Chinese time machine #3

After a really productive blog-month last October (10 posts!), I’ve been kind of a slacker. But with a week off for Spring Festival, I’ve been making up for lost time. Moving on from the current festivities, I now jump back to 2008, December 12.

Since the famous Water Cube (水立方) is not being used for Olympic events anymore, it is hosting a nightly concert featuring a live orchestra and programmed fountains and lights. At ¥200 a seat, it’s probably a bit overpriced to draw much of a crowd. Certainly the night I went it was poorly attended.
The name of the show is Water Cube Fantasy (梦幻水立方 Menghuan Shui Lifang).
They have a small orchestra on the deck between the diving pool and the swimming pool, and the swimming pool is rigged with a network of pipes and nozzles and lights.
While the orchestra played a selection of famous European classical pieces by Strauss, Beethoven, Rossini, and so on, the water was made to dance in time.
The “wall of water” effect turned out to be a prominent feature of the show…
…as they killed the lights and projected moving pictures onto the liquid screen.
The orchestra took a break while a video collage of local scenes and Olympic highlights played.

There were also some taped musical numbers of Chinese “traditional” music. It often seems that the Chinese have an aversion to actual traditional music, so what we heard was modern interpretations of traditional tunes done with synthesizers and drum machines accompanying Chinese instruments.

Here’s a video I took of the ending part of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” to give you a feeling for what it was like.

For a second movie segment, they used the desert horse race from Hidalgo with “Ride of the Valkyries” as a soundtrack. In a particularly interesting artistic choice, to make it fit the length of the music, we got to see the most exciting parts of the race twice.
The show lasted only 45 minutes or so.

The last time I visited the Water Cube was before the Olympics, you can compare the pictures from before with this one of the concourse.
They’re selling all sorts of Water Cube memorabilia, from T-shirts and hats to expensive jewelry and commemorative coins.


Happy Niu Year, part 3

When it comes to temples devoted to springtime offerings in hope of a good year to come, the Temple of Heaven is the big daddy, so it makes sense that something would be happening there during Spring Festival. Yesterday a Chinese friend sent me a text message advising me that they have performances of some kind at 10:00 and 13:00. 10:00 seemed a little too early for a holiday morning, so I opted for the afternoon show.

Tiantan (天坛) was decorated with colorful banners, and there were lots of people dancing in the open areas.
The main temple itself looks as impressive as ever.
Lots of people everywhere, including the altar mound.
At a bit after one I made my way back toward the main temple, not completely sure where the show was taking place. The central part of the path was roped off and a crowd was gathering. I joined them, early enough to get a good viewing position.
After a while, we started to see colorful banners making their way down from the temple area.
The crowd gathered closer, and I, not being quite so pushy or rude as many others, found myself shoved further from the security line and close pressed on all sides. I felt sorry for the two tiny old ladies near me that suddenly found themselves with views of nothing but the backs of taller young people who squeezed in front of them. I considered what my Chinese vocabulary would enable me to say if anyone should apologize (like “I expect this kind of rudeness”), but the situation never arose.
Music started playing over the loudspeakers, and there was some kind of narration in Chinese that I could make out very little of aside from the frequent use of the word 皇帝 huangdi (emperor).
I have lots of pictures that feature parts of people’s heads in the foreground.
The guy in the modern style red coat was directing the performers from so close that he became an anachronistic part of the show.

As the procession made its way slowly closer, the police started moving people in my area to the sides. There was much confusion and shoving as the security line was moved so the performers could pass through the area where we had been standing.
Well, at least it allowed me to get some closer pictures as they marched past.
There were many groups of men in different costumes.
Many different kinds of banners went by.
And then it was done, and the crowd that had seen the part of the show up in the main temple area started flooding the thoroughfare.
I suspect I probably missed the most interesting part of the whole show, but still it was nice to see.

After that, I wanted something a on little smaller scale, so I made my way to Dongyue (东岳) temple, which is not far from where I live. I’ve visited this place before, not long after I first came to Beijing. You can check out those pictures to see what it looks like on a normal day.

There were a bunch of vendors with tents set up outside the temple entrance.
This guy has a wide variety of dried fruits and nuts.
This guy was using a big mallet to mash something (probably rice) into a treat.
And this guy was selling completely legitimate (of course!) DVDs and games.

I paid my ¥10 and went in.
The place was decked out in red, and there were also people selling things inside. Dongyue is no longer really a functioning religious site – it’s officially a “cultural museum” now – but people still make offerings of incense and prayer ribbons.
You can also have a go at the old-fashioned grinding wheel.
Or more modern activities...
Here is the official slogan for the occasion:
Inheriting Folk Culture – Promoting National Spirits

And here I finally found one of the other attractions of a Chinese festival.
I finally got my yang rou chuanr (羊肉串 mutton on a stick). Add some sweet potato chips, and I was a happy festival-goer. Tired too.


Happy Niu Year, part 2

After sitting around my apartment for a day doing stuff like catching up on cataloguing my photos, doing laundry, and writing blog posts, it seemed like a good time to go out and see some of the festivities. I wanted to go somewhere I haven’t been before, so I got out the maps and guide books looking for temples. I picked Miaoying (妙应), which is famous for its big white dagoba. I walked from the subway station to the temple.
As you can see, the place was nearly deserted. No Temple Fair at this temple. Still, I was there, so I checked it out.
It’s not a large complex, and only took a half hour or so to see it all.

In 2006 for my first Spring Festival in Beijing, I visited Baiyunguan (白云观). It’s in the same part of town as Miaoying, so I decided to give it a try. Since I already posted pictures of it from the previous visit, I’ll pick different things this time. Refer to the older post for other views.

Just inside the gate, there are a couple of gongs hanging under a little bridge. People buy copper “coins” to throw at it. The noise is said to drive away evil spirits.
And here’s another local tradition. You stand at a distance of ten meters or so from this bronze urn, close your eyes, and walk to it. Many people bring an offering of incense.
When you get to it, you rub the dragon’s face.
Many people also buy prayer ribbons, write little wishes on them, and hang them in the trees.
As a modern twist, many of them then take a picture of their prayer hanging in the tree.

All in all, Baiyunguan was not very crowded.
Here is a detail of a marble plaque located to the right of the little stage in the previous picture.
Two years ago, there was a big market area set up outside the north exit of the temple, but this year that street was empty of anything except cars and the occasional pedestrian. I don’t know if they relocated the vendors to someplace else or what. And I was looking forward to some chuanr!


Ice a-muggin’

Surviving wintertime in Northern China involves finding ways to deal with the cold temperatures. Certainly Beijing is mild compared to some cities farther north, but it’s plenty cold to make a person dream of palm trees and maitais. One strategy is to actually find ways to make the cold fun. Last year I saw people engaging in a variety of icy pastimes on the frozen lakes of the city, and this year I gave it a try for myself.
I went with a friend to Qianhai and rented a thing I suppose you would call an ice bike. It’s kind of like a bicycle made to go on ice.
Lots of other people were doing the same thing, including this pair of monks. I was riding a bike just like theirs. It was definitely not made for someone with legs as long as mine.
The ice chairs with poles for pushing were also popular, and some people even got together in chains to share the effort.

And that’s a little video I shot on the ice.

Happy Niu Year, part 1

Once again, the Chinese Spring Festival is upon us. Most Beijing residents who are from other cities in China have returned to their home towns, leaving the city oddly depopulated but far from quiet. As in the last two years, firework madness has taken hold of the city.

This is the Year of the Ox, and the word for ox (also cow and beef) is niu 牛, so we’re getting a little pun on some seasonal signs. There’s a beef and dairy company called Meng Niu (Meng here refers to Inner Mongolia, where they are based) which is especially using the slogan. (The Chinese phonetic spelling niu is actually pronounced nyo, like yo with an n tacked on the beginning of it, but it’s still close enough for a bilingual pun.)

One exception to the pattern of returning to hometowns is a friend of mine, and she very kindly invited me to New Year’s Eve dinner at her place. She and her mother, originally from the Shanghai area, live nearby and have not gone south for the holiday. They fixed a wonderful meal for me, the first time I’ve been invited into a Chinese home for a taste of non-restaurant food.
I was told that the tradition is to have ten dishes, which of course is way too much food for three people. Especially when one of them stays in the kitchen the whole time! Since their stove has only two burners, making ten dishes is more of a serial than a parallel process (to venture into computer metaphors). My friend’s mom kept cooking away (and I think I heard the sounds of cleaning as well) while we ate.

The picture was taken when eight dishes had been served. Shrimp, small whole crabs, roast beef, little pieces of ribs, chicken wings, a dish with squid and vegetables, and one with pork and vegetables are on the table along with a crock of soup. Still to come were broccoli and dumplings. And because in China too much is never enough, we also had some steamed buns with sweet fillings. We were so full we never even touched the soup.

With so many pieces of dishware being used to serve food, there was nothing left for us to eat off of, so we took food directly from the dishes with our chopsticks and put the shells and such on the table. Everything was quite tasty. I had to wonder about the predominance of meat. Was that for my benefit, special for the holiday, or what?

After dinner we watched the CCTV Spring Festival Gala on TV. There were a few times when I could tell what they were talking about, if not all the details. The two pandas recently given to Taiwan were mentioned a lot. I kept hearing their names, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan. Finally the show got too corny for my friend and we decided to take a walk to work off dinner.
We entered a wasteland of fireworks debris.
As before, the pyromaniacs were out in force, openly displaying their obsession.
Across the street, we saw a big bunch of fireworks go off close to the ground. They looked like the kind of big colorful explosive things that are supposed to go off way up in the air. Soon flames leaped up from the shrubs next to the sidewalk. You can see a guy bringing a fire extinguisher. They soon had the fire out and went on with their fun.
A little further on our walk we came to the famous Gongti Xilu club area. There weren’t many people in the dance clubs, but the lights were going, competing with the fireworks going off around them. Along this street, there were fire extinguishers sitting about every ten meters or so along the sidewalk.

After we finished our circuit around Workers Stadium, we went back to their apartment and watched the rest of the Gala. I thought it was very interesting (especially after all the talk about the pandas sent to Taiwan) that the closing performance of the show, which started at about 12:30, was by a band (yes, and actual band, with guitars and drums) consisting of four famous Taiwanese singers from the 80s. My friend pointed out that when China started opening up to the outside world and discovering pop music, it had no music industry of its own, so most of the music came from Taiwan and Hong Kong. And since most Taiwanese pop was in Mandarin, as opposed to the Cantonese from Hong Kong, many of the songs from Taiwan are still well known today.

I am somewhat familiar with one of the singers, Luo Dayou (罗大佑 sometimes written Lo Ta-yu), and know that many of his songs have in the past been considered too politically outspoken for Mainland consumption. But the ones he sang for this Gala seemed to be well known to all the people in the audience.

I am sure that the Gala organizers were well aware of the symbolism of giving a Taiwanese artist such a place in the program (though honestly I think a lot of viewers switch off after midnight and might have missed it). And the performers are also aware of it, so it’s obviously a mutual agreement. Certainly these musicians could have declined the offer if they had problems with it.

Anyway, in my next post I’ll continue with more Spring Festival activities, and then catch up on some of what has gone in in the overly long time since my last post.