Wei Wei out there

Enter the world of Chinese contemporary art with the number 798. Ai Wei Wei, the Western-revered Chinese artist-cum-activist is one of many to have a gallery in the 798 district, a disused electo-optics factory complex in the North-East of Beijing.

Area 751 in 798 district

The Danshanzi factory as it is known, was initially to be a project in conjunction with the soviets as part of a socialist-unification programme and implemented under one of China’s five year economic plans. The Russians, however, were unwilling to undertake a programme at the time and shifted the co-opted project to East Germany.

Today, between factory funnels, dormant locomotives, well-angled steel gratings, wooden panelling, glass-fronted galleries and green verges enclose Beijing’s foremost expressive space. It is a Disneyland for art-junkies at its worst, a powerful and challenging voice of politically-strangulated Beijingers at its best. Although some of the exhibitions disappoint, the main showcases do not fail to impress. Between Tibetan enclaves and elaborate gallery entrance halls – much of the space is used to display a rage at the West. I feel as if I am trespassing on a cultural space that is not my own. And of course it isn’t.

Manufactured art

One gallery, set in an arched warehouse surrounded by a moat is a curious gallery of scenes from the bible – all the characters are Chinese – all with their eyes closed, wearing wide Berlusconi-esque grins showing black mouths – I can’t help but get the feeling there is a confusion and fear at Western narratives clashing with Eastern traditions. Perhaps there is -for some reason for fears of a Western ‘colonial mentality’ supposedly ‘civilising’ China. Further galleries express similar messages – one shows 500 portrait pictures of a woman who plans to sell her body to fund her way through life with the money coming from Western customers – another gallery depicts a Buddha holding western foods, gorging on fast-food and spilling energy drinks around himself. The fears are not unfounded – history tells of how Western powers colonised parts of China including Hong Kong – the 99 lease of which ended only in 1997. But this is a different shade of colonialism, although it retains the same colonialist, capitalistic ideology.

500 Photo Hangar

Throughout the day – expensive cars rolled up and down the district – with young Chinese men and women at the wheel – perhaps searching for a way to express their new wealth. I could easily see this space is not just used for the storage of art – although I couldn’t be quite sure what else was going on. After short trip into a Japanese number-light gallery I left 798 with a Tibetan CD and a greater understanding of Chinese fears of the present for the future – expressed through universal symbols. I find a shop devoted to asking the question of the West and its influence in China – change is happening so fast and few are ready for it. How should one react? I’m still finding that out…

A typical street in 798

Japanese number-cruncher

Immortality and individuality

If you think you’re not going to reach that ever-waning goal of immortality, why not build over 8,000 unique warriors to continue your reign in the afterlife. Not that you could ever imagine hundreds of thousands of tourists almost two millennia later would be pointing boxes-of-conquest at your creations would be the evidential outcome of such an enterprise, but more that your tomb would not be breached by men with spades.

Terracotta Warriors

If fact it is men with spades, chisels and new technology that have begun restoring these human-resembling figurines to their former glory. Meanwhile people from all around the world have the pictures to prove it.

Emperor of the first Qin Dynasty, Shihuangd was a formidable ruler in BC 200 – a man who united China. His project of self-preservation has lasted the test of time, albeit not in the way he intended.

Today the site of the Terracotta Warriors built in the formal capital of China – Xi’an – is an economic magnet for the people of the city – drawing in thousands of people from across the globe.

Yet what interested me, while fighting for camera space with Chinese tourists, was the scale and uniqueness of the giant soldiers. Each soldier, general, archer had a different hairstyle, and soldier from general could be told apart by their poses – each soldier was given individuality. It is this notion of individuality which is not a common trait in China – as it is in the west – which got my curiosity going the most.

Government entrance exams

Along the trail across the eight-million populated city we took a trip to an ancient university of the Tang Dynasty where young government civil servants have to pass a set of exams to enter government – Xi’an was the capital of China at its cultural and political height.

Old house in Xi’an 

Skipping past the Banpo museum and we reached an old part of the ancient capital. A bare-backed middle aged man was playing with a puppy on the ground when we arrived with a guide – and he beckoned us to cross the threshold of his inset wooden shackle – complete with a wall-covering depicting Chairman Mao. He showed us his silk-covered bed, lion street-party decoration and pictures of his great-grandmother who originally owned the property. This was China as it used to be. Today houses like this and streets like this one have been left by the young for better prospects in the cities our guide mentions. Urbanisation in China is happening at a lightning rate – a blitz of capitalism and no-one really seems to know where it will end – or if it will come to an abrupt stop. So far it shows no signs of slowing…

Xi’an of old

Bamboo boatmen

Attack of the bamboo river boatmen

Bamboo boatmen

When floating down the river Li in the Guangxi region, the last thing one expects is a group of men on bamboo rafts to edge towards you. In an almost attacking formation these local men donning triangular linen-hats line the riverbanks, wait for a liner full of Europeans to flog their wares. Yet these attackers are harmless, smiling at the crowds in search of a few Yuan for their produce. Beaming up at the passengers, they can only but charm them, Spanish and Germans like. Months of practice must be put in to enable these men to hook their rafts onto the mini-liner, without compromising their stock as well as their safety at times.

River Li

The shape of Li

One of the most iconic areas of China, the river Li is a world of its own. Hundreds of tourist liners jet through the narrow passageways beneath the mountainous limestone-crags dispersed along the route. Locals opt for low-level bamboo constructions – mini-scooters of the water as they almost effortlessly form a line of movement towards their destination – whether it may be a wooden hut hidden beneath the hillside caves or in the local villages spread out along the river. I can’t help but pretend to be a professional photographer, snapping various angles to create shapes out of the rocks – exercising the power of mental creativity.

Destination Yangshuo

Hong Kong haven

Yangshuo is much like an Oasis town. Not quite a Las Vegas in Death Valley, but a haven of Westernised consumer shops run by the Hong Kongese and hostels for eager backpackers to rest their heads before tackling some limestone rock faces. And no, it’s not raining, it’s so hot in China that people use umbrellas to keep them in the shade. This one Westerner is doing the opposite – walking in a white vest with no defences against the suns cursing rays.

Chinese just want to have fun

Delayed marriages

After a lengthy boat trip and tour of the local area we had a more candid chat with our guide about life in China today. I should not have been surprised that young people (like most places in the world) like to party at the weekend, play basketball (and a bit of soccer) but they don’t have compulsory military service. Something which I only recently found out today, which may be contested but it seems China has the oldest age at which couples can get married. Men have to wait until they are 22 years old before tying the knot, while women have to have reached the age of 20 before marriage. Next there is the issue of the One Child Policy. Minority groups enjoy exceptions to the rule  because they can have more than one child, but our guide told us many Chinese people go to Hong Kong to give birth so that their children can have more freedoms not granted for their area. As in any country there are cultural problems, but as far as I have seen in Guilin, they are at least well hidden. The children are polite and respectful of adults – a group came and watched us eat and chat – fascinated by our Western ways, but asked to do so.

Lovers in Guilin – mystery advert

Guilin Lights

Strolling around in Guilin at night is like walking onto a warm-up session for a non-competitive mini-scooter Grand Prix. Couples glide around on electric scooters embracing as they pass subtly lit bridges, with hues of green, purple, red and yellow reflecting off newly laid tarmac bridges and winding lakes. The Chinese young men chat as they effortlessly motor around the city – almost travelling in circuits, narrowly avoiding lonesome pedestrians and wayward cars. But no-one is in a hurry. This isn’t Shanghai any more. This is a more southerly part of China located in the Guangxi Autonomous Region.

Markets for miles

Miles of market stalls line the central area of the city, somehow all managing to co-exist if not profitable, it provides at least a social event for the locals. There is barely another Westerner in sight, but one does still not feel bothered by intruding glares. The centre of Guilin is a safe area, even at 11pm. The only bother comes from pedal taxis offering to take you home, but it is not the same thrill as scooting around on an electric powered bike. The locals charge their low-powered machines up at newspaper-style kiosks and can last for 6-7 hours, ready for a glide around town. Under and over the bridge, these aimless travellers pass the time through experiencing the city as it changes before them.

Cave lights

Colour is also infused at the Reed Flute Caves, a setting the bikers would feel comfortable in as low atmospheric lights bring shapes of imaginary mushrooms, peanuts, cities and snowmen to life. In the “Crystal Palace” the epicentre of the caves the reed flute was played with a light show, causing a Chinese wave of “wows” through the crowds of visitors.

I have come to appreciate the Chinese character. Polite, even if communication is very much limited or lost in translation. A glass of sparkling water became a can of coconut milk, a plate of braised chicken became bony lumps with a claw thrown in. Some cultural differences aside, what makes the Chinese, Chinese? What makes the British, British one might ask. It is still too early for an assessment. But a few things can be said. People here are not overly religious, perhaps more spiritual than religious, they are economically savvy, not brash or showy, they are incredibly talented and hard-working. Some of the more difficult questions still have to be asked, but social harmony really is a feeling I am getting from the place at the moment, at least in Guilin. For example, felt completely safe in this city of 1.9m people, walking around at night.

And finally…

O, yes and I need your help – who is this in the photo?
Ronaldo said he was going to sue over a similar advert…

Who is this footballer?

I got quite a shock when I saw this prolific scorer holding a packet of throat sweets in China!

Jewish Shanghai

During WWII the Archbishop of Canterbury lobbied the UK government to let Jewish refugees into the country before the onslaught of Nazi Germany would cause thousands of families to be sent off to concentration camps. Many were accepted but many more were refused with the exception of the kindertransport mission. Indeed few governments across the globe were prepared to allow a flow of migrants, especially at a time of economic hardship. But there was one government and one city in particular that welcomed ships of refugees to their shores. That city was Shanghai.

Over 30,000 men, women and children escaped to the East on ships set-off from Italy across the globe. The journey took them below the tip of Africa and past India on its route to the Eastern shores of China. There was momentary refuge for these Jewish families in Shanghai as the Japanese were soon to round them up into a Ghetto in the Hongkou district, where the memorial museum stands today.

Documentaries and personal documents tell of how people survived and interacted in the Ghetto area, policed by the Japanese. Michael Blumenthal was one such Shanghai resident who went on to become the U.S. Treasury Secretary.

Nanjing Road

It was surprising, but today I got a dose of more traditional, commercial communism. Department stores with rented-out sections reminded me of communist Russian shops. Nanjing street was not the force of commercialism I had perhaps expected, but it enlarged my perspective of shopping in Shanghai. There is clearly huge demand, hundreds of people filtered through clothing stores to pick their favourite t-shirt or pair of shorts. A stroll to the end of Nanjing Street takes one to People’s Square, at the epicentre of metro activity.

Yet Shanghai is not all riches and glam. From the overground metro I took this picture, showing more shanty-town constructs even in the heart of the city…

Shanty Shanghai

The evening ended with an all-you-can-eat meal at a Japanese restaurant beside the hotel. A Kiwi with his tall Chinese wife told us a few (expat) truths. He spoke of how the Chinese children study six days a week and have tests on the seventh, how in-laws live with the partner after a marriage and how incredibly difficult it is to learn the language.

And with that the Shanghai chapter ends. Tomorrow involves an early trip to Guilin. On the TV Hillary Clinton has just visited China and has spoken of dealing with the debt problem in the USA and three officials from China railway have been sacked after a fatal collision involving high-speed trains.

But tomorrow will bring more of historic China to life.

Shanghai – Business Class

Pudong – China’s Financial District

Centre-Stage

China almost needs no introduction as a fascinating fast-changing country. With unprecedented growth in the past couple of years stories of miraculous development have been hitting the front pages of the Financial Times and other media outlets in the UK and across the western world. The world’s most populous country (containing more than 1.3 billion people)  is soon to overtake USA as the world’s largest economy although GDP per capita remains 94th in global rankings. A communist state created in 1949 it is hard to believe China is a powerhouse of the world economy. But rather than read all about it, I took a plane to China, the world’s next superpower to find out for myself what all the hype was about.

In this blog I will be documenting my experiences – the sights and sounds – of a country on centre stage. It will be a discovery of the Chinese as much as a reflection of the media, inter-dispersed with anecdotal tales of personal interactions, searching for evidence of development and cultural showcasing. My journey will begin in Shanghai, with visits to Xi’an and Guilin, culminating with an internship at a Chinese company in Beijing.

Business on the Bund

Business-Class

As I took my seat at the very back of a Jumbo airline from Amsterdam, I was already eyeing up the co-travellers, all too aware of the party of children on some kind of football tour of Europe. Lamenting my fate, I took my seat with a reluctant slump into the cushioned armchair, while chest-height youths dropped footballs on unsuspecting passengers.

It was going to be one of those flights – I thought – the only problem was that it was to last 11 hours, racing towards the sun, cutting out time for much needed sleep. But today was my lucky day. A Chinese-looking attendant explained I was to give my seat up for a family of four, to be upgraded to Business class. Without a word of questioning I took my bag and marched to the front of the plane, quietly hiding any doubt that I was meant to be sitting in business class in the first place while concealing joy at the prospect of sleeping to the hum the massage-lounger chairs. As it turned out most of the people sitting in this area were transferred from economy class for myriad reasons, but I was not going to let that take away from the experience.

Perhaps it should have, but it didn’t surprise me that the Chinese girl sitting beside me had the Financial Times in her hand, and adorned an expensive looking coat. She was a student of International Business on her way home to Shanghai after completing an undergraduate degree at Coventry. She immediately introduced herself as Nancy, clearly an Anglicised version of her Chinese name, upon which I asked what my Chinese name would be. She said it was a brand name “Phillips” Great, I thought, I will be associated with a microwave or a fridge-freezer while living in this country. Perhaps “Phil” is how I will introduce myself from now on I thought. We discussed the front page of the Salmon-coloured broadsheet, and I joked that China was buying the West, purchasing Euro-bonds and holding trillions of dollars, while Obama was having difficulty raising the debt ceiling. She didn’t laugh but excused the programme – explaining it would bring more opportunity to us (although we would owe the Chinese big time in the future for borrowing so much money.) So there I was on a plane, escaping from economic woe to the prosperous East, discussing the demise of the Western economies as we knew them.

Yuyan Gardens as night approaches

Shanghai-Nights

Shanghai is  a city of the night. The attention of any visitor is drawn vertically to neon lights, giant glass buildings separated by leafy streets and a light smog illuminated by red and white tree-lanterns. In China it is not uncommon for a westerner to immediately feel taller yet more conspicuous, looking down in the air-cooled tube, trying to decipher unintelligible characters on the TV screens. Each station reminds me of Canary Wharf in London, glass barriers and shiny floors separating commuter with the outside world. The tarmac is freshly laid, Huanhai street is illuminated with brand names, fancy shoe stores and shop attendants armed with fashion-dog helpers. Revellers can be heard on street corners preparing for a night out, while older couples waltz in the open air to a ghetto-blaster rendition of classical tunes.

Donghu road in downtown Shanghai

Shanghai-Days

In the morning I come across a standard problem for the Western traveller while getting measured for a tailored-suit – the heat. There are various ways of preventing a deluge of bodily cooling liquids, or at least concealing them. Unfortunate as it may sound, not even the Chinese are immune to humid atmospheres. I try to emulate the male tactic of wearing a light cotton t-shirt with shorts and open trainers, but this does little to close the glands. I suspect I am the butt of jokes while getting fitted for a navy suit, as a sweaty white-man unable to fend off nature’s affront. The picture of Rafael Nadal on show in the front window does nothing to dispel momentary embarrassment either. But I walk out of the shop with my pride intact. Meanwhile I have seen many women carrying sun-umbrellas, fans and light tops, while few men go topless, wear sandals and walk slowly. Ok – It’s not London – so walking more slowly should not be a problem.

Back outside, the streets testify to a seemingly dichotomous atmosphere. As in any city poverty is a fabric of Shanghai, but it is well hidden as far as I have seen so far. The gleaming towers of Pudong look out over the Huangpu river carrying industrial shipping vessels, and stares at tourists and locals lining the Bund. Tourist trap shops are well concealed in contemporary commercial units fashioned out of traditional-chinese architectural structures – as roof lights illuminate the sky above the Yuyan Gardens.

After spending only one day in the cosmopolitan capital of China, I almost feel at home. Even with little understanding of the language – it is straight-forward enough to navigate the streets with English signs, and order a coffee with ready-made English menus.

As I finish this piece, the TV is showing a talk show in English about the rich Chinese youth, making their fortunes in shipping and discussing their fast cars. Their American accents are not matched with american enthusiasm, but a blasé explanation of their purchases. Other channels are showing highlights of the diving Championships in Shanghai, while the swimming contest was waters reach up to 30’c, just under the limit for competitions. Films, trivial talent shows and  soaps remind me that most of the channels in my hotel room are part of CCTV – China Central Television, a state controlled broadcaster operating since 1958 and is headed by Jiao Li who was formerly the vice minister of the publicity department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

Great Firewall of China

And I write with the realisation – that I can’t access Faceook, twitter, youtube and Google + – some of the many sites blocked in China – so I hope you will still be with me tomorrow.