Archive for the ‘Beijing’ Category

One does not readily equate a large, resolutely commercial city like Beijing with tranquility and natural beauty. But that is what you find easily within the numerous parks which punctuate the urban core. Many of the parks were the work of long dead emperors and are laid out in patterns which follow the ritual processions for sacrifice and worship of long forgotten gods. That form results in long winding pathways, and streams and fish ponds wreathed with willows. Formal flower beds are carefully planted and assiduously attended by large busy teams of gardeners. The largest and most elaborate is of course the Summer Palace, which I spoke about in an earlier post. These photos of flowers and kite flyers were taken in Ritan Park. Ritan Park is the oldest park in Beijing and its name means “sun altar” or temple. If you are so inclined, you can join local people at 6 am here, practicing the martial arts of Wushu: you would be familiar with its most common form, Tai-Chi.

Spring in northern China brings peonies and wisteria blossoms, both fragrant and extravagant harbingers of summer roses to come. The peony is one of the most iconic flowers in Chinese art (the other, and more prized historically has been the chrysanthemum, a symbol of long life). The peony is the symbol for nobility, female beauty and fertility, quite fitting to this season of renewal and rebirth.

Of course, I speak of food as well as flowers!

After a visit yesterday to a very good local market, I prepared the evening meal focusing on the first of the season, locally grown produce. Waxy new potatoes tossed with the most pungent mint and rich Irish butter, firm fleshy stalks of asparagus gilded with just a hint of that butter and lemon, and a salad of mixed baby greens with sweet cherry tomatoes. There was some protein in there too; medallions of pork tenderloin in a mustard sauce. And the fridge is full of containers of large juicy strawberries picked by my hosts over the weekend. I can honestly say, my cooking talents aside, that the asparagus was the best example of that grassy, succulent vegetable I have every enjoyed. Fingers crossed for a few more weeks of harvest!

You will note that I said that in Beijing one can find natural beauty: I did not say nature. One of the pronounced cultural differences between us is the almost incalculable value we in the West place on the experience of nature. We seek out nature when we need to be revived, energized or renewed, depending upon our urban malady of moment. For some, we feel closest to the transcendent, a sense of something larger than ourselves, however we define it, only in the presence of nature.

In China, not so much. Nature is that which needs to be, and indeed, must be, controlled, harnessed and mastered. It is emphatically not better left untouched. Better to be bent to one’s will. As I understand it, native Chinese here do not take a walk in the woods, hike in the hills, camp under the stars, or even dine alfresco. In such an ancient civilization, there has been a lot of mastering of nature over the centuries. Given the drive and ambitions of this country to be once again a dominant world power, there will be a lot more. It is not simply a need for ever more resources and power to fuel its exponential growth, although that is an imperative: it is also part of an aesthetic that prefers the tamed to the wild. Yet, there have been parts of China preserved as wildlife sanctuaries or protected zones for species unique or at risk. So perhaps there is a shifting of sentiment, but I do not believe that underlying difference in our perspective with respect to the intrinsic value of nature for its own sake has changed.

The title of this post deals with Roses, although I have not mentioned them yet or included pictures. Roses are the next wave of flowers to bloom here – and I expect a truly breathtaking display. Multiple rose buds on small, large and climbing plants are appearing everywhere – in parks, beside the roadways, ringing public buildings. Roses from China were introduced to Europe in the late 18thC, and they are said to have revolutionized the world of roses. Almost all of what we love about roses: richness in colour, unfurling shape, repeat blooming, and intensity and range of fragrance, we owe to the China genes. I am giddy with anticipation.

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It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and my host decided that the best way to escape the downpour was round up some Chinese friends and head out for KTV. KTV is Karaoke, that entertainment form which in the West generally sees a group of drunken friends, crowding a microphone and doing their best Steppenwolf/Springsteen/Bon Jovi/Green Day impression, depending upon generation and musical tastes. (They say that one’s taste in popular music is set at around the formative age of 19 – that would explain the wide range of musical options available at Karaoke bars, and why some songs you wish could be expunged from the planet still linger on like the smell of yesterday’s Chinese takeout. Mandy anyone?)
The difference with KTV, is that instead of swaying in front of a drunken crowd in a bar, you rent a private room, complete with your own large TV monitor, 2 or more microphones, and comfortable seating. Indeed, depending on the size of the party, you could have a private bar, stage, musical instruments, hostess, multiple seating areas: whatever your budget can accommodate, there is a KTV option for you. These venues are incredibly popular – in fact, I saw so much money being put through an automatic currency counter yesterday, I was reminded of the casino cages in Vegas. On weekend nights, the reception counters at these giant complexes (often 3 or 4 stories) are pressed with representatives for large groups of friends, waving their cash, seeking entry. You rent the room by the hour, and admission includes snacks, buffet lunch or dinner, or even breakfast for the 24 hour spots.
The song selection is in both Chinese and English, featuring the pop stars of the day for Taiwan, HongKong, China as well as the West. You can learn a fair bit about a culture by observing it’s popular forms – most Chinese girl singers are achingly beautiful in that fragile way, with porcelain skin (white skin is much prized here) full pouts and large soulful eyes. They wear less revealing or overtly sexual outfits than their American counterparts, tending to more feminine skirts or dresses which flow and flutter in the wind. They are all excruciatingly tiny: their legs are about the size of my arms, and I am not large. Most of the lyrics and stories relate to common, and apparently universal themes of boyfriends lost and found. The songs are primarily romantic (sappy comes in mind) in nature, and if they are not, they are more about female strength and power, than in your face sexuality. Mostly. There was a Chinese version of what looked like the Pussy Cat Dolls – Pussy Cat Kittens anyone?
In the extensive song selection (searchable by song title or artist) there are memories of raging hormones to be evoked back to about 1960. Some of the accompanying videos define cheesy – as in bad 80’s frizzy hair, harem pants, big shoulder pads, sparkly hair ornaments, and are just hilarious. Others are the original footage from the 60’s – I sang (badly) California Dreaming along with Mama Cass and the gang. You will find all of the classic Beatles song and of course Celine Dion – the theme song from the Titanic, My Heart will Go On, is reported to be the only English language song that all Chinese can sing along to without a tele-prompter. Now that is a pretty sweeping statement but it is said with confidence. Oh, and they also do the hand gestures complete with dramatic chest pounding at the right moments – now that, I need to see!
We spent 5 hours singing – well, they sang- I squawked through about 5 numbers. The hours flew by, partially because I was listening to 3 good singers practice their favourites and learn new tunes, but also because, frankly, I got into it. The technology smooths out most of your rough spots and if you forget how it goes, or can’t hit the high notes, your potentially embarrassing moment is filled in for you automatically. One benefit of singing with those who take it seriously, and many do, is that you get encouragement and tips along the way. Like most people who have found something they love, they want to share it with you, and have you enjoy it as much as they do. Next time, I am going to bring my ipod so I can find the songs I love faster. I also want to learn to control my breathing and intonation – should tone down the squawking. Oh, and did I mention that all of this entertainment was had without the benefit of alcohol – although that might have improved my performance. However, it’s time to let those Western inhibitions about performing outside my comfort zone go – if not now, when?
There is a seamier side to KTV which you might expect when the words “private” and “room” are put together and offered for sale by the hour. I did see that Youtube has some KTV videos that are restricted: you can assume the rest. I did not see any companionship for hire yesterday, but given that prostitution is pervasive here, and throughout Asia, I am not surprised. There is much that can be said, and has been said already on that unfortunate and some would say inevitable business. But not by me. At least, not today.

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A cool day but still not cold enough to deter hundreds of tourists, from China and West, bent on exploring 290 hectares of parkland which were the Empress’s escape from the oppressive heat of the Beijing summer. (For perspective, Central Park in NYC is 341 hectares) Foreign tourists (read Caucasian) have become common enough in this city that we are not stared at quite as much. Well, for as long anyway. I imagine that at one time if you saw another Westerner on the street or in a cafe, you would flag them down and engage in conversation, if only to hear the English language. With so many tours and business people here, you quickly glance at each other to seek an obvious connection (Blue Jay cap? Canadian flag patch on the backpack? RIM ID badge hanging around the neck?) and then move on just as swiftly. The pictures I attach are from the 1886 pleasure gardens of Empress Dowager Cixi, rebuilt from the 1750 original which was “brutally burned down by the Anglo-French forces in 1860”. I italicize the later expression to highlight it, since it seemed to be repeated on nearly every descriptive plaque in front of every building on the extensive grounds. There are a lot of buildings. That’s a lot of Anglo-French destruction. I found the repetition amusing after awhile, in ah geez, I get the point, no need to tell me twice or twenty, we were bad dudes, where can I offer apologies for the Anglo portion for something that happened 150 years ago? Needless to say, I amuse only myself with these thoughts. There is no sense of humor where their history is concerned. Think of it: according to a recent piece in the Globe, “by 2040, the Chinese economy is projected to be twice as big, as the combined economies of the US, Japan and the biggest European states”. And what we in West don’t understand, yet, is that the Chinese would consider that state “a mere return to the natural order of things.” Again, from the same article: “For almost 2000 years, with the exception of the last 150 years, China has been the world’s largest economy…..the rulers are very conscious of history. If you probe beneath their calm exterior, there is a deep anger over the humiliation of the past 200 years. And there is a belief that only a dominant economy will allow China to win the global influence it seeks”. So, with that as backdrop, I will keep my “tongue in cheek humour” well in check.

The reconstructed buildings in the Park are stunningly beautiful as are the cherry blossoms that bloom profusely and the lavender violets that cover the hills. But when I noticed the glazed over looks on my polite hosts’ faces as I ran through the results of my happy snapping day, I learned that it is much of a muchness. The vibrant colours, the opulent gilding, the elaborate pagoda styling and delicate scenery paintings on every surface will be repeated throughout Beijing in all of the historic sites. Of course I will still visit the major ones regardless, but it speaks to the need to label the pics before I forget where I took them!

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