China: 798 Art District, Beijing

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“That is a nice black sculpture.”

Finally, I’m back in Beijing for my last free day in China before I hop on a flight back home for the remainder of summer. I decide to spend it getting my fill of modern art at the 798 Art District, Beijing. Unfortunately, my love for adventuring on Chinese buses (marvelling at their cheapness) means that I spend an hour getting there, while my backpacking partner takes ten in a taxi… However, I adore walking around the art district complex, it’s a very cool, relaxed space, dotted here and there with gargantuan outdoor exhibits and the odd, painted-up alley, and it certainly makes up for the time-consuming task of travelling there. Although you have to dodge the kitsch and tourist-orientated gift-shops, there are some great exhibitions on offer in the free galleries here – even the various print shops have a wealth of classical Asian reproductions on offer. It’s not as wacky as a media art gallery in Chengdu were we watched a woman vomit water, cook sushi with it and feed it to her friends – all on video, of course, so it’s art, not a nasty trick –  but if there’s one gallery not to miss in 789, it’s Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art. With free entry for students, and for everyone on lucky Thursdays, it’s a gallery where you can easily spend an entire afternoon. Open Tues – Sun, 10AM-7PM (last entry 630PM).

Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art
4 Jiuxianqiao Rd.
Chaoyang District
Beijing, China
+86 10 5780 0200

Check out my guest post Artist Profiles (2 in 1) for ‘Razz My Berries Online Magazine for a few more words on the artists featured at Ullens, Sanrath Banerjee and Wang Mai!

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I’m relieved I didn’t miss this last check off my China trip; as I head back on home with my (quite dirty) rucksack, it’s gained weight from its original 5kg to 10 and it’s filled with mementos, presents, clothes, and odd bits and bobs from around my travels.

I’m finally headed home.

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Beijing, TUESC: COMPETITION TIME

Tsinghua English Summer Camp.

IT’S SINGING COMPETITION TIME!!

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Jennifer waving our class flag!!

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IRISH BACK AT ME

The Camp-wide competition of Tsinghua University English Summer Camp 2012 is this biggest event of Beijing so far with over three thousand students packed into the university’s auditorium.

Blue G’s five piece boy band (shamelessly and fearlessly) made it through the preliminaries and semi-finals with Westlife’s My Love, a tribute to my ten-year-old Westlife cowboy-hat wearing self which nearly had me in tears –  and boy, did we roar their way onto the finals stage. Nothing could make me prouder than having some of the shyest male members of Blue G feel brave enough to take on this classic tune in front of thousands of their first-year compatriots.

Old hands at the camp, prepared for the vastness of the auditorium stage may have wowed the crowd with costumes and dance routines, but with our class’s front row section to auditorium, we were banner-waving, foot-stomping, and crowd-screamingly raucous; we were the loudest faction (by our count at least) and we sang every note fit to burst along with our lad’s Westlife tribute.

As My Love became the official anthem of Blue G 2012, Stefan and I nearly passed out with exhilaration.

What a great night!

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Beijing, TUESC: Blue G Take Charge!

Cue the Class Trip!

 

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A few weeks into Camp, the Blue G group teams up with another class to take us Volunteers on a trip to the nearby Temple of Heaven, and the Beijing Hutongs. Dan, Christine and teacher, Cindy joined our Blue G teacher Jennifer, Stefan, my co-volunteer and myself as we toured Beijing with out students –  Cue Class Trip!!

Blue G had everything down to a T, from note-cards with readings describing the history of the 15th century building to the symbolic architecture in excellent English, especially by comparison to the rather bizarre translations given on the public signs, and in addition, carried rucksacks of speciality treats for hungry teachers!

I managed to escape the hoards of tourists, foreigners and Chinese alike, to snap a few shots of the Temple on its own… I can only imagine how tranquil and silent it must have lay until the original harvest ceremonies performed by the Emperors.

Now it’s quite crowded.

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As we headed into the Hutongs of Beijing, we soon realised the depth of preparation our classes had gone into as we were split into five groups and handed a bundle of photographs and a camera: we weren’t about to get off easy as our students tested out tenacity and endurance of Beijing summer heat with a Hutong treasure hunt!

The Hutongs themselves are a one-story maze of traditional Chinese courtyard architecture separated into neighbourhoods; a strange time-warp of history, not preserved, but living. The Hutongs are packed tightly with small grey-brick houses, the contents of which splay onto the surrounding streets: chickens, cartons, washing lines and old, stained vested men hunched over mahjong gesticulating with abandoned, plastic flip flops – barefoot.

Some tight alleyway doors are opened, giving brief glimpses into a cool, shaded life; a woman washes her vegetables in a worn, red plastic tub; a small child, jet bowl of hair, squats beside a docile white rabbit; a tiny, floral patterned 阿妈 ( (Āh mā) fans herself with a child’s cartooned fan. Others are tightly shut, windows curtained, front step swept and lintels hanging faded red 門聯 (ménlián) from the New Year. There are no personal bathrooms behind these low-beamed, red doorways, and instead residents from a block will share a public toilet and washing facility.

It’s hot and sticky, and our curious team of Hutong explorers have many a trailing eye following our path through these sharp turning streets as we search for the originals of our photograph clues. The winning team will take a new photo, with the clue, at the original clue site and return to the meeting point once all five clues are solved. There are moments of desperation, and even flickers of weakness, until at last we make all five clues and return, last.

Green tea ice-creams all round!

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Beijing, TUESC: Forbidden City

Forbidden City

It’s a predictably hot day when Emma, Ellie and I chose to visit one of Beijing’s most coveted set of historical buildings: The Forbidden City.

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Rivulets of sweat run happily down my back, my umbrella is up, Chinese-style, and my back-pack of water feels a lot heavier than a litre of water duly should, but nothing can overshadow the sheer scale of the endless courtyards, alleys and royal buildings in the elaborate 15th century complex of beautiful, painted-wood roofing. As we file in under a huge portrait of President Mao, we’re battling with the people towards a small dark tunnel: the entrance to the city itself. It’s hard to believe, given the addition of thousands of tourists, whistles, tour-group speakers and jiggling flags, that this entire area was once a secluded, palace of secrecy and royalty.

Instead of talking the main bee-line up the middle of the complex, we soon veer off to shaded side roads, back alleys of the servants and noticeably less crowded; from these bubbles of quiet. we observing the vast cobbled courtyard space into which the bottleneck of tourists tumble ant-like, and sweating, admiring their hundreds in a space once reserved for ceremonial events and special dignitaries.

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The contents of the exhibitions here are definitely undermined by the misty glass-cum-plastic that divides the sticky fingers and foreheads from what is possibly antique furniture – though it’s hard to tell in the dim rooms, a stark contrast from the blinding sun outside.

Having visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which houses many of the original artefacts from the Forbidden City, evacuated after a long trek across the country of China over to the small Formosan Island by Chiang Kai Chek and his followers following the Civil War in China, it is not hard to see that the two heritage sites offer very different experiences. In my opinion, The Forbidden City demonstrates the sheer vastness of the architecture and demonstrates the immense power of space and place in politics and society, whereas for the contents and details of the internal wealth, art and culture, it is best to look to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

However the souvenir shops and exhibitions in the Forbidden City offer excellent air-conned relief from the scorching morning sun.

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Chinese Chat

As a last anecdote of the day, a man in his late fifties, thin as a bean pole and wearing heavily clothes as sun-bleached as his skin is tanned, calls out to me with a flash of white teeth and astoundingly well-accented English.

It’s hard to displace the shock of the apparent incongruity of his appearance and his Oxford-style English within the wall of the Forbidden City, and his alarming tendency to peer very closely into my face when speaking knocks me straight out of my historical reverie. But while his enthusiasm to converse with us definitely straddles the border with frightening, it’s an excellent example of the curiosity of being a tourist in China; the people may stare without prejudice, and converse with mild prejudice (rightly assuming the majority of us cannot speak Mandarin), but they for the most part, are purely curious: being foreign in China is certainly an oddity in a way that is no longer common in England.

Considering the vast scale of the country, its tendency to umbrella its many ethnic diversities as a community of one country (in contrast to the emphasised individualism of the West) and it’s relative youth in terms of international tourism and wide-spread immigration it is hardly surprising that two English girls, and one half Northern Irish, half Taiwanese Mandarin-speaking girl (to be precise) can cause a small amount of fuss.

Interestingly, once most people discover I can speak Mandarin, they are suitably unnerved and back off.

It’s the real foreigners that they want photos with.

😉

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Beijing, TUESC: Class Blue G Chillaxin’

After hours chilling with Class Blue G!

It’s sometimes a hard slog in the classroom, but after-class gives Stefan and I a chance to get to know our students in a more chilled out environment – around food and basketball!

Between the enthusiasm of the students and the silly amount of money on our lunch cards, we treat our students to ice-creams, dinner, and lunches where we can, and it’s a great way to help them out with some real-time English and have some genuine down-time with the students.

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After-class Basketball - these guys are awesome!
After-class Basketball – these guys are awesome!
The girls get in on the action...
The girls get in on the action…

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You Pay, I Pay

 On a cultural note, it’s really difficult to get the class to accept our paying for things; the local custom means not only do they want to be the ones ‘treating’ us as visitors/tourists, but that they drive a hard job of resisting us. It’s a push and pull battle as we do our best to explain that we’ve simply got too much money from the University on our food cards, but the bill certainly causes a lot more social hassle than back home…

 Class Lunch with Blue G
Class Lunch with Blue G

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Not long after these events, class assistant Echo and one of our students, Joe announce that the class are planning a trip for us and we’re torn between being excitement and a niggling feeling that they’re trying to return the favour. It’s hard to escape this distinctly Asian sense of social debt, or 人情 (rénqíng) even in our English Summer Camp environment.

As much as the actual learning of grammar and spoken English is integral to the Camp experience, it’s the cultural exchange that’s, for me at least, feeling like the biggest hurdle between our teacher volunteer groups and the students – as essentially, we’re the same age and at similar stages in life. I honestly think that getting to know the other students outside the social restrictions of the classroom has been the best team-building, and friend-ship building (cheesy, I know) experience I’ve had yet.

Blue G, you guys are the best.

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Beijing, TUESC: Yuan Ming Yuan Gardens

When they do parks in Beijing, they really go all out.

Yesterday Emma, Ellie and I (all of us Exeter University girls!) headed out to a park not 15 minutes cycle from us; it’s just outside the east entrance to Tsinghua and was a perfect post-teaching day relaxation for three worn-out volunteers. It can be hard to muster up the enthusiasm for trips post 9am-4pm days as it takes huge amounts of enthusiasm, coaxing, encouragement and hard-work to keep next to 60 students motivated!

But a good wander round the park, however, is just what the volunteers ordered!

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The parks are not only absolutely alienly beautiful, they’re full of people! From school children to gossiping women, to old oba-san and oji-san walking arm in arm, the park is at some points along the clean paved paths bustling with Chinese talk and laughter between long, wafting fingers of the willows that tickle the crowd.

We’re drawn into a silent crowd of transfixed children and parents by one of Beijing’s ever present back-drop of hawkers and stalls; this man shows children how to blow a balloon of liquid sugar as he shapes them into animals of their request. This is a real life Willy Wonka and us girls are dumbed as the crowd listening to his heavily accented commentary. It’s something strange to see a late fourties man peddling his sugared sweets in a park, there’s something reminiscent of another age here, which he no doubt capitalises on, but it’s only really looking back at these photos that I think that. That said, his well-prepared mic and sound system bring this fabulous talent well into the 21st century.

Amazing.

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Moving away from the crowds for some peace and quiet we take some of these obvious tourist shots! And I’m mesmerised by an old man weeding glacial pond surface of pond weed – traditional style (Awwww yeah.). It looks like heavy going, but his back remains turned to us and his slow, practised movements are other-worldly.

Maybe I’m just too tired today, but everything seems a little surreal.

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Well, things don’t get much more surreal than the incessant paparazzi style photography that goes off all around us at any tourist spot. Looking foreign (given, some more than others) the girls attract all manners of sly photographs, but none in the realm of surreal as this.

A man, in full camoflague, tripod and ridiculous zoom lens, obviously originally taking nature shots, turns without a single trace of embarrassment to snap several of Emma, Ellie and I as we walk along from the pagoda. It’s impossible to miss the click of the shutter, and completely baffled, we can think of nothing better to do in retaliation than to catch this shot of our perpetrator (courtesy of Emma).

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I’m left pondering what exactly what I should have done in that situation, what I would do differently, and what kind of personal invasion of privacy I feel I’ve experienced. It happens so often here in Beijing that I’m baffled as to any power we have to stop it. I laugh, but I wish I was a law student so I could recite some rights…

Law students, do I even have any in this situation??

Another typical day in China, folks!

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Beijing, TUESC: Post-Orchestral Torrents

A Night with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra

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For a wonderful night in, the University treated us with complimentary tickets to the Beijing Symphony Orchestra in the Tsinghua campus. They played all the good ones, and it was frankly, one of most exhilarating and wonderful experiences of my life.

Thank you, TUESC.

On the way home, the heavens open with a torrential downpour, the thunder rumbling hungrily and promising lightening  – which I can’t see, as I’m being blinded by rain on my trusty bike.

It’s really something else, coming down with monsoon thickness and great painful gusts as I have not yet seen in China. Dressed for the summer heat that was appropriate until three minutes ago, and on my rickety Chinese bike pedalling furiously into darkness – my chain comes off.
Obviously.

After calling the cavalry – who have made it back to the forms already sans mechanical problems – and several well-practised attempts to fix my chain, I embrace the rain and saunter back the mile to my dorms in the orange-lit dark through warm Beijing downpour, to be met by a huge group of soaked friends, about to dash out and find me.

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The Attendees - pre-downpour!
The Attendees – pre-downpour!
The after-rain shot!

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Smiles all round. It’s been a great, fantastic, wonderful evening.

Goodnight.

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Beijing, TUESC: Food Time Cacophony

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FOOD TIME

Everyone’s rushing to get lunch in a technicolour of student cycling madness. Driven by hunger. Ruthless in traffic.

It’s lunch-time at Tsinghua University Summer Camp and we can barely keep our students in their seats till the last minute.
And with good reason.

There are at least six canteens over campus, best travelled by bicycle, each serving variations of Chinese food in building ranging from high-class, lazy-suzan and lace rooms to three floor mess halls of university appropriate din – and you want to get there fast (it’s blood-curdlingly hot), chain up your bike, bag a table and enjoy a hot plate of Asian food goodness. With students coming to Tsinghua from all over the continent, there are dishes to cater for every province and taste and with the excessive RMB on our dinner cards courtesy of Tsinghua Camp organisers, I’m aiming to try everything.

Having been in Taiwan a lot over my lifetime, I was expecting food to be a walk in the park, but even for me it was at times a frustrating trial of experimentation and error, and at others, absolute delight.

It’s saltier here than I’m used to, some dishes are particularly oily and the service is entirely English-speaking free. Forget the lack of English, the canteen staff barely have time to speak in Chinese.

It’s a nippy task of tense queue waiting (with much spectator curiosity from your Chinese queue-buddies), and random pointing at  dishes with an internal monologue that mostly consists of tense exclamation (at the contents of previously tame looking vats) , prayer (that the dish you choose is edible and non-spicy), expletives (when they refuse to ladle from the dish you want) and resignation (when you get your finished tray of food).

It’s a swift in-out of the ol’ meal card – it’s never more than around 5-6RMB per meal out here, including drinks – and you can get back to your table and heave a relieved sigh with your fellow volunteers.

Oh, and of course, it’s chopsticks and spoons only.

chopsticks.

“Everyone goes to Qing Qing Burger.”

I never went to Qing Qing Burger.

But then again, I was able to stick out the vast array of dazzling (and sometimes disarming) food on offer. For some of the volunteers, it had to be Western food, and that is on offer here too. Although word of warning – it’s easily four times the price of the chinese meal equivalent, and lots of Qing Qing Burger-goers soon ran out of their Tsinghua given cash.

My solid favourites remained the aubergine and mince, egg fried tomato and rice combo dipping in and out of various meat and veg sides, with an iced black tea.

Meal-times with an element of risk makes every good choice taste better.

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