Beijing, 28 June 2014

The first time my wife and I went to North Korea, we were given the royal treatment – well, not royal since we were in a Socialist paradise, but out of the ordinary. We were taken to the place where the Great Leader Kim Il-sung was born. We were taken to the national museum which showed Korea’s glorious history from the earliest times up to the defining moment when the Great Leader (and his family) took over. And we were taken to the International Friendship Exhibition Hall outside of Pyongyang.

international frienship exhibition hall-exterior

The point of this massive building was to show the people of North Korea, and ignorant visitors like ourselves, that contrary to what the cynical capitalists might say about the Great Leader being a political pariah he was actually very much loved by peoples from all over the world. As testimony to this blindingly obvious fact, the building housed the tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of gifts which he had received during his reign, from the mightiest of mighty personalities (heads of state and suchlike) to the lowliest of the lowly (a local communist youth league from some benighted country, for instance). These are all lovingly laid out in high-end display cabinets which are spread out through hundreds of rooms over seven or eight floors. Someone with a tidy frame of mind, perhaps the Great Leader himself, had neatly divided all the gifts by geographical region of provenance (Africa, Asia, and so on). When we arrived, the guide asked us what region we wanted to visit. Much to her surprise, I plumped for Africa, continent of my birth. Rather disappointed she took us there, but once we had visited that part of the collection, she beamed her approval when we said we now wanted to visit Europe, obviously where we should have been the whole time.

The whole experience was totally surreal. The place was spotlessly clean, so clean, so antiseptic, that we were required to put on shoe-covers. We were there in early November, and it was nice and warm inside the Exhibition Hall, in stark contrast to every other building in the country which we had visited, which were cold and dank – the population was expected to save on precious imported fuel. The lights were motion-sensitive, so rooms instantly lit up the moment we walked in and blacked out the moment we left them (there wasn’t a single window in the place). All of this hoopla for displaying gifts which were really very, very ordinary and in some cases in embarrassingly bad taste. If I had been given these gifts, after thanking the giver politely and waving him off at the door, I would have promptly put 99% of them in the attic for future “recycling”. We had to keep reminding ourselves that the whole point of this grotesque exercise was to show the viewer – again and again, obsessively – that the Great Leader was adored by all the peoples of the world. As a grand finale to all of this, the guide ushered us into a large room with a diorama at one end of Korea’s famous Mount Paektu and a Mme Tussauds-like wax reproduction of the Great Leader standing in front of it with a benign, grandfatherly smile on his face. As we walked in, piped concert music swelled to a crescendo and the North Koreans who were with us bowed deeply (we stood there, not knowing quite what to do, shifting from foot to foot, rather like atheists in a church).

Apart from the discomfort we felt at seeing all this money being poured into a project of pharaonic proportions in a country where the people are dying of hunger, we were amazed by the strangeness, not to say the bad taste, of many of the gifts. I can understand that communist youth leagues might only be able to afford a cheap ashtray as a gift, but even the high and mighty gave odd gifts. How, for instance, did Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, arrive at the idea of giving the Great Leader a basketball signed by Michael Jordan?

Kim present-basketball

Maybe President Carter’s gift explains it all: you have no idea what to give, so you choose the most colourless thing you can think of – in his case, literally so:

Kim present-glass bowl

Or you become so desperate trying to figure out what to give that you end up giving something completely ridiculous, like the Sandanistas of Nicaragua, who gave the Great Leader a grinning alligator standing up, holding out a wooden tray of cocktail glasses.

Kim present-alligator

The strange world of official gift-giving …

I was reminded of all this last weekend, when my wife and I visited China’s National Museum on Tiananmen Square. We actually went there to see if we could buy a copy of one of the Tang-era porcelain horses, to complement the copy of a Tang-era camel which we had purchased there a few years ago. Alas! The only one on sale was far too big for our modest dwelling. Disconsolate, we went around seeing what was new. Which brought us to a new exhibition of the official gifts received over the years by China’s Greats: Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, the recent Presidents and Prime Ministers, and other luminaries whose names meant nothing to me. The same general bad taste which assailed us in North Korea prevailed, although it wasn’t quite as bad as in the International Friendship Exhibition Hall. Either the cheap ashtrays had been quietly and sensibly “recycled” or people were more eager to be friends with China than with North Korea and were more careful about the gifts they made. Or both. But it still amazed us how much bad taste leaders of the world exhibit. I have to put it down to gift choosing being a decision made by a government committee somewhere, and we all know that government committee decisions lead to the Least Common Denominator, and the Great Person not having the time to check the gifts before he or she packs the bags, kisses the partner on the cheek, hugs the kids, pats the pet, and heads for the airport for the next official visit.

Luckily, though, in all this morass of dubious taste a few pieces stood out, pieces which we wouldn’t have minded keeping rather than storing in the attic for “recycling” etc. I note these here for posterity with photos taken with my iPhone.

In general, I feel that the Canadians did better than everyone else in their choice of gifts. Here is the one that Pierre Trudeau gave Zhou Enlai, a beautiful Native Indian double mask, from the style I would guess from the Pacific coast

canadian mask 002

while here is a small but lovely sculpture, also given by Pierre Trudeau but this time to Zhu De, of a seal carved in  bone

canadian seal 001

This piece was given by Governor-General Romeo LeBlanc to Jiang Zemin, a beautiful carving in jade stone of what appears to be a merman dancing.

canadian merman 001

Keeping to the regional focus used in North Korea (the exhibition had the pieces laid out temporally), we can continue with North America, where the only other piece worthy of mention actually came from the same part of the world as the previous two, Alaska. It is a gift from that State’s Government to Deng Xiaoping, of an Inuit ice fishing, made of walrus bone

alaskan inuit 001

There was nothing else of note from the rest of the USA, or from Central America, so we can fly over to South America to land in Bolivia, where President Jaime Paz Zamora gave Yang Shangkun this lovely silver mask

bolivian mask 001

and then to Brazil, where President Jao Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo gave Deng Xiaoping this delicate gift of a silver crane with crystal feathers

brazilian crane 001

(another Brazilian tried the same style some years later, but the result was not nearly as noteworthy)

After which I propose to fly over to Africa, which gave some of the best – but also many of the worst – gifts. Here are the best:

– a silver warrior riding his camel, from Niger, given by Head of State Seyni Kountche to Deng Xiaoping

nigerois warrior and camel 001

– somewhat in the same style but on a grander scale, a brass horse and rider from Cameroon, given by President Ahmadou Ahidjo to Zhou Enlai

cameroon brass horse 001

– a plate from the Republic of Congo, given by President Alphonse Massamba-Debat to Mao Zedong

congolese plate 001

– bust from Gabon, given by President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba to Jiang Zemin

gabon bust 001

– and finally a gift from North Africa, a painting from Tunisia, given by Prime Minister Hedi Nouira to Zhou Enlai

tunisian painting 001

Tunisia is close to Europe, so why not do a hop, skip and a jump north over the Mediterranean. There was precious little that was nice from there, though. The best was this glass bird, a curlew, from Finland, a gift from Prime Minister Matti Vanhani to Wen Jiaobao

finnish bird 001

(there was another Finnish gift in the same style, but unfortunately the photo came out blurred so I haven’t added it; the Swedes, by the way, also gave a gift in glass, of fish in this case, but of appalling taste)

The Belgians, through the good office of King Baudoin, made a gift to Deng Xiaoping of a small but beautiful statue of a sitting horse

belgian horse 001

while from Portugal came this gift from Prime Minister Jose Socrates to Hu Jintao of a silver plate with a lovely azulejo­-inset of a boat in full sail

portuguese plate 001

Which leaves Asia, from where there was even less than Europe. The best was this silver bowl with a glass liner of a lustrous blue, from Vietnam, a gift from the Government to Liu Shaoqi.

vietnamese silver bowl 001

And that was it, as far as we were concerned. Really sad to see how little taste our Great Leaders have.

By the way, readers might be interested to know that, not to be outdone by his father, the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il also built himself a hall, next to his father’s, to house his collection of rubbish … I mean, gifts. Luckily, we didn’t have to visit that one. No doubt Kim Jong-un, the current Supreme leader of North Korea, is currently hard at work with a team of architects designing his hall. Meanwhile, his people die of starvation and neglect.


International Friendship Exhibition Hall: [in
Kim present-basketball: [in
Kim present-glass bowl: [in
Kim present-alligator: [in
all other photos: mine

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I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg

2 thoughts on “GIFTS FROM THE GREAT”

  1. Hi! I’m looking to see who took the picture of the basketball signed by Michael Jordan and whether it’s available for use in a documentary. If so, please shoot me an email. Thanks!


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