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.

Three views of the Third Yangtze River Bridge

Last week I was in a meeting in Wuhan, a city that tourists overlook. This powerhouse city in central China was the origin of the successful Republican revolution which overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911, and, in succeeding years, became the capital of the nation for brief periods. One of its sights is the Soviet-era bridge across the Yangtze, the first modern bridge to be built across the river. That was in 1957. Other bridges have come up since then. I find the third bridge very photogenic. The featured photo is a view at sunset, just as the lights came on.

Walking between two tall brutalist concrete blocks, I looked up to see the nearest tower of the three and a half kilometer long cable-stayed bridge, lit up by the afternoon’s sun on the day of the summer solstice. This was a lucky shot because it had threatened to rain all day, and the sun had just briefly come out as I walked out towards the bridge. This is not a very famous bridge, having been completed in 2000 during a period of intense construction. Its main span is 681 meters, which makes it only the 31st longest span among cable-stayed bridges today. Still, I liked the looks of it.

It passes right next to the Hilton. I crossed a road and walked out under the bridge where a little riverside promenade has been built up. This was a cheerful place with families walking around. A toddler inspected me carefully as I took this shot, teetering and nearly out of balance. His father smiled at me. In most other countries my bright red phone causes people to recoil a little. In China it does not draw a second glance. Red (红 = hóng) is a lucky colour, and very common. What a strange happenstance that the colour of the French revolution of 1789, found its way through the Paris Commune, and its adoption by the Communist movements of the world to this country where it is the traditional colour of joy and luck.

The Yangtze river

I had hazy memory from my school books that the Yangtze river is among the world’s longest. Before going to Wuhan, I checked that it is actually the third in the world, behind the Nile and the Amazon. I’d passed over Wuhan’s Second Yangtze Bridge on the way in from the airport. On the way to see the river a few days later, as the taxi negotiated a traffic tunnel, the driver told me proudly that it is China’s longest: a three kilometer long tunnel under the Yangtze (Changjiang in Mandarin), connecting the Wuchang and Hankou districts of the town. We emerged into Hankou, and turned past a river boat terminal into the mouth of a pedestrian entry.

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Yangtze river cruises through the Three Gorges have been heavily advertised in recent years, and are increasingly popular with foreign tourists. These boats dock at the interesting looking terminal we passed. I got off the car and walked past the levees (which were raised in 2005 to protect the town against flooding) to the river. No large cruise boats were to be seen. But there were these interesting looking boats moored to a quay. They seem to have a very shallow draught, like the famous old sailboats of the Yangtze. I wondered whether they are floating docks or boats, until I went close and found that they are boats. They have so many cabins that they must be used for short cruises. If there were smaller boats I wouldn’t have minded spending a day drifting down this river. In the photo above you can see the Second Yangtze Bridge behind the boats.

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It was late in the morning of a working day, so there weren’t too many people around. I walked down to the water. There was a lone swimmer near the bank, far from him were a couple of anglers. This is a nice lazy pastime. One angler was leaning on a barricade and chatting with another person: a friend or a passerby. You could see from here how wide the river was. It was hard to make out any details in the towers of Wuchang one could see on the far bank. As always in China, things were under construction. You could see cranes poking their necks out over the skyline.

Barely have I drunk the waters of Changsha,
Now I am eating fish in Wuchang.
I swim across the great Yangtse River
And see the sky of Chu unfolding before me.
–Mao Zedong

The Yangtze has inspired poetry from some of the most famous poets of China. Even Mao Zedong wrote about it, after swimming from the Hankou side to Wuchang. This is something that people in China still talk about. I can understand it now. Swimming across this river is a pretty impressive feat. It also helps that Mao was a reasonably good poet in the classical Chinese tradition. The Yangtze attracts Chinese tourists, perhaps in greater numbers than foreigners. I’m happy to see that even on this fairly empty morning I’m not the only tourist toting a camera. At the back you can see the piers where the cruise boats dock, and the passenger terminal building.

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I climbed back up to the levee. On the landward side is a long garden where grandparents had taken their grandchildren for an outing. There were vendors selling glittery kites and a few children were trying to fly them. As I wandered through the garden I heard music. I tracked it down to a person sitting and playing a small stringed instrument which I did not recognize. After he had finished, he packed the instrument into the carry-box of the scooter above, slipped his arms into the gloves built into the blanket you can see in the photo above, and drove off. Electric scooters in China are treated as pedestrians. I’d not seen this interesting blanket before, but it makes sense that they are being brought out in Autumn. I didn’t think it was cold enough for protection, but then I’m from hot and sweltering Mumbai, where the autumn temperature exceeds Wuhan’s fabled summer heat.

Wuhan Art Deco

wuhanconcessionWuhan is a sprawling town which incorporates the three former towns called Wuchang, Hanyang and Hankou. Wuchang is famous for the revolution of 1911 which overthrew the Qing dynasty and eventually gave rise to Kuomintang China. Across the Yangtze river from Wuchang is the square mile of Hankou which was ceded to foreign powers by the 1885 Treaty of Tientsin. I went to see the Wuhan Bund which was built as a flood-protection measure on the Hankou side of the river in 2005. While exiting the Bund on to Yanjiang Dadao, I noticed that there seemed to be several Art Deco buildings on the other side of the road. In the photo above you can see the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank right in the center. In the photo it appears in front of the tall blue tower called the Jiali Plaza, once the tallest building in Wuhan. Next to the HSBC bank is the old National City Bank of New York, now the ICBC Bank. These two buildings are flying the Chinese flag.

wuhanportI crossed the road and realized that the massive building which was once the Port of Hankou was also an Art Deco structure. You can recognize it in the clean curves you see in this photo. I wish I could read what’s written on the facade; I’m still unable to read calligraphic Chinese writing. Other parts of the port have the straight lines and curving flares typical of this style. The discovery of Wuhan’s Art Deco past was a bit of a jolt. I had very little time to explore it. I continued walking away from the Bund and towards a building that I later realized was the Old Customs House. At the street level, shops had put up their own facades, but if you looked higher you could see several buildings with tell-tale Art Deco lines and trim. I was amazed. This part used to be the old British Concession, and I’d expected the heavy late-Victorian architecture of the late 19th century, not the light and playful Art Deco of several decades later. Afterwards, when I thought about it I realized I should not have been surprised. Even in Mumbai there is a mixing of these two architectural styles.

2015-10-09 11.57.38On my ten minute walk I also saw Art Nouveau in many places. One example was this neglected gate: the superposition of the playful vines on the straight lines of the grilles is a lovely piece of Deco. This was almost my last discovery. My walk ended at the Customs House, and the Social Realist style statue nearby commemorating the city’s protection from floods. I realize now, while browsing the net, that this period of Wuhan’s architecture is well-known but ill-documented. Certainly the neglected gate above, with its mixture of Art Nouveau and Chinese styles is an unique, but unremarked heritage. When I go back I must devote more time to exploring this area.