has immense cultural value. A guide once deposited us at the doors of a tourist-trap and told us in parting, “Unless you learn about jade you may buy coarse work.” Petrified at the thought, we made a hasty departure. But the jade market around the Hualin temple of Shanghai was a different matter. Window shopping and comparison was possible, and we spent a pleasant, but short, time walking through it. My favourite window display was the piece you see in the featured photo. I loved the polish and the veins of colour running through it. The piece itself had the pleasing asymmetry of Chinese art.

The Family had spent a long time admiring a stunning art work in the lobby of the White Swan Hotel in Shamian Island. A detail of this carved piece you can see in the photo above (photo credit: The Family). So, while she stood and admired the piece in the window with me, she lost no time in telling me that it wasn’t as finely carved as the piece in the fancy hotel. It is possible that the two were made from different minerals. Classic Chinese jade is the mineral called nephrite. This came from Xinjiang, Liaoning, Shaanxi, and Henan provinces. This is soft enough to be carved with stone and polished with sand. In the 17th century a material called jadeite was first imported from Burma. This is now more expensive, and, being harder, cannot be polished with sand. I suppose that the kind of carved details you can produce will depend on the mineral you use.

In the middle of the market, in front of the gateway to the Hualin temple was an interesting decorative pond with fish in it. We stood there and took photos. I like this bit of Feng Shui which calls for water and turtles in front of the entrance. Sometimes you’ll find a bowl of water with a small turtle near the entrance to a shop, but I like these larger versions. The houses on this street are Tong lau structures: shops on the ground floor and living space above. A large part of Liwan district was of this kind. They are slowly being replaced by high-rises, one of which you can see in the background.

As The Family wandered in and out of shops, I took a few photos. There wasn’t much crowd in the shops at this time; those who were not at work were on other errands. Only tourists had the time to look at carvings and jewellery in the mid-morning. But clearly, jade pendants, bracelets and other such jewellery sells well. The size of the marketplace and the volume of stocks in them is a clear indication of the size of the market. There are little kiosks, no more than a table spread out on the road, and there are large shops. The Family declared that a market of this kind was a much better place to shop in than the tourist-traps we had seen in Beijing.

What caught The Family’s eyes? She spent time looking at the hard green stones which are what you think of when you think jade, and also beautiful translucent pieces in various colours. I leave you with a photo of a window display from her camera.

The monk and his treasures

Even now, when I think back to our visit to the Hualin temple in Guangzhou, I remember the hall of the 500 arhats. It is only when I look my photos that I recall the many other beautiful objects that I saw. It is amazing to think that almost every beautiful object was recreated a couple of decades ago. The temple was originally founded in 526 CE, possibly in the lifetime of Bodhidharma, who brought Buddhism to China, extended massively in the 17th and 19th centuries CE, destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, and reincarnated in the 1990s.

We peered into the side galleries. The gallery was a modern building made of cinderblocks. The industrial look was softened by the beautiful decorations over the doors, one of which you can see in the gallery above (click for a slide show). The rooms hold different Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. I’m not adept enough at Chinese Buddhist iconography to figure out which statue is whose. The rooms are beginning to fill up with memorial tablets. Notice the money in the hands of the statues. Donations of this kind are very common.

The surroundings of the temple were interesting. This was a temple which seemed to have been completely integrated into the neighbourhood. It was only through later reading that I realized that during the Republican period a part of the temple grounds had been sold off to create housing. The view that you see in the photo above shows that these housing blocks are now being destroyed, and the new high-rises are replacing some of them. The Chinese government is planning forward to a time when a quarter of a billion people leave villages to come to town, but the building projects have drawbacks. That is a different story.

The large pavilion in the center of the courtyard is a calm place, unlike the hall of the arhats. This means, of course, that it is not as important from the religious point of view. But it gave us the leisure to walk around and admire all the art on display. The beautiful pieces tell you that traditional arts are alive and well in China. I’d met artists working in ceramics on earlier visits: there are wonderful new glazes being invented (you see one them in the peacock vase in the gallery above). The strong men holding up the base of the central statue are beautifully detailed, the tigers which roam the pediment snarl gracefully. There is clearly a renaissance in the arts.

And what of Bodhidharma, the wandering monk who founded Chan (Zen) Buddhism? He is so deeply forgotten in his country of birth that we don’t even know whether he was from Persia or the south of India. But in his karmabhoomi he is deeply venerated. The first statue we saw when we entered the temple was his. He is always depicted as a wandering monk, sometimes with a begging bowl, sometimes with a staff, but always bad-tempered. Zen Buddhism is not known as a gentle or easy path. If you are a teacher, have ever been one, consider again this superstar: always in a foul mood, but so influential that, after one and a half millennia, nearly a billion living people are influenced by his teachings.

The Door to China

I stood at the intersection between the Shang Xia Jiu pedestrian street and the Kangwang South Road in Guangzhou without knowing that I was at the place which is traditionally accepted as the point where the monk Bodhidharma first stepped on Chinese soil. This was the door through which Buddhism entered China. I wouldn’t have been able to read the full text (Xilai gu an = come-from-west ancient landing-place) even if I had known that there was a commemorative stone here. The nearby Hualin (Flourishing grove) temple which I had visited a few days earlier was called the Xilai (Coming from the West) temple when it was founded in 526 CE, about three hundred years after the arrival of Bodhidharma. The modern name was given in 1654 CE when the temple was expanded.

It had taken us a while to find the temple. I’d followed what I thought was a well-marked road on the map. But the map was not accurate enough, and The Family and I wandered around narrow residential roads for a while before we found a well-dressed lady who directed us to follow her. Trailing in her wake, we walked through the Hualin jade market and reached the gate of the temple. The building inside was definitely modern. It didn’t take too much of a search to find references to the 20th century history of the temple. A part of it was sold off to create housing during the Republican period. All the statues were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and were remade in the 1990s when the temple reopened.

Today the crowds are back. A monk handed us incense sticks as soon as we entered past the two immense dwarpalas who guard the door. Although we are not believers, we took the sticks, lit them and stuck them into the large brazier in the middle of the courtyard. One is polite to one’s hosts. Guidebooks do not mention the fact that the temple is newly reconstructed. Looking at the crowds streaming in, you would not believe that the tradition of going to temples had been interrupted for more than a decade.

The tradition of exchanging money for luck is much more easily visible in China than anywhere else in Asia. I was getting ready to take a photo of the lion with money stuffed into its mouth when the gentleman you see in the photo above came by to complete the picture. The tall metal urn in the courtyard, which you see in the companion photo above, is full of coins. You toss coins into it for luck. Young and old vie to toss coins into the upper level of the urn, presumably you gain credit by doing that.

We entered the hall of the 500 arhats. Temples in China are bustling and cheerful places. The first view was quite stunning, with long cases full of statues of the arhats and the central aisle dominated by the usual Chinese Buddha. For me this is always a little disconcerting: to find representations of an ascetic who preached an end to existence as the ultimate spiritual aim converted into a delighted gourmand. But why not? The Buddha ate kheer after enlightenment. The paintings on the ceiling seemed to have been done on paper and then mounted on the masonry. They were as interesting, and possibly as modern, as the statues in the hall.

An unexpected sight was of the Emperor Ashoka being worshipped in a temple. Ashoka’s lion pillar is a symbol of the Indian state today; identity cards of government functionaries will have this seal on them. In China the lion pillar is a symbol of the Buddhist religion. Ashoka was responsible for the spread of Buddhism through Asia, so it makes sense that he should be held in some esteem. Borrowing from Taoist practices, I suppose he can become a Buddhist god. In any case, this explained why some monks asked me where I was from, and on figuring out that I was Yinduren, remained alert and helpful during the time I spent here.

One corner of the temple was set up with tables and many older men and women sat there eating. I wonder whether this is common, or something that happens on special days. The previous night was Diwali, and often temple festivals are tied to the phases of the moon. So I could not rule out a special event. This twenty-armed goddess stood in a nearby altar. I still haven’t figured out what role she plays in the pantheon.

One of the interesting things about this temple is that one of the arhats is supposed to represent Marco Polo. That’s the one you see in the round hat in the photo above. Since this is just folk belief, I hesitated to ask a monk. The Family cut short my search by taking the bold step of asking one of our friendly monks about this statue, and he led us there. Marco Polo was so taken up by Guangzhou, and gave it such glowing reports, that I’m not surprised that local sentiment favours him.

The most wonderful thing about this place are the 500 arhats. We wandered through the aisles of these larger-than-life statues, occasionally getting a little instruction from a monk in some special aspect of one or the other. I was a little surprised at finding arhats here. Theravada Buddhism holds that the highest level of attainment that a person can have is an arhat, whereas Mahayana Buddhism, prevalent in China, holds that every person should aim to attain the state of a Bodhisattva. This is one of the main doctrinal differences between these two schools. Bodhidharma founded Zen Buddhism, which is a part of Mahayana tradition. So finding arhats in this temple is strange. I was happy to take photos anyway, even knowing that these statues are considerably younger than me. We realized that we’d spent a long while here, and it was time to see the rest of the temple complex.

Teahouse and theatre

I reserved a room in a hotel in the Liwan district of Guangzhou after a very shallow look at descriptions of different city districts. We were really lucky with the place we got: a large and comfortable room in the heart of some of the most interesting parts of this old trading town. Every day was a discovery, even when things didn’t pan out.

We decided to have a long tea one day and looked at the list that The Family had extracted. Where on earth was the highly recommended Taotaojiu tea house? A long search on the web, and we pinned it down. We need not have bothered. It has been so famous since it opened in 1880 that we could have just asked the concierge. We walked down Shang Xia Jiu pedestrian road to a building which looked like a very sweet pastry (above and the featured photo). The doors were shut! We peered in, and it did look like a tea house inside. There were notices pasted on the glass. I am familiar with perhaps 30 characters in Chinese, so I had to read the notice through the wonderful camera translation that Goodgle provides. The tea house was closed for renovation, as nearly as I could make out. We had to find another tea house for our Yum Cha

The Shang Xia Jiu pedestrian street (I never found the difference between that and the Di Shi Fu road) is full of beautiful repurposed buildings. The Ping’an theatre, whose facade you see in the photo above, used to be a place to see Cantonese Opera. It is a beautiful building from the late 19th century CE. Today it shows movies and the ground level is given over to shops. We never did get to see a performance of the Canton Opera. That is one of the things we need to do in future.

Food heaven in Guangzhou

Casting about for one, just one, place to spend a few days in China, we decided on Guangzhou for one simple reason: the food. When you look at lists of Michelin starred restaurants in China, about half of them feature Cantonese food. The food of Guangdong is famous even inside China. Normally I do all the reading about food and restaurants, but this time The Family spent some time looking at descriptions and reviews of restaurants. I left Mumbai with notes on about ten restaurants which we might like to visit.

We found a hotel in the Liwan district of Guangzhou and were surprised to find that several of our top choices were within walking distance. Our first lunch was in the restaurant named after the city, Guangzhou, on the Shangxiajiu pedestrian street. This is a very popular place. A soon as we entered, we were asked whether we wanted lunch or dim sum. We opted for lunch and were given a table on the ground floor. We struggled with the enormous menu, flipping back and forth, until a couple at a neighbouring table offered to help.

The photo above shows the excellent goose that we took on their advise. They spoke excellent English, and turned out to be residents of Hong Kong. They were in Guangzhou for a lunch to celebrate their anniversary. Since the train between Hong Kong and Guangzhou takes only an hour, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. That someone would come from Hong Kong specially to this restaurant for their anniversary was as good a recommendation as you could get.

One of the things I like about Cantonese food is the freshness of the ingredients. The sauces are not heavy, and they allow the meat to speak for itself. I also like the huge variety of vegetables that one can get. We went back to this restaurant again the same night. In the absence of our serendepitious guide, an English speaking waiter came to help us. When we had finished ordering he asked whether we might want some vegetables. Of course. We quickly added a plate of steamed cabbage to the order (photo above).

The dish of the night was the tofu and shrimp dish which you see above. This has entered our personal history, when we sigh sadly about food that we would like to eat, but we cannot, this is the dish that we talk about now. It was a surprise, because this is not a combination that I could have predicted that I would like. Food in Guangzhou restaurant is not the kind you find in a Michelin starred place; it is not heavy on presentation. Whatever we ate seemed like old favourites. They should be, since the restaurant has become somewhat of an institution since it opened its doors in 1935. There are now many branches of this restaurant but this three story place is where it started.

I seriously thought of having every one of my meals in this restaurant, but The Family was quite stern about trying more places on our list. So I had to leave with a few photos of its famous indoor pool. The one you see above was taken from the third floor.

Animal trade

The Qingping Road market in Guangzhou is a sprawling place, where you can buy many different kinds of things. The trade in animals is only a part of it. But this is the part which disturbed me a lot. It started with fascination. I first noticed goldfish on sale, and thought of the Youngest Niece who’s just begun to care for one in a bowl: feeding and changing water regularly. Then came a section with turtles. These are part of the quartet of powerful creatures of Chinese myth (along with dragons, unicorns and phoenix), and one in a bowl of water outside your shop is part of the Feng Shui beliefs.

I was not surprised by the turtles, but seeing them in large numbers in plastic crates was a little odd. In one corner of a display was the somewhat more disturbing sight of turtles with brightly painted shells. The idea of these as fashion accessories was not endearing. Then came the section of birds. I’m not a fan of caged birds, and read too many reports of illegal trade in wild birds busted in my own town to have much fascination for these shops. But the part of the market which gave me the shivers was the one with dogs and cats. I grew up with dogs running around the house and garden, but I wouldn’t want one now. A flat in a high rise is not the right place for dogs. Seeing them in tiny cages was not pretty.

I shared the featured photo with a niece and her first question was whether these are eaten. Perhaps not. On the other hand, there are rumours that in the alleys here one can find prohibited animals which you might want as pets, and banned trade in animal parts used in traditional medicine. If there is, then those traders are living dangerously. Law enforcement in China can be sudden and heavy.

I found the Qingping Road market fascinating; it preserves old ways of living which you don’t get to see much as a tourist. But I was in sympathy with The Family when she walked quickly past this line of shops.

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.

On the road

Small roads in China are always interesting. In Guangzhou we walked down Qingping Road looking at all the interesting things which go on. I was really excited by this simple modification to a bicycle which made it useful for deliveries. In the grainy black and white photos that came out of China during the cultural revolution, everyone seemed to ride bicycles. They are not so common on the road any longer in Beijing and Shanghai, but in Guangzhou they were still in use.

Typically, improvised goods carriers in India tend to fill up narrow roads, so I was quite impressed by the very delicately judged width of the platform. It was just a little wider than the person riding the bike would be. It would allow a lot of stuff to be carried without inconveniencing others. I think the constant policing of streets does produce an exo-conscience in the Chinese. When I saw the crowd behind the bike in the photo you see above, I had to join them.

A very animated game was in progress. There was a lot of discussion between players and kibitzers. There was a while, when I was a student, when I tried out board games from across the world. This board looked like Xiangqi, but the pieces did not match the vague memory I had of them. Perhaps I’d seen some pieces with traditional Chinese characters, or perhaps the characters are different in Guangdong province, or, and this was very likely, I’d forgotten the characters altogether.

I walked on feeling happy. I like these impromptu gatherings on the street. They go very well with my notion of a holiday without hard plans.