And giant robots

And to continue with my visit to the 798 Arts Zone...

I visited some of the same galleries as I did years ago, but of course the art works were different now.

This artist had a whole series of blurry grey works that didn't do much for me.

Here's one that I did like. A massive warplane is surrounded by a mass of celebrating people. Not too hard to decipher the social message there.

Some of the old buildings have been modernized more than I remember.

Here's a courtyard that had a lot going on.

There are some reminders of the area's industrial heritage.

When I visited before, I saw groups of photographers posing a model in various places. Some of that was going on, but it seems the area is very popular for wedding photos.

Notice the photographer's assistant and how she's holding him in place. Nice.

A little further along was something really interesting.

A giant robot made of parts of cars. It had a Transformer logo on its chest.

This photographer had a whole series of staged scenes.

And I'll finish off with a look ahead into the future. Are you the leader or the follower?

For the wolf is hollow and I have touched the tiger

Not long after I moved to Beijing, back in 2006, I visited the 798 arts district, which I wrote about in the post you can get to by clicking on these words. I always figured an "arts district" would be something that would change constantly, so I've wanted to return for a long time. I finally got that chance on 10 October, 2010, when one of my local friends suggested it as a good Sunday alternative to visiting a park, since it was raining.

Rather than taking a taxi, I managed on public transport, taking the subway to Dongzhimen and transferring to a bus. It was still a fairly long journey, and I arrived there some time after my friend.

I'd say the Zone has greatly expanded since my first visit. I saw many of the same galleries, and many of the large outdoor sculptures I saw before were still around, though not necessarily in the same places.

Nice looking but terrible MPG.

One recurring theme is modern adaptations or interpretations of traditional Chinese techniques, subjects, and styles.

A lot of works are clearly symbolic, but it's not always clear what the artist intended as the meaning.

I'm particularly fond of art with a sense of humor, like this double portrait with Cones of Shame.

A whole gallery was devoted to the work of a painter who deals in incredibly realistic, details oil paintings.

The girl just right of center was in every painting - I believe it's the artist's daughter.

Some sculptures have signs that say to keep off; some don't.

This is a massive display that was just going in. There were workers assembling wolves and placing them all around the square.

Some of the galleries had artists present, and this Korean artist was actually working.

His work is dedicated to peace and unity on the Korean Peninsula, so we all signed a petition to show our support. He posed for a few pictures, then got back to the large painting on the floor.

Well, this post is getting kind of long, so I'll pick up the story in the next entry.

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping

This post covers 5-8 October, 2010.

One of the things on my to-do list for the trip was some shopping. Books, CDs, some musical accessories (like strings for my Chinese instruments), and clothing were on the list. The Xidan area west of Tiananmen Square features one of the city's biggest bookstores as well as several buildings filled with clothing shops. Plus it was two stops away on the subway.

It being a national holiday, lots of people were off work and had the same idea I did.

The big sign there says 民族大世界 (Great Ethnic World, I suppose), so you might expect to find a bunch of craft shops and ethnic food stalls inside. You would be wrong. It's a huge area filled with vendors hawking clothes, shoes, bags, and so on, all for prices low enough that you have to suspect counterfeits. I wandered around in there, but didn't buy anything. Across the street is a newer, more reputable shopping center.

That's a giant video screen across the front of the building. It shows nothing but advertisements. I took this picture standing on the pedestrian bridge over the street, so we're at the second floor level. That's the place where I bought all my Astro Boy gear. There are about six levels of shopping in the building, then a level that has a gaming arcade, and then a few floors of offices above that. I have a friend who works upstairs there. Note the interesting design of the next building on the left.

Also notice that the air doesn't look nearly as clear as it did in the previous pictures. Those were taken on Tuesday, and by Thursday the air was getting a little thick.

Standing in the spot where I took that last picture, I turned to face south and snapped this one.

Yeah, it was a pretty hazy day. At the right side of the frame you can see the edge of the Bank of China headquarters, where I attended a few meetings when I was working in Beijing. Further south are more banks and office buildings - the shopping district is all to the north.

One of my favorite restaurants is near here, a short walk into the old residential area north of the bookstore. One evening I met a couple of friends for dinner there, and I swear the head waiter remembered me from the many times I've been there before, even though it had been over a year since my last visit.

We had 香锅 (Fragrant Pot), which is kind of like hotpot except that they do the cooking for you and serve it dry. You choose your ingredients from a big list. We had chicken (the other choice is fish) along with a couple different kinds of mushroom, noodles, tofu, carrot, and 山药 (shanyao, literally mountain medicine, a kind of root vegetable). Plus a pile of hot peppers and a few other things that make up the "fragrant" part. It's pretty spicy, and my stomach always punishes me the next day for eating it, but it's soooo tasty.


A temple in my back yard

This post covers things I saw on 5 October, 2010.

Several times each day, I would walk between my hotel and Line 4's Xisi Station. Eventually I noticed that over the construction fence there were some golden-tiled roofs, which usually indicate something interesting.

So I walked around the corner and found the entrance to 广济寺 (Guangjisi), which is a Buddhist monastery and temple. Entrance is free.

As with the other temples I've visited in Beijing, it is somehow insulated from the hustle and noise of the busy street just outside its walls, creating a little island of peace and tranquility.

One difference between this and most of the other temples in Beijing is that this is an active religious facility, not just a historical relic. It is the home of 中国佛教协会 (the Buddhist Association of China).

It's not a very big temple compared to something like the (The Temple of Heaven), but it's very nice in a humble way. One odd thing I saw there was a Buddhist nun wearing her robes wandering around in the parking lot, yelling loudly to no one in particular. I couldn't understand a lot of what she said, but she seemed to be complaining about things "they" were doing. If I saw a woman doing this in Seattle, I would assume a mental illness and hope she's getting treatment. On my way out, I saw a couple of civilians (not wearing robes at least) talking with her, apparently trying to calm her down.

It seems to be traditional that temples have cats, and my personal tradition is to take pictures of them.

I circle the Square

This post covers things I saw on 5 October, 2010.

On the first day after the music festival, I figured that with it being the national holiday and all, Tiananmen Square (天安门广场) might be interesting. It was certainly crowded.

That's what I saw after coming out of the Tiananmen West subway station. The empty gap just on the other side of the fence is Chang'an Avenue (长安街), and beyond that is the Square filled with people. It was a warm, sunny day, and there were vendors everywhere hawking ice cream bars and little Chinese flags.

Turning around from that spot, you see this:

I wanted to get a closer picture of the big Mao painting, so I crossed the little bridge that takes you toward the Forbidden City (known to the Chinese as 故宫 - Gugong, or Palace Museum), and found that crowd control didn't allow me to return. I was swept along with the masses.

I've already seen the Forbidden City, and it was really crowded, so I looked for a way out that didn't involve buying a ticket. I found it with the entrance to Zhongshan (中山) Park, which for some reason I had never before visited.

Just inside this entrance (it's the East gate of the park) is the Southwest section of the Forbidden City's moat.

And it seems I wasn't the only one who ducked into the park to get a little break from the crowds outside.

I wandered around the park, my only plan that I wanted to exit to the south, where I could get back to Tiananmen Square and the subway, but I took my time. The park is named after 孙逸仙 (Dr Sun Yat-sen), who is generally known to Mainlanders as Zhongshan, and is regarded as the father of modern China.

Given the history of the founding of the People's Republic of China, their reverence of Zhongshan seems a little odd, what with him being a Nationalist rather than Communist, but he's been branded a "proto-socialist" Forerunner of the Revolution and escapes the negative image of his successor 蒋介石 (Chiang Kai-shek).

As I wandered around, I came across these:

It's a long rack of 特鐘 (teqing) stone gongs. They can be struck with a mallet and produce a ringing tone.

Another common sight in any of China's historical places is parents or grandparents taking pictures of the kids dressed in royal costumes, or at least headwear.

And no Chinese park is complete without some Strange Stones.

I thought this old couple was really adorable. They looked like country folk come to the big city to visit their families and see the festivities.

And of course there's another thing needed to complete an old Imperial park:

Gotta love the theme of the decoration on those things! Looks more like the Fourth of July than Chinese National Day.

I finally worked my way around to the South Gate and took the pedestrian tunnel to Tiananmen Square.

People mountain, people sea, as they say. (It's a Chinese expression meaning a lot of people: 人山人海. My teacher told me there are several stories about how the expression came about.)

Normally the entire square is flat paving, but a big fountain surrounded by flowers has been constructed, and there were quite a few other big floral displays here and there. They've also installed two massive video screens.

They show inspirational scenes of beautiful landscapes, historic places, and (of course) the Olympics. In between the two video screens there's a giant portrait...

...of Sun Yat-sen. In the background is 人民英雄纪念碑 (The Monument to the People's Heroes), and behind that is Mao's Mausoleum.


Beijing Town (Slight Return)

Choosing to visit China during the first part of October has both advantages and disadvantages. It's a national holiday, so lots of people will be out and about, and everything possible is going to be open for business. However, the crowds can be large, so you have to be very patient.

After being away from China for more than a year, I returned to Beijing in October of 2010 for a two week visit. Mostly I planned to visit friends, with only vague plans to check out a few of the sights I missed during the time I lived there. There was also the MIDI Music Festival, which I've already written about on my Sina blog in four parts.
During most of my stay, I was at a little guest house in a Xicheng District hutong.

Strange as it may seem, I'm actually a little unclear what the name of the place was. When I found it on the internet and booked my room, it was called Hutong Courtyard Hotel, which is a ridiculously generic name. The sign over the door says 四和居招待所 (Siheju Zhaodaisuo, or Siheju Guest House), the yellow sign says G.D. Hotel in English and Siheju in Chinese, and the business card I picked up at the desk says Good Stone Hotel on it.

In any case, it's a cute, if a bit dilapidated, courtyard hotel with a half dozen or so rooms surrounding an open area where they dry laundry and grow gourds. All of the rooms are hand painted with flowers on the walls.

The beds are old-fashioned style with minimal padding (not soft at all, but I got used to it). There was a flat screen TV mounted on the wall above the desk. They advertised free wi-fi, but the signal was so weak in my room I could never connect; I had to take my laptop to reception to get online.

I had a room with a private bathroom, though some of the other rooms had to share a separate bath.

Those are butterfly stickers on the walls. You can see that the shower is not enclosed, but open to the bathroom at large, and it all drains in one corner. In theory, at least. As with much Chinese construction, the slope is not really sufficient for quick drainage, so the bathroom floor was often wet. You have to be careful where you hang your towel if you want it to be drier than you are when you finish showering.

The shared bathroom did not have a Western style toilet.

The staff consisted of a lady and her boyfriend (if I understood correctly, she is divorced and has been with this guy for many years, but they never bothered getting married) plus a young woman who came around a few times to clean up. None of them really spoke any English, but they were very friendly and quite willing to deal with my bad Chinese pronunciation, limited vocabulary, and frequent pauses to look up a word on my phone's Chinese dictionary app. It was a little awkward and frustrating at times, but in the long run I feel that it helped my language skills a lot being forced to rely on my Chinese. Several times, they shared breakfast with me and never charged me for the food, I even had a beer out of the cooler one night that they didn't bill me for; they also did some of my laundry for free.

The hotel was also fairly cheap. I won't go into the hassles I had getting them to take my American Express card for payment - that's a story for another day.

The neighborhood around this stretch of Xisi Avenue seems to consist mainly of little hardware stores, so if you're in Beijing and need a light fixture, a ceiling fan, or plumbing supplies, this is where you go.

It's a very ordinary part of Old Beijing with nothing touristy to attract foreigners, though it's not too far from Beihai. Luckily, the new subway Line 4 has a stop very close by, which makes it pretty convenient to get just about anywhere. There were several restaurants within a few minute's walk, and one stop north on Line 4 is one of my favorite parts of town: the street full of music shops. Two stops south is the Xidan shopping area, which is a good place to buy clothes and books.

During my first week there, it was the national holiday, so the other rooms were full. A large family from Nanjing was there, and they brought their little dog.

We chatted one evening in the courtyard. One of them was a college student who knew a bit of English, but the chatty old man didn't, and his accent was difficult for me to understand. I showed them some of the pictures on my camera, and they insisted on posing the dog for me. They claimed that Nanjing dogs are better than Beijing dogs, but I'm not sure in what way. When I told them I was from 西雅图 (Xiyatu, Seattle), they of course mentioned Sleepless in Seattle, which seems to be a movie everyone in China has seen.

In Beijing, October's weather is generally pretty pleasant. It rained a couple of times while I was there, but was nice most days, following the usual pattern of clear skies after a rainfall, gradually diminishing air quality over the course of a week or so, then another rain. By the end of my stay, it was starting to get a little chilly in the evenings, but not so much that I needed to see if the heater in my room worked.


The Dianying Diaries, part 5

Part of a series dealing with Chinese cinema. 电影 (diànyǐng) is the Chinese word for movie, the two characters literally meaning “electric” and “shadow.”

图雅的婚事 (Tuya's Marriage)

2006 Chinese production is set in Inner Mongolia. It was directed by 王全安 (Wang Quan'an) and stars 余男 (Yu Nan). It provides and interesting mix of drama and humor that feels very true-to-life.

Yu Nan is actually from Dalian, not Inner Mongolia, but to me at least she seems completely convincing riding a horse or camel. All of the dialogue in in Mandarin, though there is some Mongolian singing.

She plays a poor woman with a herd of sheep, a camel, a horse, two children, and a disabled husband named Batoer.

They live in a compound of buildings with no running water; they have a little electricity from a windmill on the roof. They have a neighbor named Shenge who provides a lot of comic relief.

We first meet him lying in the road. He got drunk and wrecked his motorcycle, and luckily he's not seriously injured. He was drinking because his wife left him for another man, something which apparently happens quite often.

Along with their other problems, these people are faced with a constant shortage of water. Batoer's injury was sustained while he was trying to dig a well near the house. Without the well, Tuya has to travel to a spring 15km away once or twice a day...

...in addition to tending the sheep, cooking the meals, and acquiring supplies. Shenge helps out sometimes.

When Tuya hurts her back, it becomes apparent that their lives can't continue as they have. Batoer's sister offers to take care of her brother.

So a plan develops: Tuya and Batoer will get divorced, and Tuya will only marry a man who promises to allow Batoer to live with them and be cared for.

I'm not sure whether it's because of Tuya's reputation as a hard worker, or just that there is a shortage of women in the area, but as soon as word of the divorce gets out, suitors start arriving at their house.

After a couple of less than appealing candidates, a man named Baolier shows up in a Mercedes. He went to middle school with Tuya and always liked her. Since leaving the area, he's become a rich man in the oil business.

The whole family gets into the car and Baolier drives to a nursing home in the city. The plan is that Batoer can live there, and Tuya and the kids will move into Baolier's mansion in another city.

It's a long drive to the city where Baolier lives, so they stop at a hotel, and we get to see Tuya dressed in more contemporary clothing.

But, like so much in Tuya's life, things start to go wrong. There is eventually a wedding, but I won't tell you who she decides to marry.

One of the things I really loved about the movie was the music. It was all very Mongolian sounding, with prominent use of the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) and traditional singing (though not throat singing).

The vast open space of the Mongolian plane provides stark settings of great loneliness. Everything is far away, and there are no easy means of communication.

Life is very hard in this place, and the strange decisions they make (like the divorce and finding a new husband) are the only way the people can get by. They're doing the best they can in the circumstances.

I believe many of the actors in this film were not professionals, though Yu Nan is well known and has been in many other movies, including a couple of non-Chinese movies (Diamond Dogs and Speed Racer). She was wonderful in this part, which is obviously far from her own personal experience. And in this role, she certainly didn't look anything like she does on a red carpet:

IMDB entry
It is available from Netflix.