A fun show

At one end of Wuhan’s Han Street entertainment area is the Han Show Theatre. Modeled after Chinese red lanterns, the architects Steven Chilton and Marc Fisher (who was the director of the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics) created a theatre that made it difficult not to have my jaw drop. What looks at first sight like a grandiose stage swings away to create a deep swimming pool. The front seats draw back from the pool area. Behind the immense stage three screens descend to form a backdrop on which videos play.

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I got to see the Han Show, crafted by the Belgian theatre director Franco Dragone. While watching the spectacular acrobatics and aquatics show I thought to myself that this was the Cirque du Soleil on a really grand Chinese scale. I was happy to find later that I was not mistaken; Dragone was one of the creators of the Cirque du Soleil. Given a 2.5 billion RMB investment from the Wanda group, the architects and directors created a ninety minute show that leaves you with a great big smile on your face.

At a late point in the show I realized that I did not have to take stills. So here is a video of a part of the show that was fun. Not as impressive as the forty meter high dive (one of the photos in the slide show above), but great fun.

Days and nights

The first thing that strikes you about nights in China is how well-lit they are. After all, the magic of bright lights cannot have escaped a civilization which descends from the one that invented fireworks. I walked along a river and took this photo of a completely still evening.

Eateries are kitsch country. Wouldn’t your ice cream taste much better with a bunny in pain holding a plastic cone? And isn’t it necessary to create a garden, complete with butterflies in a restaurant?

Daylight reveals a more refined touch. Equally kitschy perhaps, but understated. One side of the river wears the look of a traditional garden, complete with weeping willows drooping down to the water, magpies in trees, banked moss, and flowers drying in the late autumn. A crew boats along the river, picking up trash and cleaning it. I’m always amazed by the fact that China, whose citizens litter as thoughtlessly as Indians, has conscientious cleaners who keep public places clean all the time. Money has to be invested in cleaning, and there has to be accountability at work. Magic works in strange ways.

Silversmiths

Chinese shops often employ people to stand outside on the road and announce the deals that you’ll miss if you walk past. Since I follow very little Chinese, most of this is lost to me. But a jewellery shop is different, and I have paused at many to take a look at the fellows working away in full sight.

This time I remembered to take a video. The loudest noise comes from the guy whose job it seems is to hit his hammer on the anvil, and never make contact with the piece of silver he holds.

Chu river, Han street

Some of the most scenic parts of Wuhan lie around its East Lake. From this, a little canal called Chu River runs westwards. On one bank a shopping and entertainment street was inaugurated in 2011, to commemorate the centenary of the Wuchang Revolution which led to the founding of the Chinese republic. I found it interesting that the Wanda Group, one of the Fortune 500 companies headquartered in China, invested 50 billion RMB in this development. At one end of the street you see the Wanda Plaza, the colourful blob of light which you see on the left of the featured photo.

In the next few days I would spend a bit of my little leisure hours in this entertainment street, but today, after an early sea food dinner, I decided to cross the canal and walk down the dark, but pleasant, walking path on the other side. This turned out to be a brilliant place from which to view the street.

As the Chinese middle class expanded, the opportunities for entertainment groups increased rapidly. A street full of shops, restaurants, and bars looks glitzy and modern, and you may take it to be a fake China, but it is not. It is just the 21st century avatar of the Chinatown shopping streets which accounts of foreigners from the late Qing period describe repeatedly.

The newly built shop floors housed in low-rise blocks which look like 19th century warehouses, churches, and other Western-influenced building styles, should be taken light-heartedly. They are a fairy tale theme park where you come in the evenings to listen to a crooner belt out songs in English about diamonds for your baby next to expensive jewellery shops. The tall building at the extreme left of the photo above is an enormous hotel called the Wanda Reign, which stands at the other end of Han street.

The lobby is a grand place, as you can see from the photos above and below. The huge mural on the wall is made of jade. I wonder what fraction of the 50 billion RMB went into making this. I looked around at the gigantic sofas which are thoroughly dwarfed by this grand mural, and found one which I could shrink in to.

This China can be intimidating if you take it too seriously. But the way I deal with it is to think of it as a Disneyland. I don’t think I’m wrong to treat it like this. Walk out on to a street just after dark and look up at the gigantic buildings around you. You can count the lighted windows on the fingers of one hand. Many things in China are fairy tales, except the one piece of magic that really matters. A number of people about equal to the population of the USA was raised out of poverty and into the middle class in one generation.

An untimely dinner

After buying my train tickets I found that I was quite hungry. It was about 5 PM local time, but my body was probably still two and a half hours behind. Maybe it was a late lunch that I needed. The first day in China could be a little confusing for one’s metabolism. I’d eaten a large breakfast before catching my flight out of Shanghai, and then skipped lunch. Whatever the reason, I was famished, and there was a food street I could walk through. I looked at the various things on display and my eyes snagged on some seafood.

The shrimps with Szechuan peppers looked very inviting. What crab was that next to it? Not the Shanghai hairy crab, I thought when I looked at it closely. That would have been good, but I wouldn’t mind other crabs. Next to it was a trayful of large lobsters, cooked in Szechuan style. Some gestural language established that I could take a mixture of things, and pay by weight.

While buying the food it struck me that eating crab and lobster with chopsticks would be a challenge. Fortunately this is a challenge for the locals as well, so you get a bunch of plastic gloves as well. Between chopsticks and gloved hands it was not at all difficult to work my way through a bowlful of mixed seafood.

Wuhan Railway Station

I hadn’t succeeded in buying train tickets from Wuhan to Nanjing and back on the internet before coming to China, so I decided to go and buy them at the station. Immediately after checking into my hotel, I took the subway and reached the station. This turns out to be very convenient: subway ticket vending machines, like ATMs, in China can be set to English before you start. And of course, the subway is the fastest way to get from anywhere to a railway station.

Wuhan’s new railway station was built in 2009 to serve the high-speed trains (G trains, 高速动车组列车, Gāosù dòngchē) on the Beijing-Guangzhou-Hong Kong and the Shanghai-Wuhan-Chengdu lines. Since these run on special tracks which allow speeds up to 350 Km/hour, these networks are newly built, and avoid older tracks and stations.

The 19th century was a great time for railways, as you can see even now if you go to some of the world’s iconic old railway stations: Gare (now Musee) d’Orsay in Paris or the Sirkeci Garı in Istanbul. Wuhan’s railway station, designed by the French company AREP, could become one of the iconic structures of the 21st century revival of railways. The sinusoidal roof is supposed to resemble a crane’s wings. The built up area with its third of a million square meters, can sustain a significantly expanded service in future. When I came back a week later to take the train, I found the boarding process very convenient.

Bicycle country

China could once have been named Bicycle Country (自行车国, Zìxíngchē guó). Although the balance has shifted to cars, bicycles and electric scooters remain a significant fraction of what you see on roads. It is not at all unusual to see loads of bicycles parked on roads. As I walked along a road in Nanjing I paused to take a photo of the parked bikes.

One of the side effects of taking photos is that you notice more about your subject than you would otherwise. So I suddenly realized that there were very impressive locks on the bikes. In my experience China is crime free; there are cameras everywhere, and watchers behind them: either human or AI. So this looked incongruous. This can’t be a country like Germany, where the general level of safety from threat does not include bicycles. If any Chinese were to complain about a stolen bike, the police would almost certainly be able to trace who had taken it.

Nor is Nanjing special in this respect. I took a photo of a rank of parked bicycles in Wuhan, and saw hefty locks again. This will remain a mystery to me until I learn enough Mandarin to have a casual conversation on the road about why people lock their bicycles.

It is also interesting that there seems to be no cultural difference between electric scooters and bikes. They follow the same traffic rules, and park together. The only difference I noticed is that in this season the scooters came with warm quilted jackets, which you could slip into as you sat down in the driver’s seat. It’s a great idea, and one that could easily be adapted to protect against rain in India. You must have noticed that the jackets were not locked to the scooter!

Yellow Crane Tower

Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou have battled and got control of pollution in the city, but Wuhan has not yet. Added to the muggy heat of summer, it is at least as uncomfortable as Mumbai is before the arrival of the monsoon. So I should have been a little more careful about choosing to walk up snake hill to see the Yellow Crane Tower than I was. It was the most uncomfortable bit of tourism that I’ve done. But the view from above compensated a bit. The featured photo shows the Yangtze river, with the first Yangtze bridge of 1957, and the TV tower of Hankou on the far side.

The Yellow Crane Tower of today is a concrete structure completed in 1981 standing on top of the Snake Hill in Wuchang. The earliest references to the tower come from the 8th century, and agree that it was a watch tower on the banks of the Yangtze river. The rebuilding of a classical tower, famous in Chinese poetry, within five years of the death of Mao Tse-Tung, in the town where the first republican revolution took place, must have been a politically fraught act. I could not find contemporary writing about it, but it is interesting enough that I will continue to search.

The statue of Yue Fei (photo above) a little bit up the hill is a must see, if only because it allows you to stop and have a swig of much needed water from the bottle you remembered to take with you. Yue Fei was a 12th century general in the Southern Song dynasty, considered to be one of the great generals of Chinese history. His greatness has grown in the 20th century, as parallels were drawn between his situation and that of the communists in the war years.

I took the stairs up the tower and was immediately drenched in sweat. Fortunately, on the balcony on each floor there was a nice breeze. The interior was beautiful. I find it remarkable that even after the Cultural Revolution, China has managed to retain the skills of painting and calligraphy, sculpture and woodwork. In fact, not only retain, but create such a ferment that contemporary Chinese art is one of the most dynamic in the world.

This interior was not dynamic and contenporary, but more of a theme park. The two story high ceramic work of a yellow crane flying over a representation of the tower is a study in contemporary kitsch. Two women posed below it for a photo. One of the upper floors had a special room for visiting poets. I guess I will have to practice being drunk enough to mistake the reflection of the moon for the one in the sky before I am let into this room.

This kitschy park, a recreation of an imagined past, as unreal as the 19th century reconstruction of Carcassone in France, embraces its kitsch very openly. A huge bell can be rung for luck, and a man sits in front of it collecting money. Stone lions sculpted recently sport deep moss. Everyone knows that this concrete tower dates from decades after the destruction of the original site to make way for the Yangtze bridge, but thinks of it at the same time as a Taoist holy place. China shows how fungible human beliefs are. We just need to believe, and anything can come to stand for what we believe.

Surprising Chinese Food

What could be surprising about Chinese food, you ask? Isn’t it all chop suey and sweet and sour chicken, spring rolls and sweet corn soup, chili chicken and gobi Manchurian? On my first visit to China a few years ago I was surprised at how wrong this is. Noodle soups were only a quick stop for lunch. After working my way through many pleasant surprises, I settled on stir fried veggies with slices of meat, lots of different kinds of veggies on the side, and a bowl of steamed rice as a default comfortable dinner.

For dinner with non-Chinese friends on my last visit to Wuhan, I walked into a nice large restaurant full of people. Negotiating a menu is no longer impossible, now that everyone is equipped with apps that look through the camera or translate speech instantly. It may still be hard to understand what the translation means (an example is in the photo above). One of the dishes we ordered was billed as a fish soup, and the lady who was taking our orders added that it had eggs. A little confusing, we thought, but let out order stand. The result was a complete, but pleasant surprise. It looked like a custard (featured photo) but tasted of fish soup. It came studded with mussels. It was one of most delightfully different things I’ve come across for half a year.

I forgot to take note of what it is called. Can an old China hand help me out with guesses about what its name might be? (Thanks to a fellow blogger, I now have an answer. It is called 蒸蛋羹, Zhēng dàngēng, ie, steamed egg tart, or 蒸水蛋, zhēng shuǐ dàn, ie, steamed water egg).

A weekday evening

One of the great stories of the end of the 20th century is the lifting of about half a billion people from China into the world’s middle class. That is about ten times larger than the middle class in India. When I return from a trip to China, people are always curious about how the Chinese middle class lives. They commute to work in buses and trains, and sometimes cars. Their day’s commute starts at about 5 in the morning, and ends between 5 and 6 in the evening. Dinner is early, so that by 8 they are free to relax.

The video you see here was taken in Wuhan on a weekday night. In most cities in China, when you pass by a housing complex you see something like what I captured in it. Women exercise with dances (there are two groups in this video), parents are out strolling with their children, there is a lot of socializing in the neighbourhood. It looks like a nice and relaxed lifestyle. But, of course, I haven’t lived it from the inside.