August in China: An Odd Collection of Bronze Statues

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Shamian Island was leased to foreigners as they were not allowed into the city gates. The British and French shared this tiny strip of land and it’s amazing how they managed not to mix at all, staying in their separate buildings and places of worship. Today’s Shamian Island is something of a quiet escape from the frenetic and rather in-your-face Guangzhou city proper. The shady trees and quiet roads seemed to transport me out of China for a while.

There’s nothing much here except the quiet and a collection of amusing bronze sculptures that do not quite qualify as art. Here’s one of a gaggle of schoolchildren following behind their music teacher. Most of the kids are hanging on and following just fine. The last kid is the problem one. He can’t or won’t follow and is bawling at the back for attention, distracting the last boy in the chain. I wonder what this sculpture is saying. The first of the good girls in front tilts her face up adoringly at the teacher while the boys behind are acting out. Interesting description of gender roles in contemporary Chinese society.

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I quite liked this avid photographer. I felt a delicious sense of contrast taking a picture of this photographer in action.

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Of course I liked him even better from this angle. So confrontational, so bold: The real life person as mirror to the sculpture.

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And last of all was this statue on the Guangzhou-proper side. It wasn’t meant to be whimsical at all. It was a symbol of the strength of communism, represented by the powerful worker and his hammer in action. Too bad it was so ugly and too bad power isn’t really in the hands of the workers anymore.

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August in China: Guangzhou’s Many Places of Worship

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I blended in pretty well in Guangzhou as I look just like them and in Guangzhou people dress as they please. No one took a second look at my crappy T-shirt and loose drawstring trousers ensemble. In other towns, that would immediately brand me as a tourist.

I very much enjoyed walking the streets of Guangzhou in the early evening. There was just so much life going on: people balancing bundles of vegetables as they stopped by the market on the way home, rickety grandmas taking their precious grandsons out for an evening walk, younger people playing ball games on a grass patch.

I liked how Guangzhou had a lot of diversity in religion. There were of course plenty of temples which I skipped, mainly because of their similarity to those in Singapore.

On Shamian Island, a tiny plot of land barely qualifying as an islet, there was the Shamian Church started by the British. It was in a pretty spot full of trees, nicely isolated from the bustle of central Guangzhou.

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Then in Guangzhou city proper, Sacred Heart Church seemed to pop out from nowhere as I turned a corner. The Gothic architecture was a refreshing change from the traditional Chinese temples or modern buildings I’d seen so far.

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Last of all was something quite surprising. It’s probably quite hard to spot in the picture below, but this place is actually a mosque! I really dug how local architecture was incorporated into this place of worship.

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The accompanying minaret is supposedly ancient. It is speculated to be the oldest minaret outside of Mecca although some guide books say that dates supplied by the relevant “authorities” show that the tower was built even before Islam was founded. Go figure.

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It was fun trying to figure out from the map where the next place of worship was. It reminded me that Singapore’s religious diversity isn’t that unique after all. It was also comforting to realise that religious diversity and tolerance can occur spontaneously as happens in Guangzhou, without any artificial encouragement from the authorities.

August in China: Guangzhou’s Nanyue Tomb

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In terms of tourist attractions, Guangzhou is a bit like Singapore. While there are lots of little things here and there, there aren’t really a whole load of interesting things to see. Sure, there are some historical sights and lots of parks, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a theme to the place and not much really stands out as a must-see for a foreign tourist. Guangzhou is more a place to be experienced by walking through the streets and observing life as the locals live it.

The only place billed as a tourist attraction that I really liked and felt was worth the entry fee was the Nanyue Tomb. This place was discovered, as per the typical case, by excavations for a spanking new skyscraper. It was not to be when they found the 2000-year old tomb of Zhao Mo, the grandson of the founder of the Nanyue kingdom. The tomb was pretty much intact and there were loads of precious artefacts and (gulp) skeletons of concubines and servants buried together with the ruler.

The imposing front edifice of the place had some odd carvings probably copied from the tomb. It was a nice non-tacky touch, quite atypical compared to other museums I’d been to.

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Unfortunately, they couldn’t resist references to Egypt and I.M. Pei. This is as good as it gets.

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The tomb itself wasn’t too impressive because it was pretty much empty. All the articles of note were put in the adjoining museum and only little scraps put behind glass were left. Not surprisingly, it was rather claustrophic and had lots of little side chambers. The most chilling bit was how the side chambers contained the remains of real people with real functions, even for the afterlife. There was a kitchen section with skeletons of the cooks and kitchen workers, and there was a concubine section where at least three wives were identified from their jewellery near their remains.

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In the museum proper were lots of beautiful things, from jewellery and musical instruments to weapons and religious symbols. It was all pretty cool. The best part of the museum was the burial suit consisted of lots of little jade pieces stitched together to form something like full body armour. It was obviously custom-made, all the way from the hands and feet to the little paunch for the emperor’s spare tire. (The red thread was also a modern reconstruction.)

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This place was so good that I spent two hours there and left reluctantly at closing time. I’d definitely have spent longer there had I known what was inside.

August in China: Guangzhou Goose Galore

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I started August in China by crashing at Tortoise’s pad in Guangzhou. She wasn’t too impressed with the food there compared to her native Hong Kong, so I didn’t get many recommendations for where to go for good food. All I knew was that bird flu warnings or not, I was going to get my fill of goose.

And boy did I get my fill. One evening I walked down Beijing Street, a crowded shopping street crammed with tiny shops. Turning into one of the garrets, I found a little eating place like those pseudo-coffeeshops in Far East Plaza. This one had roast goose and I happily tucked into the soft kway tiao and msg-laden soup.

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In my last few days in Guangzhou, I was caught by Typhoon Nuri which was given a typhoon warning of 10! Tortoise had already evacuated back to Hong Kong but I had to stay put because of visa issues. I spent two days haunting her apartment, doing nothing but braving the occasional trip out to get food and then watching the Olympics on cable.

Tortoise had the good sense to stay nearby some decent food. There was this Teochew place that had braised goose. Ducking into the shop during lunch time, I asked for just a goose drumstick, but they only sold it by weight. I ended up ordering a jin (500 g) of goose, which worked out to beĀ  about a third of the bird. I went the faux-Atkins route and had it accompanied only by vegetables. Boy was it heavenly.

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I ate the rest of it for dinner. And for breakfast the next morning, both in front of the TV watching Typhoon Nuri’s progress.

Another time, I made it to the Chinese fast food chain Zhen Gong Fu (literally: real kungfu), complete with Bruce Lee cartoon image. I’m guessing that they probably just lifted his image from some website and didn’t bother with copyrighting. The restaurant itself, if you can call it that, looked exactly like a McDonalds or KFC. You’ll have to look closely at the picture below to realise that they actually sold steamed dishes.

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A typical set meal consisted of a double-boiled soup, some kind of steamed meat and steamed vegetables. The Cantonese in me expected to have something vaguely wholesome and at the very least not too oily, but fast food is fast food and China is China. I had some kind of pork herbal soup covered with a layer of oil, chicken in black bean paste and too much oil, and steamed iceberg lettuce with (no prizes here) way too much oil. I suppose it’s still better in the nutritional scale than McDonalds anyway. Great concept though. I wonder if it’ll fly in Singapore.

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Nuri soon fizzled out and it was back to my regular programming of pulling up a stool at a roadside stall.