Shanghai, 24 January 2013

The bullet train pulled out of Beijing South Station forty minutes late, starting its five-hour trip to Shanghai. After a gentle canter through the outskirts of Beijing, the train powered off when it reached the countryside, reaching peaks of 300 km/hour – small screens over the doors helpfully clocked the speed. It was quiet in the train, disturbed only by the sudden jerk to the left caused by trains whooshing past in the opposite direction – and by certain passengers talking very loudly on their phones.

After reading a few pages of a dense report, I gave up and stared mournfully out of the window. The weather was cloudy and foggy, throwing a bleak and bleary light over everything. The land was flat, flat as the Po River plain in northern Italy. There was a thin covering of snow, not enough to make the scene beautiful. The field strips were small, reminding me of the fields around Neusidlersee to the south of Vienna. Some had been planted in corn – the stalks were still standing, some had fruit trees, but most were bare of anything. Copses of poplars broke the horizontal monotony. A few villages flashed by, a group of houses huddled together in no particular order, some proudly bearing a solar water heater on their roofs. Often, the country’s modern development would intrude, with bare, broken, worked-over ground waiting for the concrete and asphalt to arrive.

The countryside was empty save for shepherds leading small groups of sheep through the bare fields, particularly the corn fields, where the sheep were stripping the standing stalks of some nourishment. The shepherds were probably Muslim Chinese who had migrated centuries ago from the west of China and are now scattered throughout China’s eastern seaboard. They brought back memories of northern Italy, where you can also see shepherds who have come down from the mountains and are feeding their herds in bare winter fields.

The only other presence was the dead. Countless gravesites dotted the landscape. You can tell a Chinese grave by the way the earth is heaped up in a conical mound over the deceased. Groups of four or five of these mounds were visible at the corner of almost every field, or so it seemed. There was no wall around them like we would have in Europe, nothing to separate them from the world of the living. Often, there would be dark trees, pines perhaps, planted nearby to keep the dead company. They reminded me so much of the cypress trees that flourish in the graveyards of Italy.

Darkness slowly set in and everything outside my window dissolved in the murk. As we started slowing down to pull into our first stop, I sighed, put on my reading glasses, and hauled out the dense report again.


Shanghai, 5 November 2012

It was difficult for my wife and I not to make comparisons with the Tate Modern when we visited the newly opened Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. Like the Tate Modern, the museum is housed in an old power station on the edges of a river running through a big city. And in this country where copying is a way of life, it was hard not to see the whole enterprise as just a me-too Tate Modern.

But let’s not be too negative. Let’s just go and make our visit.

Our understanding is that the mission of the Power Station of Art, as it is cutely called, is to focus on post-1980 contemporary art, mainly from China. It is not clear to us if the museum will use just the power station or if it will spread to some of the other adjacent old Expo pavilions. When we visited they were using just the power station, but there seemed to be works going on in the near-by spaces. I suppose this gives us an incentive to come back another time to check things out.

Anyway, when we went they were holding the Ninth Shanghai Biennale, or Biennalé as the Voice on the show’s audio-guide called it. There was a lot of dross as there always is in these kinds of shows, but a few things stood out. I show some photos below in no particular order.

This greeted you as you entered the building.

In the entry hall – hugely high, it must have been the generator room – there was this sculpture; I’m sure I saw a smaller version of it in San Francisco.

This intriguing sculpture, made with a series of neon strip lights, hung in a very high well which I suspect had been linked to the old chimney somehow.

In another stairwell was this series of kites, quite striking.

This was a lovely idea, using Chinese pots to make a very high totem pole, using the high ceilings of the generator room to maximum effect.

A smaller version has been placed on the museum’s huge terrace, which by the way has a great view over the river and Pudong. My wife and I are thinking of doing an even smaller version in our apartment – we had better start collecting the pots.

Moving to the smaller scale, here is a great picture from the Italian section of the show (Palermo, to be precise). Using just thick paint the artist has created a nice 3D effect of the sea.

While another of the Italian contingent created this amusing triptych commenting on the Jesuit priests who came to China.

From the Indian (“Mumbai”) section of the show came this piece, made of pressed burlap bags. It had a wonderful “feel” to it.

This sculptural piece was by a Japanese artist. I don’t what it is, but it seems so very “Japanese”: maybe it’s the neatness of it, allied to the strict geometry.

And finally, this small piece. It was actually one of a number of such pieces, all with the same subject of Christ on the Cross and all made with bits and pieces. It reminded me of an Italian expression, “povero christo” or “por’ christ’ ” in the dialects of northern Italy, which can be roughly translated as “poor bugger”.

One final note. From the museum’s terrace one could see, in the distance, China’s pavilion at the Expo.

It now houses the China Art Museum. That’s where my next post will come from.


Shanghai, 3 November 2012

Even though it was dark now, there were still dozens of them up and down the Bund, couples headed for wedlock who were preparing their wedding albums. Striking a thousand poses, most with Her in a red dress and Him in a matching dinner jacket, they used the river and Pudong as a background as they gazed dreamily, coquettishly, lovingly, laughingly at the cameras. Their future – young parents with babies, parents with teenagers, grandparents with grown children and small grandchildren – strolled along behind the snapping cameras. Yesterday’s buildings of the Bund, lit up as theatrical backdrops, and tomorrow’s skyscrapers on Pudong, glowing and pulsing with lights, looked down on them all benignly, while tourist ships with their outlines picked out with bright green, blue, white and red strings of lights glided back and forth along the river. Pretty, so pretty …

All the while, burly ships hauling sand, coal, ore, and other sinews of the economy threaded their way through the happy throng, rumbling quietly by, lightless silhouettes against the lights – floating daguerreotypes – working to make China great.

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first two pix:


Beijing, 14 August 2012

To get to our favourite cafés, my wife and I cross the bridge which spans my piece of canal and then walk all the way down Sanlitun road to the South Village. It’s one of the places in Beijing where many Embassies are located. It’s very green and leafy, quiet, a really pleasant place to walk.

Our usual route takes us past the Belgian Embassy. It has nothing notable about it except for one rather odd thing. Set up outside the Embassy’s perimeter wall, about two metres above the ground and facing the road, lit up at night, is a large picture of Tintin. I tried to take a photo of it for this posting,  but was warned off by the Chinese guard at the gate. So I took a photo in secret, stopping in front of the picture and pretending to take a call but actually clicking a photo! I’m rather pleased with myself even though the photo is skew.

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Tintin aficionados will immediately recognise this as a scene from Le Lotus Bleu, the fifth album of the series and first published in 1936. It comes from a moment in the story when Tintin, who has been hiding in an opium den in Shanghai to pick up information on the Japanese villain Mitsuhirato, is making his getaway. It’s quite a cheerful picture; Tintin has a slight smile as he jumps out, and the vase has a design of children carrying a paper dragon through the streets. I show here the original picture in the album.

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So famous is this picture that it is one of a number of scenes from Tintin which have been turned into collectible statuettes.

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As I say, I find it slightly odd that the Belgian Embassy, an institution I would have thought anxious to project a sense of its own importance and probity, should decide to put up a picture from a comics album in so public a fashion.  But if it is going to do it, a picture of Tintin, who was drawn by Hergé, no doubt the best known Belgian in the world, taken from a story that takes place in China, sounds like a good choice.

Apart from smiling at this picture seen in such incongruous surroundings, I was also intrigued by it. Before coming to China, I had checked what books were banned here. I had read that Le Lotus Bleu was one of them because it gave too sympathetic a reading of the Kuomintang. But the Belgian Embassy’s bold move suggested that the ban was no longer in place, if it had ever been. Or perhaps the Chinese Government simply didn’t believe that any Chinese walking by would know the story and so recognise the picture. Which is probably true and to my mind quite sad. The Chinese are missing something.

Le Lotus Bleu is of course the most Chinese of Tintin’s adventures, but Tintin en Amérique, first published in 1932, also has strong Chinese echoes for me. The first time my wife and I went to Shanghai, as we walked from the Bund to Renmin Square we found ourselves among buildings from the thirties. And all of a sudden we found ourselves at the crossing of Fuzhou and Sichuan Roads where there are four identical buildings on each corner. This picture is of one of them, the Metropole Hotel:

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… and suddenly I was in Chicago in 1932, watching Tintin roar by in a Deusenberg, chasing Al Capone’s men!

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Oh no! Just around the corner other members of the gang were waiting to gun him down! …

… I miss my Tintin albums. They are sitting in a packing box in the dark of a warehouse in Vienna, waiting for us to come back to Europe to retrieve them. I’m nearly 60 but I’m not ashamed to say that I always got a lift when I pulled one out of the bookshelf and settled down on the couch for a good read.

And I miss the times on that same couch when I read the albums to my young children, translating as I went along. How they laughed at the Fat Man Full of Soup! A minor character in the earlier parts of L’Oreille Cassée, I should clarify, who was called such by a parrot and who thought it was the carrier of the parrot who had dared so insult him. I miss the simple joys which suffused those years, as we watched our children grow. Perhaps one day I will have grandchildren sitting with me on the couch laughing again at the Fat Man Full of Soup.

photo credits
Tintin picture outside Embassy: my picture
Scenes from the album: my picture
Tintin coming out of the vase: www.1000-sabords.fr
Hotel Metropole: my photo
Tintin in Chicago: bd-blogeur.blogspot.com