Flea and tea

My first unfiltered experience of China came one morning, ten years ago, when I walked through a flea market to reach a tea market. The flea market was the usual hotch potch of things, perfect for a quick look inside Chinese homes. Jade bracelets were laid out with bottles, jars, vases, and a very personable pig carved out of wood. If I had the weight allowance, I might have bought the pig right there.

In another aisle a middle-aged man sat with his collection of Mao memorabilia. The modern era of instant translation had not yet struck, and I hadn’t picked up even the smattering of Mandarin that I did later, so our communication was the age-old language of gestures and acting. You lose nuances in this language, but one meaning that came through was that some of the things he was selling was his own. There were a few medals with Mao’s face on it. A forty-odd years old man would have been in his early teens when Mao died, so I didn’t see how he could have won the medal. Maybe it was a family heirloom. Clearly there was a market for it even in the new China.

But most of the things put out for sale seemed to be more traditional. The small towns of India are full of little museums in forgotten mansions built by 19th century traders who found their riches in the trade with Shanghai and Guangzhou. Their display cases contained richer and more decorative versions of the things I saw. These “singing bowls” were quite a draw. Filled with water, you could set them vibrating with a clean high pitch when you drew your palms rapidly across their lip. I was shown how to do it.

I’d spent half an hour wandering around the market, and on the way out I stopped to take a photo of this celadon plate with a dragon winding around it. Later I would have the references to compare them with. Now I look at it and think it wasn’t a bad piece at all.

On to the tea market. I have no memory of what I’d imagined it to be, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling maze of an indoor market that it actually was. There were more salespeople than customers at that time on a weekday morning. I suspect that in a market as big as that, it might be true at all times of every day. I peeked in through the open doors of every shop. Rows of crates, full of loose leaf tea, and shelves filled with packed teas and tea paraphernalia. That was the layout of each shop. And people sitting and picking through trays of tea leaves.

My favourite photo from that day is of this long narrow stall. Near the open door was a white cockatoo. The man sitting there paid us no attention as we walked by. Later, gawking done, I came back to this shop to buy tea. It was deserted, but as soon as I walked in through the door, the cockatoo squawked, and an young man poked his head out of the inner door. He had no English, but called someone on a phone. A trapdoor in the ceiling opened, and an English-speaking helper dropped into the shop. That was an eventful way to buy enough tea to last me a year.

Crowds

Do you remember 2019? People used to hang around in crowds, and look happy.

Mumbai
Goreme
Nairobi
Istanbul
Bharatpur

In retrospect the featured photo is specially poignant. It was taken in Wuhan, at a time when the virus had already begun to circulate, but no one recognized it for what it would go on to do.

On that note I take a blogging break of around two weeks.

Admiring kites in Wuhan

I had emails from colleagues in Wuhan. The city was isolated around the time of the Chinese new year, when some families had left on their annual holiday, and others were preparing to leave. Those who had not left have now been confined to their flats for weeks. I remembered several months ago when I was in Wuhan, perhaps not long before the novel virus crossed over to humans. I’d gone for an afternoon’s walk along the Yangtze. This is a place where mothers and grandparents bring their toddlers, and retirees come to chat or fish.

The path was hazarded by children running and stumbling. Several of them had bubble makers with them and were busy spinning out long bubbles. I wondered if it is possible to make a toy which blows bubbled shaped like doughnuts. I don’t think the little girl in the photo had anything on her mind apart from blowing longer and longer bubbles.

It was a pleasant and sunny winter afternoon. Novembers can be rather cold in this part of the world, but this was an unusually mild November, with the winter sun warming my jacket very pleasantly. Boats glided past on the river, its banks loaded with tall grass at points. I love the sight of this kind of grass: it reminds me of a scene in a movie by Satyajit Ray where a boy and his elder sister run through such a field to see a train.

But what really attracts me here is the variety of kites on display. Often they are the standard rectangles and triangles, some with long tail streamers. But they are wonderfully decorated. A lot of them have pop culture theme: dragons from one of the most popular movies of 2010, angry birds, Tweety, as well as anime characters which I don’t recognize. They are clearly aimed at the younger end of the crowd.

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I watched several in flight. Some of them were being flown by a single person, but several involved a whole family. A child, grandparents, mother. It struck me that like in India, kite flying is more a boy’s and men’s sport in China. Women are involved, but the boy or grandfather take on leading roles. Why is that?

Among all this was a delightfully more complex kite: the box kite that you see in the photos above. I’d never seen a box kite when I was young, and what I read of them never led me to successfully build one. So now if I see one I’m entranced. I stood and watched as the kite seller and the customer handled the kite on the ground. As it soared up I stood to watch. I suppose afternoons are not so pleasant in Wuhan in these months.

Sunday Brunch

An enthusiastic local tourism web page once told me that Wuhan is the breakfast capital of China. Eventually I found that this refers to the hot and dry noodles which are a local specialty. I liked them enough that I would add some to my breakfast plate every day during my trip, perhaps contributing to the hard-to-shed pre-holiday flab that I picked up. Although I didn’t go looking for breakfast in the food streets of Wuhan, I had some pleasant times in them.

Just as the local government has chosen breakfast and duck’s neck as the two representatives of Wuhan food (airport gift shops are full of large gift packets of duck neck), they have selected the Yellow Crane Tower as the representative of Wuhan’s culture. Pictures of the tower are everywhere, even on manhole covers on the road.

But Wuhan’s food has much more to it. There is nothing specially Hubei or Wuhan about what I liked, but I was glad to have found much of it. I loved snacking on the nuts which you see in the featured photo. I stashed a packet of mixed nuts in my backpack to munch on in the flight back. I inspected the food that this man was ready with, but it was a little heavy for a time when I was not really hungry. These two stalls made for lovely photos though. I like the clutter; makes the place look like a real kitchen.

If you never pass a display of food without looking deeply into it, you will ingest calories even without eating. That is a simple fact about life which I have come to believe in very firmly. It is about as true as Santa’s epic yearly journey. This display is even more fascinating because there are some things which I cannot recognize. There’s nothing that restores my sense of adventure as much as new food, and the possibility of coming across a totally different taste.

Treaty Port Hankou

When I walk down the streets of China an old song comes to my mind “And you of tender years, can’t know the fears that your elders grew by.” During the time that the Taiping revolution had weakened the Qing dynasty, European powers forced China to open up the heartland of the Yangtze to foreign powers. One result was the establishment of treaty ports, like the one whose remnants I walked through in the Hankou district of Wuhan. The customs house, which you see in the featured photo, is now the backdrop for wedding shoots.

I crossed Yanjiang Avenue through the zebra on which you can see the couple and walked along it to take photos of a few of the old buildings here. Construction of the neoclassical HSBC building started in 1914, and as held up for many years because of the First World War before it was completed in 1920. The most recent renovation was in 1999. I was quite impressed by the ten two-storey tall Ionic columns of the facade. Another striking neoclassical structure on the road is the old Citibank building. I couldn’t find much information about it. Neoclassical was mixed in with neo-Georgian here, as you can see in the third photo above. I have no information at all about this building.

I walked back to the pedestrian area which starts from the customs house and noticed a lovely old Art Deco building. There was no information about it. A few local photographers were standing around taking photos of various buildings here. This is clear evidence that an awareness of the architectural heritage of this part of the city is growing. I discover interesting things which I hadn’t noticed earlier each time I walk in this area. I will be back again for another walk, I promised myself as I took a metro from the Jianghan Road station.

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.