Tag Archives: western

Concession kitsch

17 Oct

Tianjin, like Shanghai, is a ‘concession city’. In the mid 19th century, through diplomatic and military pressure, foreign countries had obtained full administrative control over enclaves of urban territory there. Tianjin had the most number of foreign concessions in China. Not only were the usual suspects present (France, England, the US and Japan), but also marginal powers, like Italy, Austria-Hungary, and even Belgium.

This varied foreign presence left architectural traces, making Tianjin into a ‘Museum of World architecture’ for the sake of tour guides – and for European visitors, an interesting experience of displaced familiarity.

The range of styles is somewhat reminiscent of Melbourne, with a mix of Corinthian, art deco, Victorian, and even neo-Venitian.

This concession history left a mixed heritage. Although the official story at the Museum of Tianjin is one of imperialism and abuse, the city takes a certain pride in its European heritage. Because of it, Tianjin – like Shanghai – is a ‘modern’ Chinese city, like New York or Melbourne can be. It is a 19th-20th century city, where trams, electric lights and steel architecture seem to have always been here. One architectural sign of this modernity is certainly the art-deco style of many Department stores and buildings, a reminder of Tianjin’s apex in the 20s, when it was still on a par with Shanghai.

But interestingly, whereas Shanghai has reclaimed its French concession as the core token of its sophisticated elegance and nightlife cosmopolitanism, Tianjin has chosen to focus on its Italo-German past. Touristically, the recent redevelopment of Tianjin has favoured the most innocuous concession: the Italian one. Its main street has been turned into the ‘Yidaly Feng Jie’, the ‘Italian style street’, a mini-shopping district with beer bars and murano glass shops.

The place is where you can find all things exotic and eurotic. You can find a range of international restaurants, from Thai to French, Bavarian beer bars, and even huggable Russian babouchka dolls.

Further up the river used to be the ‘Austrian-Hungarian concession’, which is now redeveloped as an extension of the Italian-style town. Large office buildings in continental style line up the riverfront – grandiose, but mostly empty.

Some buildings in that Austrian district are a full expression of concession kitsch – projecting passers-by into some Heidi wonderland.

As all things German, it comes with a certain vulgarity like naked women selling beer.

I had to wait untill my last day in Tiajin to see the height of kitsch in the Italian district: a live wedding. The central square, in front of ‘La Villa’, had been set up with a central podium and purple ribbons. Tourists around where taking photographs of the happy couple. Was there something particularly romantic – or was it a symbol of success – that anyone could join in the wedding reception? Were these people living the Sissy dream in that northern Italian decor? Like a Royal wedding, it was a public event, where everyone was invited.

But this concession is not all just kitsch. A few blocks behind the tourism district, the architecture is still Italian style. But no one really goes, except locals. People just enjoy living in an Italian style environment – it’s pretty, livable, human-sized. Tianjiners must have got used to the colonial shape of their buildings. And adapted their lifestyle. Scenes I saw in the Italian concession, or people sitting down, chatting on the street, driving scooters or hanging clothes outside, would not have been displaced in the suburb of an Italian town.

For a while now, I’ve been repeating how much China reminds me of Italy. People here aspire to the European dream of harmonious, comfortable and plump living – rather than the American vision of infinite possibilities. In that sense, livable Vienna could be the best urbam model for Tianjin – like Melbourne, its sister city. Tianjin is playing the card of livability, after all – and maybe, when the new metro operate, and the construction work in the city centre is finished, this will indeed be the most liveable city in China.

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About three or four weeks into my stay there, I started identifying Tianjin’s charm as Milanese, North Italian, Alpine. In spite of it being a seaport, there is something continental about this city. Something Austrian, or Viennese. Tianjin was once the hype of modernity, but then it faded away. While China’s modernity moved on to Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tianjin remained a city of conservative intellectuals, university teachers, and music enthusiasts. An industrial city, with a taste for good food and wine, and a certain Gemütlichkeit in daily life. It could be a real counterpoint to the more imperial ambitions of Shanghai and Beijing. A non-contender, where people simply want an industrious happy life.

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Museum Space – the Museum

1 Oct

A museum is a built-for-purpose institution that showcases the riches of the country – and tells its story, through the display of objects. It is an artificial space, constructed, curated – a nodal point of State ideology.

In a Museum, ancient objects are displayed in order to justify a current state of affairs. The Museum is a device that uses the past for the purpose of the present, weaving them together in an articulated narrative, through the organisation of its rooms and labelling system. Old writing on bones, in other words, authorises the powers that be.

Navigating a Chinese museum, I have to learn a new museography. Art is not organised by period, but by medium: painting, calligraphy, bronze, jade, porcelain, fabric. Somewhere on the side, there will be Buddhist artifacts. And a separate section, as big if not bigger, will explain history, with objects in glass cabinets, wall frescoes and lifesize reconstructions of crucial events.

Exploring the painting section of a Chinese Museum is an exercise in modesty. You do realise how I little you know. You realise how local your art history knowledge is. The linear development I learnt at school – perspective in the Renaissance, impressionism bringing perception and light into painting, leading to the triumph of abstraction in the 20th Century – is irrelevant here. In the Tianjin Museum, I spent a long time looking at a very long, beautiful landscape by Zhu Da, amazed by the abstraction of his style.

I thought he would be somehow contemporary with Impressionm. I was shocked to realize that he painted in the 17th century. As Niklas explained, he was a brdige from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, painting in that period of great historical turmoil for China. Maybe these abstract landscape were a form of escape; or maybe the conflict of white, and dark, and the various shades of grey, somehow mimetically symbolize a transition from old to new, and the seeping influence of the Ming over the Qing, of the Han over the Manchu?

The evolution of Chinese aesthetics over time is different from ours. Discovering Zhu Da at 33 made me realise how ignorant I had been. I also realised it when looking at a half-disappearing picture of a child from the Song period, dated around 1000.

It was eerily realistic, and signifying one of these happy, prosperous periods of artistic history (often the apex of a culture), where people care about simple scenes – like the late Roman empire, 17th century Holland, or 18th century France. But then, maybe China’s painting, or one branch of it, is particularly looking at reproducing the simplicity of natural life.

The most interesting section in a Chinese Museum, for those analytic intellectual brains like mine, if of course history, where ideology comes closer to the surface. The Capital Museum in Beijing is a good example of how China now positions itself as an equal partner in global history. In the semi-darkness of the ‘culture of old Beijing’ section, I looked at the chronology running along the wall, and had a real experience of displacement when I saw the picture of Confucius alongside Egyptian papyrus. Through the powers of curation, both were, somehow, made to be part of the same mental space. Part of the same narrative.

There it was, world history read from a Chinese perspective. It is part of the rise of China as a new global power, to appropriate Ancient History – all of it. Who knows, maybe the Italian and Greek economic crises could be solved by selling off some Antiquities to the Chinese government – and let them claim our Mediterranean past as part of their own history? Which, after all, in a globalising world, is no longer separate from ours.

Categories

24 Aug

Each language carries its own worldview. You learn that in your first week of linguistics. Categories do not overlap. Understanding  a foreign culture is not about memorising new sounds to name the same things we already know. It is about mapping the world afresh.

As a visitor to China, you regularly need to interrogate your own implicit categories.

This, for instance, is how the big Beijing library classifies its copies of the Bible. What does it tell us about religion in China?

Aaron took me to the temple of the Queen of Heaven, next to the old culture street in Tianjin. I asked him why people went to the temple, what they did there – ‘sightseeing’, he replied. I had a similar experience earlier, in the Beijing Temple of Heaven. I was with a Chinese friend and pointed at some tables with characters on them, asking what they were. ‘These are the Gods that do not exist – only the names’, she said.

Many people have the little household Gods in their living rooms – but they seem to hover somewhere between decoration, folklore, and lucky charms. So, well, maybe religion comes into the wide range of ‘lifestyle’ pursuits here, somewhere between massages and gardening.

I’ve got another interpretation of the Beijing categorising. Have you ever seen such books as The Tao of Pooh and A treaty on Zen and motorcycles. Have you seen how, in our libraries, books on the Tao hover somewhere between philosophy and self-help. Why wouldn’t a Chinese bookshop do the same to Christianism?

But then, judging from the list of interdictions in that Tianjin church – Christianism had to make radical concessions to be accepted.

Or is it just a problem with the translation, maybe?

Hippies

21 Aug

I’ve seen them before. I’ve seen them on a bus in Thailand, talking about Kho Pipi. I’ve seen them at Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh city, ordering a banana pancake. I’ve heard they’d reached up to Laos, then Yunnan. But I thought northern China was safe. Not a good place for them. Hostile, even.

They found a microclimate in Beijing, around HouHai.

That’s where I saw the first signs of them.

And then, I spotted them.

They’re on the street, perplexing locals.

Soon, their temples will be everywhere.

And their particular custom become the new norm.

And I have a terrible question in my head. I was there to see them. With them. Was I, then – ever – one of them? Are they my secret, hidden, shameful brothers and sisters?

Jiefang Bei Lu – day and night

19 Aug

I live just off Jiefang Bei Lu – ‘JieFang Bei Lu he DaTong Dao de JiaoKou’, is what I tell the taxi drivers taking me home. In the heart of the old French concession. Known as ‘finance street’, it is home to many bank headquarters – and has beautiful classical architecture.

It is rich in historic buildings – like the first ever post and telegraph office in China, which I pass on the way to the market or the bus stop.

 It is also lovely by night, when I walk back from XiaoBai Lou – like an atmospheric film set in Paris.

Sometimes, it’s hard to live in China – but them, I go for a walk around the block, and I think, it’s not so bad.

Comfort food

17 Aug

Sometimes, it’s really tiring to live in China. Air, people, noise; even the food is getting too much.

You miss home. So you need some sort of comfort food, something nice, reassuring and familiar. I’ve had such moments, when all I wanted was a good cup of coffee.

But it’s been worse. I’ve been further. One evening, after class, it was really hard. And I gave in.

It was wonderful!

Inventing new tastes – Chinese fusion food

4 Aug

Aaron took me to a restaurant called ‘Friends’, in ‘Magnetic city’, a new development next to the Olympic stadium. He had bought a special coupon online, which gave 210 kuai worth of food for 65. The place was quite elegant although, at 5h45, resolutely empty.

The menu was ‘western food’, but the first item that arrived confirmed what I had been thinking from the start – this would be a different eating experience.

The purple lozange came with some sort of jam, and dried flowers stuck in a cherry tomato. I thought it was the starter – strange, a sweet starter, but then why always have the sweet things last? Later, I found out from Aaron that he had to negotiate so the ice cream would come at the end. Whether it is complete carelessness, or a deliberate attempt to unsettle eating habits – I am not certain.

Followed a dish of ‘yidali mian’ (Italian pasta). Spaghetti bolognaise, Tianjin style: a strong taste of thyme, and added sugar. Italians do add sugar to their tomato sauce, to correct the acidity, but this was unlike anything I’ve ever tried from Venice to Naples.

Yet it was not unlike Hangzhou cuisine – except for the texture of the spaghetti, nicely al dente, quite Italian. Overall, the whole meal was slightly disturbing. Not bad as such, but really different from what I expected. Untill the revelation came: this was not Western food, it was fusion food. Then it all made sense!

China is famous for its regional cuisines – Sichuan, Cantonese, Shanghaiese, Beijing, etc. – I read about them a few times, and tried to memorize their differences (Shanghai is sweet, Sichuan is spicy, Beijing is salty, etc). But now, with the opening to the world, a new type of food is being produced. Some sort of ‘Chinese fusion’, presented as ‘Western’, but which is to Western food what the ‘westernised Asian’ we can find in the West is to authentic Chinese. A restaurant I found when returning to Magnetic city confirmed my intuition – it explicitly labelled itself fusion, had a menu written in English and Korean, and advertised ‘Verona’ ice cream.

But on the spot, I didn’t call the food fusion – I called it Japanese. Rather, I think it was, precisely, ‘Japanese fusion’. Japan (and Korea) has been receiving western food for a while now, and interpreting it. Sweetening the taste, cooking with rice. A dish of baked pork with cheese on rice was precisely that – a Japanese interpretation of lasagna.

Like San Francisco, Melbourne and Tokyo, it seems that Tianjin is discovering the joys of fusion food – a necessary step to becoming a Pacific major metropolis?