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drawingbeijing

In the middle of an eastern whirlwind

Now that I have been at most well known tourist attractions in Beijing, I try out the somewhat lesser known spots. This last weekend, I went to the Taoist Dongyue temple, not too far from our home. This temple was once built outside of Beijing and is now surrounded by Chaoyang. Business driven, concrete and glass covered, expat filled Chaoyang. This is a spot of old China right in the middle of booming new China. I have seen plenty of Buddhist temples by now, of which the Yonghegong, or otherwise known as lamatemple, is the biggest and most reknowned, but not actually the most charming one (that prize goes, in my book, to the Guanghua temple, with the Fayuan temple on a very close second place, both several centuries older then the Yonghegong) My first encounter with a Taoist temple was in Hong Kong, an open space at the seashore with a pagoda, amidst several abundantly coloured, almost plastic looking fantastic creatures, depicting various Gods, Godesses, spirits and demons that rule over the sea, the streams, earth, wind, mountains, fortune, sexuality, commerce, health, houses and whathaveyou. This Hong Kongese temple was built and dedicated as late as 1972. The Dongyue temple dates back to 1319, and its colours are far more muted, its creatures displayed more austere. But this temple it is a haven of tranquility and wonder, and so very different of the several buddhist temples I have seen.

One of the generals guarding the entrance to the temple.

A poster for a festival displayed in the courtyard.

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One of the cleaners taking a quick rest..

when the cleaning and the fire department come together, the result is a calm instalation.

I find it only logical, that Taoism departmentalized the supernatural world, mirroring the bureaucracy of their worldly affairs onto the heavens, or is it maybe the other way around? What was first, the chinese idea of a bureaucratic heaven which they fashioned themselves after, or the chinese tending to bureaucracy and fashioning their idea of heaven after themselves?

I know virtually nothing about Taoism (Or Daoism, as the chinese word it originates from is Dao, way or road or lane (of the road)) There are 76 departments through which the world is ruled, each featuring their officer and guardians and several ghosts, human or otherwise, pleading at the office. All of these are featured at the Dongyue temple, in little booths displaying plaster statues of the creatures mentioned, and walking past them is like wandering an eerie, chinese netherworld display booth. Four halls are bigger, better maintained then the dark, dusty sidebooths with peeling wallpaper on the old wooden ceilings, with cracking walls and flaking paint. These four halls are dedicated to the main deities: the Gods of China (in a scene much remniscent of important generals having an audience with two emperors) the God of Mount Tai (which the temple is dedicated to) the God of Fortune and profit of fair commerce, (whose offerings box was filled highest) and the Gods of fertility and abundant kids. (which, I guess, the chinese cannot really pray to?) Unfortunately, it is forbidden to take pictures within these bigger halls, so the rows and rows and rows of golden statuettes in the hall of fortune and the warrior clad burly chinese men with beards that have numerous of those typical chinese kids with just one lock of hair on their laughing bald heads crawling all over them I cannot show you. For that, you will have to go yourself should you ever find yourself in Beijing and I highly recommend you do.

(Then you might also spot a few of those kids in the hutongs. Its not as prevalent anymore, but still one can see some very young chinese kids with just this single tuft of hair on their foreheads..)

One of the 76 departments

The department for raingods..

Brawling mongolians in the ranks..

In the Urging department. The what? The department for urging. ‘Tis what you need in a bureaucratic world. You need the talent to stylishly, relentlessly, ever so subtly urge whomever needs urging. This blue guy will help you.

The department for wandering ghosts, with its extra tough official..

When you’ve wandered along the 76 departments, do wander on into the courtyard behind this main space, to find an even older hall, in which you’ll find even older, and dustier, wooden statues, from the looks of it they date from before the Ming era and are surrounded by even older, thicker wooden beams and patterned windows filtering what little light there is. Here, too, taking photographs is prohibited, alas, and the rule enforced by a sleepy Taoist monk behind a little table. Which is a shame, as here truly, you get transported to old China as you would have imagined it to be many centuries ago.

Typical guards..

..and shy demons..

and everything else that lives under your bed..

So, what are these departments called? What kind of departments are there, in the Daoist otherworld? How is the world, and the heavens, organized anyway? And does that tell us something about the world the chinese live(d) in?
I jotted their names down in the order I walked past them, from the big main hall in the back to the left and around. I have no idea if that was the right way to walk (there is, after all, one right way..) but it gives a good glimpse of the bureaucracy that permeates the chinese worlds, existing and non existing:

Department of signatures.
Department of signing documents
Department of recording merits
Department of determining individual destiny
Department for three month long meditation
Department of confiscating unwarranted property
Department of official morality
Department for examining false accusations
Plague performing department
Department of forest ghosts and spirits
Animal department
Department of the hell
Department for implementing 15 kinds of violent death
Department of rain Gods
Measurement Department
Abortion department
Monk and taoist priest department
Department of controlling theft and robbery
Department of earth Gods
Department for demons and monsters
Unjust death department
Interrogation and examination department
Department for preservation of of wilderness
Department for distribution of medication
Punishment department
Department of betrayal
Department for bestowing hapiness
Egg birth department
Insect birth department
Longevity department
Urging department
Toxicant department
Department for resurrection
Department for raising descendants
Department for upholding integrity
Supervision and examination department
Department in charge of suffering and distress
Department of instant rewards and retribution
Department of Zhenguan earth Gods
Department of pity and sympathy
Department of judging intention
Inspection department
Escorting department
Timely retribution department
Department of accumulating justifiable wealth
Jaundice department
Department of reducing longevity
Aquatic animal department
Water birth department
Mammal birth department
Department for indiidual destiny
Department for upholding loyalty and filial piety
Department for rewarding good conduct
Department of halting destruction of living beings
Department of opposing obscene acts
Department of reclaiming life
Door God department
Department for controlling evil spirits
Department of mountain Gods
Department of city and township Gods
Department of controlling bullying and cheating
Department of suppressing schemes
Department of wind Gods
Department for wandering ghosts
Department for promotion of 15 kinds of decent life style
Department of river Gods
Deep rooted disease department
Flying birds department
Department of petty officials
Evidence department for issuing a warrant
Department for increasing good fortune and longevity
Execution department
Final indictment department
Scripture reading department
Department for giving alms to taoist priests
Death and life department

Ming official, very han chinese guard.

Mr Piggy in the animal department.

Guess which department this was…

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In China, THIS is the corridor leading to a meeting room of a farmaceutical plant in Harbin…

The corridor to the meeting room. Wait till you see the meeting room itself!

For all the photo’s, go here on Chinasmack.

And THIS is a Dog.

..and this one isnt by far the weirdest! Yes, In China there is an honest dog couture industry. I havent seen dogs on high heels yet. Yet. But I wouldnt be surprised..

To see the other creatu… ehm, dogs, click here to go to xinhuanet. (yes, this is official) On further examination, I found out that these dogs are not all chinese. Here is an article from the dailymail (UK) that focuses on poodleshows in the US, pictures by the same photographer, Ren Netherland (yes, it was the name that drew my attention) I have never been to the US, so when run into things here in China I find ultimately bizarre, thinking them to be misinterpreted copies of ‘westerness’ I do not always realise that it was the US that was copied. So basically, I see copies of copies here in the east. My mind boggles.

THIS is a hotel.

Its three Chinese Gods from Chinese Taoism. Prosperity, longevity and good fortune.

The emperor hotel in Yanjiao, Beijing. China’s elite is now rich enough to do just anything they fancy, and they fancy sometimes quite bizarre things.

THIS is a very new bridge. Opened only ten months ago.

Also Harbin. The governement has up till now failed to find the construction business that built the bridge.

To see and read more about it, I direct you to the ministry of tofu. A Chinese blogger has posted an article about the state of China’s rushed, far too optimistic, and generally corruption ridden construction projects. Tealeaf nation has the translated version online here.

THIS is a new fancy appartment building. Was luckily still uninhabited when it decided not crumble, but blithely topple over the same way my lego blocks would do way back when.

Did you use tofu instead of mortar?

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CAFA is Beijing’s art academy. It’s headquarters, a modern building complex designed by japanese architect Arata Isozaki, lie just north of the fourth ringroad in northeastern Beijing. It has a museum, too, and there is a four storey building directly oppposite it that is dedicated to artist materials’ shops, three floors filled with local and western paints, inks, brushes, linens and papers.

It is summer, and like all academies all over the world, the fresh graduates have their end of year show, and I am curious as to what kind of work it is, that Beijing’s art students graduate with? Luckily, Today’s art museum also stages a selection of graduates show, exhibiting the work of the chinese art students who were on the shortlist for the yearly best of graduates prize. Art graduates from all over China are exhibited here, so I get to compare. I go to CAFA first. Here a selection of the works I saw:

The first painting I run into. The lighting was not well done, and on the whole, the rooms where painting was exhibited, were way too dark. Naturally, my Iphone camera struggled with the dark. But you’ll get an idea of what was on display.

Artist: Wang Jun, ‘the dying memory’ series.

Info for the work above. Easel painting?

Woodblock prints. (Which the Chinese invented long, long, looong ago)

I was told all art students follow closely the visions of their teachers, in order to get the degree. Some of them will create very different artwork once they are graduated and no longer dependable on the approval of their teachers.

Taking the piss out of it..

Not taking a piss at all, I suspect.

Upstairs. Illustration and comics department.

Detail.

Sculpture like we’ve seen before from China.

What horror grips these characters, is left open..

The level at the ‘best of graduations 2012’ exhibit at Todays Art museum is considerably higher. I wonder, what Chinese do think of art, specifically contemporary art. Here, the myth of the artist is still very strong. As soon a my first teacher at the language school learned that I was an artist, his respect for me visibly grew. He hinted at the fact that I, with my ‘artists instinct’ would naturally understand the chinese language, and chinese calligraphy in particular, much better and faster then other students. That I would have a good eye for philosophy. Because I am an artist. Those are by default nearly philosophers, right?

In China, many people still believe that all artists can sell their work for a lot of money. That the purpose of art is making a good image, and then selling it. That craft is the defining skill of art, more then orginality.
In my wanderings on the internet I found this article on Beijing Cream that supported that thought. Orginality is revered like a good businessplan is revered: Good trick! that will sell well, let’s try something like that! The artists’ business plan comes with a dream of rockstar fame: read here how chinese students get into the CAFA art academy, and what the China Daily thinks they will be. (Also from Beijing Cream)

the best of at Today art.

First image I meet. That is a different feel (literally) from the CAFA exhibit..

Info for the image above. Alas, no english texts anywhere. Iphone app to the rescue! According to my character reader (a part of the pleco chinese dictionary app, expensive as h** but a damn good app, yes, that was free advertising..) the card reads: Zhang Yong (artists’ name, I presume) department of painting (fine art) college, breathe out . breathe in No.1
Polyurethane composite.

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Detail of the above image.

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Detail of the above image.

Artist; Yang Qilei, department of fine arts (heck, I am not adding this from now on, I am going to assume you’ll recognise the characters now! ;P ) Architecture series — Sheeps’ skull, sky ox worm part (???? not sure if I got that right, this work is not pictured), pull-top (tin can)

Yep. Looks familiar too.

The upper card reads: outstanding praise or reward, the charachters could mean both praise or reward. The lower card has the artists’ name: Xu Jiang Feng, title of the work: Dream (or illusion or fancy) of missing people (as in people that themselves are missing or lost)

And here’s Bacon.

Or actually, the artist is Zhu Xiang Min. The title of the work is ‘Sculptor no. 1’

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Detail of the above image.

Artist: Wei Jia. As far as I can interpret characters -and note I am a total beginner here- the title reads either ‘the mother’s body (or just ‘mother’) hit, or the ‘mother(‘s body) fitted’

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Typical chinese weird rock and typical chinese flowerpainting there that the young boys are looking down upon.

Artist: Liu Xiao Cai. Title: ‘beat to the death one single robin’

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Detail.

Artist: Zhong Jin Pei. Title’Peace of the cheerful empress’ or at least, thats what I think. It could also mean: ‘Cheerful after peace’ which would also work.

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Artist: Wu Wen Mei. Title: ‘(a)wait, have nothing to say in reply’ Since spoken chinese often omits the pronouns, it remains a guess who is not having an answer.

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Artist: He Hao Bo. Title: Who are we? (I could possibly also translate this as: We are someone, but the first translation  is more likely and common. Then again, to infuse this latter meaning into an artwork would be logical, in China, at this time, they are, and especially the chinese artists moving in the contemporary art world, looking for a China that is as of yet still very nonidentified.. More on the intricacities of the chinese language later)

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There were still pictures floating around on my computers’ harddrive from exhibits I saw before I went on holiday, and it’s about time I showed them, as a brief introduction to what one can encounter when roaming through Caochangdi and 798 ‘art villages’ in Beijing. These are chinese artists, exhibited in chinese galleries, aiming at a chinese audience that is still feeling its way around modern contemporary art, an art form whose very concept is western.

I have the feeling that the cream of the crop is very swiftly snatched away by the western collectors, and that, on the whole, the chinese contemporary art scene is still very much learning, groping, searching for their place in the world, in China, and in their own heads. More often then not, shiny surfaces or tried and proven artforms are simply replicated, and replicated, and replicated, and…But i’ll let you do the judging yourself:

An exhibit of the art cooperative ‘Guest’ in UCCA, in 798

Overview

there were no nametags throughout the exhibit, so one has to decide for themselves what a possible title could be, if one needs one, that is.

Overview from the other side

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One sees, in the rich parts of Beijing only, or at roundabouts or next to the second and sometimes third ringroad, public art. And this is what the public art in Beijing looks like:

In the strip of grass in front of a bank..

A bit further, in that same strip.

And still in that same strip of grassland that is the boundary between street and parking lot for oversized cars.

In the prestigious and shiny Sanlitun village shopping area (Chanel, Gucci, Apple, Guess, Adidas, Nike, Dolce & Gabanna, oh, and a starbucks of course)

..and Miu Miu and many others

The information about the maker of the above shown brown men with guns and the mission the mall has with placing this art here…. ’nuff said.

Because art is, indeed, a service.

A very simple service

(The big white characters by the way read either: “Fashion goes to the top” or “The top of fashion” My chinese is not sufficient to tell, but you get the gist)

A service to be enlightened as a human being, no less. (In the street where Ai Wei Wei lives, in Caochang di)

Where, in that same Caochang di, art has an accusatory flavour, but the censors let it be. Not rousing enough, I guess, it mainly states what everybody knows.
(Artist: Wang Sugang)

Yes, that is indeed a grass mud horse in the background. The sign on the dog says either Don’t bite people or it doesnt bite people. In Chinese, that is the same. Which one it is? that is your call.

The explanation to the explanation.

But then, also in Caochang di, at Platform China; Ma Ke. ‘Under the light’ 2008. Painting with a fresher style, that I had not yet seen here in Beijing.

Ma Ke ‘Who will gain supremacy’ 2011

Detail

Ma Ke ‘Night’ 2011

Ma Ke ‘Sandstorm 3’ 2010

Back in the UCCA in 798 a few weeks later I stumbled upon this exhibit

Overview of one part of the Jun-Fei Ji exhibit.

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(My apologies for Iphone quality picture with tl light falling upon glass. This is the best I could make of it)

Monsters out of chinese tales

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That is all for today, folks.

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We had a great saturday. We saw the Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘The last emperor’ in the morning, a film we both saw when we were teenagers, back when it was first brought to the big screen. Being in Beijing made us want to see it again, and apart from reveling in the superb photography of the film it was also revealing how much more willing China must have been at those times (the film was shot in 1985) to appear friendly and open, resulting in a film with scenes portraying the cultural revolution in a way that would be sheer impossible to get through censorship now.

Filmed in the forbidden city in 1985.

Seeing that film also showed me the unreliability of human memory: I could have sworn the scene where Pu Yi’s second wife leaves him takes place in front of a palace door in the forbidden city, in the rain, in a yellowish light. And they are standing there the three of them when she decides to ditch the umbrella he has just given her, and walk away, saying; “I don’t need you” The scene is not like that at all. It takes place at their house in Tianjin, a few years after they have been driven from the forbidden city, as she hastily shoves goodbye letters under the doors of Pu yi and his first wife, then walks out of the grand door of the mansion all by herself. It is a servant, who runs after her with the umbrella, that she takes and then drops, saying ‘i dont need it’ The camera follows her as she walks away grinning, in the torrential rain. So either there are several versions of this scene or my memory is severely lacking.

‘By the time I was eleven, flogging an eunuch had become my daily pasttime’

We both suspect that it is the latter as both of us remembered nothing of the storyline after the last emperor has been expelled from the forbidden city. As teenagers we were duly impressed by the emperor’s palace, the strangeness of the chinese grandeur. The scenes portraying Japan conquering China, the puppet state Manchukuo, the former emperor spending ten years in a re educational prison were all lost on us in those days. Even the fleeting lesbian scenes portrayed in the Manchukuo era I just blithely forgot, testimony of how late, and how sudden, sexuality became a factor of importance to me. That, or this is simply a showcase of how dense I was…

Torrential rain this area of China still gets in the summer. There was a nice thunderstorm on the 10th of july that flooded some streets. Some thunderstorms after that had also made their big puddles, a phenomenon I saw during every cloudbreak, and shrugged my shoulders about. Of course Beijing sewage systems are not up to par. I mean, many things here in China are not up to par, why be bothered by one more? That is China for you. Shiny, but broken.
So on came the storm of saturday the 21st of july. We were preparing to go to an exhibition in Songzhuang when it broke loose. It was just around 1 pm, as the sky blackened out. I remember thinking: wow, this looks like it is 7 pm in the evening! This is a biggie coming up!

We drove to Songzhuang, shaking our heads at the chaos on the streets and the highway, which was nothing beyond the normal chaos: a two lane byroad joining the highway was used as a four lane road and where the road narrowed to a single lane, somehow the cars melted to one lane more or less naturally (though far from harmoniously, let alone swiftly and efficiently) as the drivers had a choice between running into each other, or the concrete to either side of the road, or yield to whichever car was more ballsy or just simply bigger. In short, nothing out of the ordinary. It was just raining very hard all the way. Actually, that downpour didn’t stop all day (it was to stop only late at night, around two am) and as we drove over smaller roads towards the outskirts of Songzhuang, the puddles got bigger and bigger. Roads here are ill maintained, so nothing unexpected there either.

I felt sorry for Mr Luo, whom I knew to be washing the car to its meticulous white shine again on monday morning, as he always does.

The exhibition taking place in Songzhuang art centre was a cooperation between Chinese and Dutch artists, most of whom came from Gallery Maurits van de Laar. This was the second time ever I had been to Songzhuang. Last time was in winter, and I had been amazed at the emptiness, the stillness and silence of it, the dust, the derelict buildings sprouting up everywhere, the banner proclaiming creative grandeur in between dusty streets and haphazard housing. Todays rain made it unlikely I would have the chance to explore the town, to see if there is more life here in summer. Through the sheet of rain I did see that there was actually an exhibit at the Renhe gallery. The red carpet was out (was it ever taken away?) the little fence gone and the door was open. I feared there would not be much visitors however, facing this rain to go to an opening. I feared the same for the opening at the Songzhuang art centre. As it turned out, those fears were misplaced. There were a lot of people at the opening of the ‘Living Beijing’ exhibition. The dust had been sweeped from the floors and halls. The sleepy bar had been turned into art book store with a counter made of books. The entrance was over crowded, with people talking, smoking in the little strip of dry sidewalk just next to the building, and a chinese artist was inviting visitors to participate in his performance. Many chinese artists were there, happily chatting, a few members of the dutch embassy made an appearance, the western artists, including the dutch, sought each other out to talk.

‘Living Beijing’ art exhibit, overview of the first floor

I talked a lot, this opening, something I rarely do, as the words ‘artscene’ and ‘networking’ usually make my hair stand on end. I am too shy in general, to go out there and just blithely run into a conversation with strangers. But this time, I knew the gallery owner Maurits van de Laar, who kindly introduced me to Zeger reyers, who kindly introduced me to a belgian artist living in Songzhuang, who introduced me to.. and time flew by. So much so, I didnt even take enough time to properly photograph the exhibit, which will warrant another reconnaissance mission to Songzhuang for more pictures and more info. Something I’ll be delighted to do, as Song Zhang remains to be  a mystery.
I tried to make a soundclip of the torrential rain on the roof of the building. My lady shot a few pictures of the empty derelict galleries and building sites around us, their emptiness made more jarring by the rain.

Poster for the exhibit

Dirk van Lieshout. Nobody dared the rain for it..

Ed Pien

After much talk and two hideous wines we decided to drive home. It was still pouring. As we took a byroad to the highway towards Beijing that runs on a long concrete bridge over Tongzhou, I had to swerve around some very real waterfalls tumbling down from the highwaybridge. Every so often, we had to slow to a crawl as part of the road simply dissapeared under water and we waded through in slowmotion, in first gear with the engine running high. The rain was so thick we were giddy with it. We crossed a bridge, at some point, and I asked: “Hey, how does that river look?” S simply answered: “Big” Close to home S volunteered to go to the grocery shop on foot, just to experiene the warm water pouring down. I dropped her off on a small T crossing just in front of our house. The puddles there reached till halfway the road, but the sidewalk remained above water. It was shortly after 6 pm.

She came home drenched to the bone and laughing. She showered, we made dinner, and then we looked outside to the road below us. It had turned into a river. The sidewalks were still more or less clear of water, and we could still see the arrows on the road shining white under the water. Cars were plowing through, causing true bowwaves to ripple over the street. Pedestrians were screaming, giggling and laughing, sloshing through the water on their way to a higher sidewalk. It was still pouring relentlessly.
Around 8 pm, when the arrows painted on the road could no longer be seen and the sidewalks had been swallowed up as well, the first cars stopped dead in the middle of the road, having gotten water in the engine. Not everyone was aware that one had to keep the engine running high, to prevent water running up the exhaust pipe. And some others, thinking themselves safe either going just fast or in big burly SUV’s, found out that water can also come in through the airinlet and the hood, when one goes so fast as to make a big bowwave. Or, more cynically, when a big burly SUV’s bowwave rolls over the road and hits the hood of the car just trying to pass in the other direction, stopping that car dead while the big SUV plows on unheedingly. Moreover, modern cars have a lot of electronics under that hood. PAF! And that was the end of the heroic watercrossing.

The river in front of our house just before 9 pm, when the rain had lessened (but not yet stopped)

It didnt take long for a grand total of twelve cars to be stranded in the road in front of our house. We hadnt seen a single policeman during the whole evening, to cordon off the street, preventing cars from turning into the river. Not one. We heard no sirens, there was no firedepartment out to drag the broken cars out of the water, toinstall emergency pumps, nothing. We shook our heads and commented to each other; jeez, in an european country, the place would be alight with flashlights and sirens now, and traffic would have been diverted long ago. That is China for ya. Shiny, but broken. At the beginning of the street the big crossing was in disarray, with all the cars that wanted to turn into our street and only then saw the river stretching out in front of them, making many a car try to turn back and wiggle its way out of the street against the flow of traffic. Or, what most did, divert and drive over the bikepath to avoid the deep in the middle of the road. It was also around that time, 8 pm, that we first saw pedestrians stepping off the sidewalk and talking to the drivers of the broken cars, that were just standing there in the middle of the river. And call out to other people passing by. And staring to push some of the cars to the side of the road. That, unseemingly as it sounds, is the first time I saw strangers helping strangers in Beijing.

I made several films that evening, which can be watched here: First two films are taken from the balcony. The first one is taken around 6 pm, just after we returned home. The puddles are just beginning to form in our street, and the main reason for taking this vid is the sound of the unrelenting rain. It had been rainin g like that ever since 1 pm. The second one is a round 8:45 pm. The third film is after we gave up trying to help push cars, just after 9 pm.

Crowd watching the rescue efforts at flooded Guangqumen bridge, where several cars were completely submerged and some of their drivers died. (many bystanders jumped in and helped)

Picture grabbed from Chinasmack. Beijing turning into watercity.

And THIS is what the havoc looks like in the outskirts of Beijing, which do not warrant the name ‘suburbs’ but are poor farmers villages within the province of Beijing. Fanshan, a mountainous area to the southwest of Beijing was hardest hit. Conditions here are thirdworldly, rather then ‘urban’ or even ‘suburban’

Many more pictures can be found on Chinasmack A comprehensive article about the flood and it’s aftermath in the chinese mind and blogosphere is to be found on Tealeaf Nation

Later, when another storm, but this one on the internet, reared up concerning the aftermath of this rainstorm, the public of Beijing jumping in all over town to help  complete strangers was heralded as a step forward in the civic development of China. You know, it is not that common, to help strangers in Beijing, or in China as a whole. This is for a big part caused by the fact most people have no insurance, and the only way to get compensation for the costs of mishaps is suing. I, as a westerner, was vehemently advised not, not ever, to try to help if I saw an accident happen, or was involved in an accident myself. You’re white, they told me, therefore you are rich, and therefore they’ll put the blame on you and try to sue you for every last cent you have. This is the reason why many westerners in Beijing hire a driver and refuse to drive a car themselves. That way they can never be hold liable for an accident. This unfortunately doesnt concern westerners only, as the sad case of Yueyue last year has shown, or the case of the conservatorium student who ran over a woman farmer.

But that saturday night, in the relentless downpour, things shifted. Ever since Yueyue died, suing laws have been under scrutiny, prompting their change in many cases. And when the emergency is big enough, humanity kicks in.
People helped towing flooded cars from out under the bridge at Guang(name?) where the water rose to three meters above the asphalt, killing some very unfortunate peopple trapped there in their cars. Others drove people that were stranded towhere they needed to go, picked up stranded passengers from the airport, offered their homes, showers and towels. Weibo was widely used as a platform to ask and offer help. For as far as I can discern reading through the many stories and articles I find about the rainstorm on the internet, this was a first.

We didnt know at that moment the situation was so dire elsewhere. We were just shaking our heads and giggling. We went down to the street, to view the river from groundlevel, and we offered several cars still standing around our help. The first one, a metallic mercedes, shook her head when I made pushing signs and pointed to the shore. She put up her handbrake when I tried to push her car. Okay, that is a clear enough ‘no’. Next was a Jeep askew in the middle of the T crossing. He laughed and thanked us, speaking english. “No need, I am waiting for some friends who will pull me out” Third there was a car already being pushed by two chinese. I went over to help pushing but they looked at me strangely, then waved me away.
So we walked around the borders of the streetriver, stamping the water, jumping the bowwaves of passing cars, laughing and getting drenched. The water, when I stepped down from the sidewalk, reached to just under my knee.

37 people died that day. Or so the official numbers say. It was the Beijing suburbs and outer villages that were hit hardest, there where the land already rises up into mountains. Whole villages turned into pools, cars were swept up in the small hutongs and crashed into each other. Roofs caved in. There were mudslides. Rumour on the internet has it the real deathtoll is higher. The local government to date hasnt said a word about the whole case, only firing up those rumours. By now, as the new weekend is here, the official numbers have been upped to 77. That there is a strange thing happening with the number 37, is something a chinese netizen pointed out as he discovered most official newsreels mention that in this-or-that disaster, the number of casualities were… 37. Over and over again. It is apparenlty a Chinese censor’s staple, to pull out the number 37. But maybe, just maybe, things are slowly changing in the heads of the officials, indoctrinated since ancient times to withhold information (the Mao era is just a continuation of imperial times in -not only- that aspect) as can be read in this article on tealeaf.

It was the worst rainstorm in 61 years. So effectively, this means that this was the first time the modern city got tested for this kind of rain, as 61 years ago, the second ring road was only being built and the city stopped at the remnants of the old ming dynasty citywall (the last parts of which would in 1952 be totally demolished to give way for that second ringroad, and the city now sprawls far beyond the fifth ringroad) Also noteworthy is the fact that Tiananmen and the forbidden city, the latter with a sewage system also dating back to the Ming dynasty, experienced only minor upsettings. It seems that 800 years ago, sewage was better constructed then today.

In its drive to become a very modern, very shiny, very glittering glass and smooth concrete city, proper drainage and sewage works got a bit forgotten in Beijing. And undoubtedly, not only in Beijing. Everyone wants their name on a high glass tower after all, but who wants his or her name on a sewer pipe?
On the internet, people commented on this with varying degrees of frustration and sarcasm. I get my information through a few blogs that follow the movements in the chinese social media, and I have no idea how accurately the few posts they report represent the overall feeling in chinese cyberspace, but it is telling that many Chinese themselves expect China to be better now. Chinese officials may tell the world that China is still a developing country, its citizens certainly no longer expect it to be.

 

(EDIT: Update made on sunday morning 29th of july: this article on tealeaf tells how indeed, the way officials handle disasters might be changing, in no little way due to the aftermath of these floods. An interesting, and mildly hopeful read)

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Time moves faster in Beijing. Like when I was a kid and things around me were (also) new. It had become time to go on a holiday, as the summer was on our doorstep, and we had been in Beijing for nine months. Nine months which felt both like nine weeks as well as a whole century. Time to go back to see my family, recount stories, breathe fresh air, speak my own language again, stock up on much needed pindakaas. So I moved from here…

Beijing blocs

Modern chinese ethics

To here..

The quintessential Holland..

This is not in China. This is at the Dutch airport. Though it conspicuouscly looks like chinese translated into english, it is probably a case of Dutch flowerists knowing their clientele well…

It is strange, to be home, in a country you know, surrounded by a language you not only speak, but also think and dream in, to be in a city where you know every corner and alley, where you know what shops were here before the one that are there now, where you understand society without anyone even having spoken, yet it is not home, for you are on a holiday. Walking on Dutch streets has become a home that is not home, a holiday that isnt a holiday. A return that is not a return.

The first thing that hits me is how much energy I have, once the first bouts of jet lag -a jetlag that is relatively small, going from east to west- are over. My body obviously is happier when breathing fresh, unpolluted air, and walking around somewhere without dust, and not so dry. I relish in oldfashioned Dutch landscape that I once found ultimately boring. I smile when people say Amsterdam is so busy. To me it is a cute, sleepy town. People stand in line without elbowing each other away. And cars stop for a pedestrian crossing. And they dont honk. And you do not need to be afraid of the police.

Northsea sunset

I get my little campervan out of storage, and become a temporary vagabond hippy in my homecountry. I move from friend’s place to friend’s place, from seaside parking lot to seaside parking lot, from telling the enthousiastic stories about Beijing to wherever I hope the tide and waves are good for a surfsession. It is great. It has all the good of being home while at the same time it has all the good things of a holiday. Unbound, visiting, enchanted, well known. I dont even mind the weather. After months of dryness I relish the rain. (I didnt yet know what rain Beijiing gets in summer..)

Sunrise session in Scheveningen harbour. Pic taken at 6 am..

More even I relish the long days. In Beijing, the sunrise is at about 6 am, the light starts to darken at 7 pm, full night enters the city at 8 pm in summer. In the Netherlands, especially in early summer, the days are endless. Sunrise is at 4:30 am, last light at 10:30 pm. Sunset and sunrise surfsessions are long and delightful. (If the clouds dont obstruct the view, that is) Nature is lush, voluptuously green.

Nature preserve ‘de blauwe kamer’ on one of those long evenings

Yes, in the Netherlands there are waves too. Provided you are at the right spot, at the right moment..and those moments usually dont last long

After three weeks in the Netherlands I go to see my new family-in-law, in Switserland. So from the flatness and wetness of the Dutch polders I go to..

The quintessential Switzerland, where cows do have them bells, but are not purple.

My girl and I bike around her parents home, the hills she grew up in. She calls this area the ‘flatlands’ of Switserland, which makes me laugh. It is quintessential rural sleepy Switserland. Oldfashioned farms, big wooden chalets and barns with the clinging of cowbells everywhere, blue lakes in between, churches jotting upward from every towncentre, the alps white and imposing in the background. On one of these biketours we see a chinese family lining up to have their picture taken in front of one of these lakes. We almost holler ‘Ni Hao!’ to them. Then later on, as we pass one of the many very rich, very well maintained, meticulously organized and cleaned grand chalets with lush garden around, I hear…. the Big Ben. In the feeble timbre of bells too small to do the original any justice. Et tu, Helvetica?

From the sleepy near mountains of Switserland we go to my love’s great love: London.

The new landmark of London being built: ‘the shard’ Did I mention modern Chinese ethics somewhere earlier?

Modern Chinese ethics rule the world, apparently… New posh on the border of the Thames.

We wander around in the quintessential British rain. We drink ale, and stout, and indian pale ale on rickety chairs perched on the sidewalk, full everyday despite the 16 degree temperatures. We watch soccer frenzy, and renaissaince drawings, and Hirst in the Tate. An exhibition that is jampacked. I have never seen a jampacked modern art exhibition before. I have seen busy ones, yes, but not exhibits for which people stood in line, a line longer then three Tate exhibit rooms. What a legend Hirst has become! The Dutch art world would give everything dear for such a legend. And for such an audience, that comes to an exhibit in such droves, and is prepared to stand in line for it.

Well I’ll be damned… there is Chinglish here too!

After a week of british bliss, we fly back to Switserland. This time, my girl will teach me what real mountains are, in summer. Being the crazy snowboarderchick I actually have no experience with mountains in summer. My mountains are always white. When I feel snow, I think of mountains. When I dream of mountains, they are white. Mountains are snowcovered, otherwise they’re not mountains.

Mountain without snow. Unbelievable!

The mountains Nietszche saw when he left his summer residence, and where the film ‘Heidi’ was shot.

The perfect snack for your stroll through the mountains, pondering the human situation..

..and not only Heidi and Nietszche have been walking these alpine meadows: everyone of last century’s european story has visited these swiss lands.

But winter has been cold and long in Europe this year, so there is plenty of snow left for me in the summerpeaks somewhere between where Nietszche wandered and Heidi danced. These mountains shaped the essence of the european idea of what holidaying in the mountains should look like…

Resist the temptation to start yodeling..

Snow! Settimerpass. An old roman road runs down from it. We did a sliding contest.

More pure Heidiland.

rest assured that, even though there was now snow to snowboard on, I couldnt help  thinking at every ridable slope I saw: what is the orientation on this slope? How would I skin up? Where are the danger points? Sometimes I even made pictures of said slopes in order to remember for when the snow has returned and I am looking for a tranquil powder slope to shred. All the while, we stayed in a so called ‘arthotel’ the hotel Castell in Zuoz. The main building is old glory from the early 1900’s, the jugendstil woodpaneling with flowing leaves motifs still intact, the oldfashioned watercooker, about 70 centimeters high, a sight to behold. Scattered throughout the hotel is all kinds of contemporary art, installations, paintings, pictures. The bar is an artwork in itself and even the sauna was commisioned to be built by a japanese artist. To top it all off, there is a library of art books that guests of the hotel are free to lend books from. A hotel that merits a reconnaisance mission, even though the hotel prices are aimed at the art collectors’ budget, not the artists wallets. But you do get an openair sauna and a big stylish hamam on top of the art for that price. And good service.

Hotel Castell in Zuoz, Graubunden: the statue at the entrance. There was an old fashioned broom nearby, that I put between the horses legs every morning when I passed it. Every afternoon, it was taken away and put back in it’s corner. Phillistines! Dont recognise an artist’s intervention when they see it!

In the main hall. “you can reach the sky’ by Carsten Holler.

In the stairwell. No idea what it is (well, a chinese dragon, obviously) nor by whom.

Golfballs in the stairwell, and the first glimspe of a Shrigley up there on the first floor.

The Shrigley

The Kippenberger on the second floor

..and another Kippenberger on the third floor. ‘China garden’ Yes indeed.

Somewhere in the corridors: ‘En attendant une nouvelle vague’ by Daniel Knorr

A picture taken from the performanse serie “Hotel Scribe, Paris” by Chantal Michel in yet another corridor.

A performance piece by Edwin Wurm performed in the wintery garden of hotel Castell. (I wonder how long he held out on this one)

The remnants of the, back then very chique, new heating system the firm of D. Siebenmann from Zurich installed in the hotel in 1911. I forgot to take a picture of the watercooker from the same era that is still in use at the hotel’s breakfast buffet.

James Turell built a little lighthouse just outside the hotel. A little chapel. Or a little dreamtower. A philosophers cabin. A madmans oratorium. Or a shrine dedicated to light. Or a meditation cell, whichever you prefer.

Sweet, clean concrete

An inverted sundial, of sorts.

The world above.

The last days of our holiday we spent in Bern, stocking up on european supplies, meeting friends, and swiming in the Aare. Which I loved doing. Plunging in a rapid stream that carries you instantly with it, lying on your back watching the sky glide past as you move with speed past the rivershore. All the while hearing this constant clicking and rolling and ticking of the stones in the riverbed below you.

Goodbye, good ole Europe, I’ll miss you. But now I have to go back to where energy flows enormously, abundantly, and nearly unchecked, through the sweltering air.

You know what? When we landed in Beijing and drove home, all groggedly, I actually felt a sense of homecoming. That, I did not expect, but there it was. This is a strange life indeed!

In Beijing, spring has come. It comes slowly here. Temperatures do go up, till about 10 to 12 degrees celcius, but it is too dry for the trees to sprout until the first rain arrives at the end of april. It is solid rain, real drops, for almost three hours straight. For me, a dutchie used to daily wetness, a huge relief after near 5 months of no rain at all. Shortly after this, it rains for a full day. A full day! Having waited for this signal, all the trees pop out their blossoms and leaves all at once. Within a few days, the park in front of our house turns from brown to green.

Then the sand comes. Not a storm as such, more a sand-drizzle. I only noticed after looking down at the balcony floor and realizing the sand had made pretty windpatterns on the tiles. The roads turn yellowish brown. The buildings turn yellowish brown. The cars turn yellowish brown. Then come the windblown seeds from the willows that grow all over Beijing. So many, that often it looks like it is snowing.

Then come the southern winds.

Temperatures go from aforementioned 12 degrees up to 22, then straight on to 30, all within a mere two weeks.

The southern winds block the plain that Beijing lies in, surrounded by a half moon of mountains to the north and west, which means the pollution gets locked above the city and the days turn bleakishly white. Sometimes, one sees the sun, but it stays orange the whole day. Sometimes the mist darkens to a mid grey, and that usually means there is rain coming, from clouds invisible as they meld into the smog.

Beijing municipality is monitoring the smog. Environmental goals are announced in the China Daily, new laws passed for industries to clean up their work processes.
China has the most environmental laws in the whole world.
Unfortunately, as long as any industry captain, a member of the party of course as all major industries are party -and therefore government- owned, can buy him or herself out of these laws, progress is going to be slow. Undeterred, the China daily counts the ‘blue sky days’ that Beijing experiences. Last year the newspaper triumphantly announced that, in the new year, Beijing had already had 250 blue sky days! An impressive feat indeed, given that it was only the first of may.

Time has raced by. It is truly, in Beijing, that time moves twice as fast here. As if this asian continent has loosened itself from the rest of the world and shifted into a different gear.

We had our first visitor around, at new years, and we stood on the balcony, the three of us, at exactly midnight, heaved our glasses in the middle of a city that did not care one bit about western newyear. Our brave “happy newyear!” shouted from the balcony on the umpteenth floor dissapeared amidst the sound of traffic. What a difference that was compared to the festivities of the chinese new year, that marked the beginning of the year of the dragon, a happy, strong as well as ominous sign. There were fireworks throughout the day, but at midnight the whole of Beijing just blithely exploded. 18 million people blasting all they could afford into fire in the sky.
I saw more fireworks in one hour on that balcony then the 30 dutch newyears (!!!) I saw before it. And that, indeed, is saying something.

We went skiing in Japan. The differences between China and Japan are enormous. From chaotic indifference to stiff civilness. From brutal pushing to immaculate waiting lines in front of the train that the British would be proud of. From haphazard skyline trying to emulate greatness in the dust to a scene straight from a science fiction movie with white mountains as a backdrop. So much lights flashing in the city of Tokyo my eyes grew weary after a couple of streets.
The Japanese mountains were awesome. The japanese resorts a flotsam and jetsam of western styles: french, austrian, swiss chalets with american patio’s and english timbered houses that look like they came straight from the setting of a shakespeare play. A perfect copy of a little austrian church. Even the ridges of mountains have german names. And, of course, the belltower chimes the melody of the Big Ben.

I wonder how many towers in asia chime the melody of the Big Ben. And if there is even one of those that actually has bells heavy enough to come at least a little bit close to the original.

The locals were complaining they hadnt yet gotten a real snowstorm yet. That the snow didnt reach to the roofs yet. Those 20 to 30 cms they got every night didnt count. It was, apparently, a bad winter and I had the best powder I had in five years. (Two weekends after we left, they had their real dump: 3 metres in one weekend!!) Business was slow in the resorts. Japanese tourism has fallen a stunnning 60% since the tsunami.

We went skiing in China, which I wrote about further down. We had lantern festival and Qing Ming, we walked over the ice of Kunming lake next to the summer palace, we got invited to a chinese hot pot over at the house of a chinese friend. Grey winter days came and went. It took ages for spring to arrive.

Now it is may, it is a solid 30 degrees plus during the day, cooling to a 27 or 28 with a mild breeze in the evening, when the city comes to life. Games are played on the streets, in the park, people dance everywhere. Whole groups of people practising a studied dance together, accompanied by a portable record player (with old fahsioned tapes, yes!) creaking the music into the mild summer air. Every weekndnight there is a kite let up from chaoyang park, just opposite our balcony, with strings of lights attached to the kiteline. Gently the lights sway above the light and smog of the city, the lights of the rows of cars slowly moving, honking, the deep roar of the big trucks that are only allowed to drive at night, people’s voices, the sound of the bank’s fountain down below, drowned out every now and then by sirens.
Beijing city spring nights.

I have chinese lessons. Two times two hours a week. Only now, after 10 of such sessions, does the utter frustration abide a bit. I start to hear some difference in the tones, even though I still mix them up, especially the second and the fourth tone. A quarter of the time. I start to correctly say them myself. A tiny quarter of the time. Chinese people on the street and in the shops actually start to understand my Chinese, which is the surest sign of progress. It melows their reactions enormously, they smile widely when they hear me mutter my barbarian chinese, and repeat the words so I’ll learn them correctly.

Some semblance of logic emerges, where before, everything sounded just the same to me and most sounds uttered in the chinese language are something I broke my tongue over, especially if uttered in a complete sentence consisting of more then three words.
I have to diligently do my homework though, just like in the old days at school, to be able to remember most of the words I learn. A few days of procastrination invariably get punished by an utter blank mind the next lesson.

I asked my teacher to also teach me some characters. To my surprise, there is a set stroke order. One cannot just start anywhere and produce the character one sees. If you dont start with the right stroke, and do not write the next strokes in the right order, your character is not deemed good. Even though the one you just wrote looks the same as the character you were told to write, and even though anyone who knows that character can read it and discern it’s meaning, it is still ‘not right’ I asked why this was important, if I could write a character that other people can read, what difference does a stroke order make?
The answer was that, once the characters get really complex, if you do not abide by the set stroke order, you mix up the lines and dots and get lost.

I have the suspicion that everything in chinese written language was meant to make it impossible for the layman to master it. It is a scripture one can only learn by diligent study. Unlike the roman script, where once one has learned the alphabet of a mere 26 letters, one can read and write words. Bar spelling mistakes, one can then get oneself at least understood.

If you want to learn to read Chinese, you have to learn by heart all these characters. Thousands of them. Four thousand to be able to read the newspaper. And the character itself will not tell you which tone you’d need to pronounce the word. It has been the privilege of elite all over the world in all times to be able to read and write, but in China, this privilege is exceptionally hard earned.

It is funny to see young western boys here (its predominantly boys) who are exactly what one would expect of a western nerd: walking around in crumpled but fashionable shorts, sneakers, quirky t shirt, apple computer in front of them, working on their internet project they either got hired for by a chinese company here or they try to set up their own company here in Beijing, since space and employees are still within the reach of an upstarters’ budget in China. They sit here in the western hip coffeebar amidst the western clad hip chinese, but the chinese workattire is strictly suited, immaculately ironed and demurely black or grey. Even the young chinese that are not in worksuit, carefully assemble their attire, and rarely have even one hair out of place. The studied neglicence that the western boys display is lost on the chinese office employees, that are so seriously working on their career.

My girl gave a speech at an university for a hall full of young promising students, kids of privileged parents, who could afford to go to priviliged schools. Many of them will be in high positions later on. She said it was the best, most fun speech she had done so far in Beijing, because the atmosphere in the hall was so palpably excited, eager and positive. She held her speech about how the framework of any society needs the rule of law to make that society work, to make it strong. How from that follows that institutes like the UN are inevitable, as the framework of an international society needs rules and laws as well.
The subsequently published university paper called the speech ‘brilliant’ and even though I know the chinese language is prone to using exaggeratingly poetic sublime words -it is in the words, in the language itself, and one uses these words because the culture prescribes it, because using more moderate words would be deemed an insult- they meant it. My girl told me how enthousiastic the students were, how eager, how excited and serious at the same time. How open and earnest their questions, questions on many things that are censured in China, and they didnt even blink asking them. How the atmosphere in that hall was permeated with a sense best described as a ‘Yes we can – and we will!’ spirit, a spirit that the west has lost and for the moment cannot regain. They know they have a future, they know they are going places, they will not lead the lives their parents led in relative poverty, let alone the lives their grandparents led, in pure famine (the last serious famine in China only ended a mere 50 years ago after all. Every young Chinese has grandparents that lived through and maybe died in, the great Chinese famine that cost anywhere between 15 and 43 million lives)
Now China has come back on top, as they believe is where it should have been all along, and they want to go ride that wave and make an impact on the world, they expect to be doing so, and they can’t wait till it happens.
But they do know things are seriously wrong in their society and they do want to put it right. And they emanated the excitement of going to do exactly that.

There is no telling if and how they will, how much of that excitement will die in the daily grind, the long walk up the ladder. How many of them will be swallowed by the system, or which one, if any, will be at that place or time where history takes a turn. There is no telling how much real influence any of these kids will have on that. But the will, the enthousiasm, the sincerety, is surely there. They believe in progress, and they want to make it.
This, too, is China.
An exhiliarating, exciting and intriguing China.

The challenge they face is a many tentacled monster. Corruption is China’s greatest adversary. That, and the inability to see things in perspective (these two characteristics blend into each other and are an important part of all the diverse problems that plague this gigantic country) There is no greater danger for China then China.
Not many people in the west know that China is floating on an housing bubble of chinese proportions. Some searching found a film on youtube, a documentary produced by journeyman.tv about the strange but true phenomenon of gigantic ghost cities. The biggest of those are Ordos, in inner Mongolia, and Chenggong in Yunnan province near Kunming. These are cities built at amazing speeds, sometimes in less then five years, meant for literally millions of inhabitants that never move there. Street after street empty, surrounded by expensive apartment blocks, shopping malls, fountains, sportfields and schools. Ordos even has a state of the art modern art museum – that cost 79 million US dollars to build – and it’s all empty. The apartments are invariably for the wealthy, and are invariably empty as for most, they are either too expensive or just simply too much out of the way. In the case of Ordos, there is no economic activilty in the empty city, so no one goes there except the few thousand state workers that were ordered to go there. I wonder how their daily life is, driving over empty streets through an empty city out there on the mongolian grasslands.

The total of empty high end apartments reaches 64 million all over China and it takes an exceptionally hopeful mind to think that there will be enough wealthy middle class to fill those up anytime soon enough to avoid the bubble bursting.

The most stunning part of this whole story is, that it seems these projects were solely made in order to boost up the GDP numbers of China to please the world bank.

How many times do I have to tell you guys that you simply cannot rule the world with numbers? That this world does not fit in numbers? That reality can’t be caught, explained, controlled or tamed by numbers? Is there really any leader anywhere in this world still left who actually realizes that?

Suddenly, the bleak emptiness I saw in Songzhuang makes sense. The high end gallery buildings in the middle of nowhere. I remember the enomous deserted lanes in Zhangjiakou, the rows of apartment blocks painted brightly red. I remember the apartment blocks of ‘the Davos of the east‘ the spa resort with is sparkling new highway, and I realize they all fit in the same story of overbuilding.

Someone characterized China as ‘a supertanker travelling at the speed of a speedboat”
That is an apt description.

I was also told once, that it is a Chinese custom, to wish someone one doesnt wish too much good the following: “may you live in historically interesting times”
And boy, these times are so interesting, historically and otherwise, my head is spinning with it.

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