China – To Tianjin and back again…

You’ll notice that this post isn’t anything to do with my research this time, which is a nice change, at least for a few days. I’m currently sitting, writing and eating dates whilst RJW is hungover next to me, we’re watching the film ‘UP’ and I’ve already cried once. I have a feeling I might again too. If you don’t have time to read this all, at least read about Friday’s antics later on in the post. We’ve taken a few days out from the art world, even though I spent one day emailing about interviews and my teaching at AIVA in Shanghai, as we went to see his friend Nick and lovely wife Qian in Tianjin, 30 minutes east of Beijing, where it is a little quieter with some well needed familiarity. They both had a few days off work as it was the Chinese Mid-Autumn or Moon Festival on Wednesday, so we got to spend some real time with them and shown around their city.

On Sunday evening after a day of sleeping and catching up on time (and my system going on shutdown – now recovered though), we packed, got in a taxi, headed to Beijing South Station (Beijing Nan Zhan) and got the very fast (330km/hr) train to Tianjin, that looked like the first class equivalent of a UK train and there was even free bottled water. Some random guy was trying to take photos of me – you can see him with his camera infront of me. The woman to my left gave him some lip and he eventually sat down and shut up. I’m not that much of a spectacle am I? RJW was in a different carriage at this stage as we accidentally bought separate tickets.

When we arrived in Tianjin, we eventually found a taxi that would take us to Nick and Qian’s only to find it didn’t have a meter. This was the first time, and hopefully the only time, we got ripped off. He got lost, went round one block about 4 times and then charged us 40RMB when it shouldn’t have anywhere near that. We appreciated Nick and Qian’s attempt to negotiate and argue but it made no difference. The driver was such a kid as well. They took us straight out for a Korean barbecue food and it was a feast, actually most of our meals in Tianjin have been food-o-rama extravaganzas. Here’s a picture of the table…there was a hot plate BBQ grill in the middle of the table that had burning coals underneath.

My favourites were the hot corn dish (on the left), fried tofu squares and the very, very tasty pumpkin porridge (also on the left), which I think is the best dish I’ve had so far, super naturally sweet with a great wheaty thick texture. After dinner the boys headed to a bath house for steam, sauna, massages and all out relaxation and Qian took me for a manicure. When I got there she told me I shouldn’t put my handbag on the floor as it’s seen as dirty, which made me realise why the woman next to me on the train wanted me to put it on the tray table infront of me. Also, the manicurist wanted to know why my nails were so red. All I usually ever wear is No7’s pillar box red varnish with no base coat…so they are always tinged pink. Not anymore. Afterwards, we decided to walk back to their apartment, about a 40-minute walk home, getting fruit on the way. Here, I discovered the 10% extra charge after 10pm as the shop sellers are having to stay up late in colder weather missing out on their families…apparently. If they did this in the UK they could probably sort out the recession instantly. When we got back to the apartment, Qian’s mom had been in and made up the bed in the spare room. She had also bought us a huge decorative box of different types of speciality mooncakes to take back home. I had them once before in my Mandarin class last year, they are very heavy textured cakes with an almondy filling, kinda coconut-ty if I remember correctly. Let’s hope they travel well as they are something very special to bring home. Nick and RJW returned around midnight looking all relaxed and um oiled? Ha.

Nick had the next day off so after waking up to Kimber the very beautiful Amercian silver tabby cat on my pillow (Nick and Qian have 2 cats, Mischa is a little nervous so we didn’t really see her), a breakfast of cereal (I was so pleased to eat cereal again, and Weetabix mini’s of all things), and a quick lunch at a restaurant round the corner where they bought us the wrong food and hot instead of cold water to drink (though I’m quite liking this), he took us shopping to a few of his favourite places in Tinajin to get films, games and magazines.

I got some art house films and games for my brother as well as a gift for my good friend ‘MK’. At the 4 storey computer mart RJW and Nick played the latest Street Fighter on a big screen whilst I wandered round looking and pricing stuff out. They managed to get quite a big audience in the shop from locals. I think Nick won all the matches.

In one of the film/music shops I came across this clock. I’ve seen a lot of them in the local shops and restaurants. Maybe I should start photographing them all then it can be like archiving experience for me. Constant measurement of time.

For dinner we went to a huo guo (hot pot) restaurant in Tianjin, where all the cooking is done in a boiling stock in the centre of the table, instead of cooking in oil. We had everything from tofu strips, shrimp paste, lamb, lettuce, yams, beansprouts, mushrooms and we were going to have duck’s blood, but that got sent back as we’d already eaten so much. You make your own sauce which you can see in the bowl to the right, made from a peanut/sesame base then you add herbs, spices and oils to create flavour. Everything, if you want it to, gets dipped in it and it tastes so fresh and good for you.

This restaurant is renowned in Tianjin for its service. The waitresses literal do and provide everything for you, from giving you aprons so you don’t get food on yourself, to putting your glasses in a plastic case with a cloth cleaner for afterwards, to constantly giving you hot towels to clean your hands, oh and cooking the food. On the wander home from the restaurant RJW got some rather nice photos of the back streets of Tianjin.

On Tuesday, RJW and I slept in as both Nick and Qian had to work. It was a very slow start and I spent most of the afternoon e-mailing PhD contacts for interview and friends and family. When Qian had finished work she rang us to tell us to meet her at a certain address and I thought it was at the cinema as we want to see a chinese movie before we leave, however it was at a place called the KTV…kareoke TV…RJW’s request and an unforgettable time. The building is like a hotel, a hotel full of karaoke rooms of different sizes. Neon lights everywhere and an almost unbearable mix of sounds from people singing (or trying too). The usher takes you to your room and he is also your waiter for the time you’re there. It was completely bizarre how big and busy this place was! And it was definitely RJW’s land. Qian had invited some of her students to come along to bump up numbers and we were in there for 5 hours, we were supposed to be in there for 3…5 whole hours with bar snacks, melon and beer.

RJW was in his element. The chinese students thought he was hysterical and would purposely put on english songs for him to sing which were largely Britney, Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson. RJ also sang some classic Lionel, John Denver and Cliff Richard’s ‘Bachelor Boy’. We also discovered that Qian is not just a good singer, but an amazing singer…although she usually sings a little at home as she is doing things so we kinda knew that. She really does have a beautiful voice. One of the students had this powerful punch to her voice and sang Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ with such passion and a pinch of aggression. I’m wishing I had access to YouTube at this stage so I could upload videos of it all, instead I only have photos.

Nick eventually joined us after work at about 9pm to catch the final hour of the KTV show and to video Rich singing an MJ classic. We watched ‘This Is It’ the other night so I think it inspired him somehow. When KTV came to an end we went for some cheap BBQ food round the corner, which wasn’t the best but filled our tummies.

Wednesday was the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival so everyone had the day off. There was a much calmer presence in the city. It was a clear blue sky day with glaring sunshine, not too hot either…perfect. We didn’t have breakfast as we went to a place called ‘Helen’s Bar’ for a big lunch. It’s a Western bar and restaurant by the river which I think they have in most cities in China. I had a huge egg and tuna salad and cheesecake and the boys had pizza. It looked good. We also had a supermarket experience at Carrefour that day. RJW’s not really a fan of supermarkets and Chinese ones are a different league, always packed full of people with massive, massive queues. It’s like a mission when you in there to get the things you need and get out as fast as you can. We do the same in Tesco by our apartment in Beijing. That evening we went to one of Nick’s friends and colleagues Patricia’s for dinner at the other end of the city. She had a kitten, a very tiny tabby kitten with white socks. We are all suckers for cats. Qian took a box of moon cakes and Nick took UNO cards, yep, that classic childhood game. He managed to find a deck in Shanghai last week, perhaps overpriced but who knows, it’s UNO. Pat had cooked an array of Western food – Shepherds Pie, steamed vegetables, salad, grilled chicken, and some buffalo chicken as she’s from Chicago. Another great feast and it felt good to eat something a bit more familiar. We got introduced to more of Nick’s colleague’s another American called Julie and a Kiwi guy called Sam. All great people, you know? Super easy to get on with.

I was super full after this meal but managed to squeeze in moon cake afterwards. There were different types…ones with coconut which was my favourite (the white one), meat, almond…all with a different twist. In the photo below you will see a Tianjin Starbucks coffee mug. Pat actually collects them from all around the world and she has been to a lot of places. Her collection was immense…Seoul, Thailand, a lot of locations in China and America…I could go on and on.

We played UNO after dinner and surprise surprise RJW won 2 out of the 3 games. Julia, one of Nick’s other new colleagues won the other. The games went on for ages, I seem to have forgotten about that since my days of playing it as a child on caravan holidays in Scotland or North Wales. We were all so tired after this meal. Think that’s what good food does to you. Much later on that evening PhD guilt kicked, and all you PhD-ers out there know exactly what that feels like. It’s not good and puts you in a super funk like it did with me just before I slept that night. I wanted to get back to Beijing to work, but at the same staying one more day would do no harm and spending time getting to know Nick and Qian was so much fun and super special. My head went into irrationality mode for the next 24 hours or so which wasn’t fair on anyone. I had been working whilst I was in Tianjin – blogging and e-mailing, organising appointments all count. Needless to say I didn’t really sleep that night. I woke up on Thursday morning so tired and rough. Thursday was a day with Qian as well, as Nick had to work so I felt bad for being super tired and not myself.

The day began with a little cereal, moving onto an early lunch with Qian and her friend Sarah, who is about to study a Masters in Education at Bath, UK. We went to a place called ‘1718’, good for duck apparently, and it was. We had a full duck with pancakes, cucumber and spring onion after some vegetable tofu rolls, rice noodles with mussels and some sort of wasabi prawns which I didn’t even enter into. The duck was very, very good, especially the skin. I think the best we’ve had so far since being in China. I’ve always loved duck though. The best I’ve had was on New Year’s Eve in Hamburg, Germany…it came with a red berry sauce. It was great to get to know Sarah too. RJW and I are going to show her a little bit of England when we get back. She will only be there a year so there’s a lot to squeeze in. After lunch we went for an afternoon wander in the centre of Tianjin…with Qian as our guide.

Qian took us to the Guwenhua Jie, the Ancient Culture Street, full of stalls, traditional shops, street games and a whole lot more. It was a little touristy but still very traditional and was an opportunity to get gifts and treats for people, which I won’t say too much about. I had a bit of a book and paper moment as we came across art and calligraphy shops that sold a huge array of very beautiful things. I had a little bit of time with some Chinese paper…touching, smelling, caressing…if I have chance I might buy some to bind into a book.

I also managed to get something that made me very happy and for a moment forget about the funk I was in. One of the stalls was a printmaker who engraved words, phrases, names into natural stone to create printing blocks…so I got my Chinese name, in two different formats (horse thinking and reflecting on flying/horse with tens of shining lights) engraved into three pieces of stone. Qian said it is actually like your signature out here and some places won’t accept letters without one of these “name” prints in red ink.

We really did walk a lot that day, but saw an awful lot too. We had an afternoon break, sat down and ate ice cream from Cold Stone, which I remember from Times Square during my New York days. I had cheesecake and blueberry  with raisins on top and it definitely refueled us for the rest of the evening. We chatted for over an hour…I can’t really remember what about. Time just went.

From there we wandered down the river, lit up with super colourful lights (China seems to love light shows) to the ‘Italian Style Town’, which was this strange mix of Western Italian architecture, full of European restaurants and stalls. Kinda surreal and odd as it felt a little like Christmas. From here, we walked through the main shopping street in the centre of the city and went for dinner. By the time we’d finished it was time to meet Nick after work and head to a Jazz Club to see one of their friends sing. I can’t remember her name but her singing was unforgettable.

The club was in the bottom of a huge building, not sure whether it was a hotel, apartment block or office. Anyway, it was a complete shock as I never expected to find what was inside. This place seemed to be a hidden gem in Tianjin and Jazz proved to put me in a much better mood. The PhD guilt was slowly going, a Skype chat with my Mom also helped. Mom’s are the best sometimes, and thank god something like Skype exists. The singer was something else.

Again, I wish I had YouTube so I could upload film of her singing. So this was the bar area…

And behind the bar was a room that was full of artworks on the picture hanging rail…real contemporary Chinese artworks. Not prints. The real thing…literally one of those paintings is worth about $80,000…so it was like a little collection on show. You can kinda make them out in the panoramas below.

RJW even had a play on one of the guitars, a little jammin’ time. I think the band called it country and western but it really wasn’t. So this was jazz…

Qian told me I had no reason to be stressed or feel PhD guilty, which I knew, but for some reason I couldn’t shake that last little bit. Music is powerful sometimes…and definitely helped.

On Friday, RJW and I awoke thinking we had twenty minutes to get ready and leave Tianjin, so we could depart with Nick when he went to work at 10.30am, so I quickly jumped in the shower only to be told as I got out that we had all the time in the world…phew. I was shattered from all our walking and jazz antics the day before. So RJW and I had a slow morning of breakfast, internet clothes and shoe shopping which could become highly addictive due to price…no really…2 pairs of UGGs and Louboutin’s for me, 2 pairs of SUPRA’s for him, and then a lunchtime coffee table picnic of seafood and chicken with celery, aubergines with garlic and coriander in a light gravy and gun pow chicken, which I didn’t eat. My tummy’s still playing silly beggars but that’s no surprise and I’m getting pretty annoyed with it right now. We’re currently playing with the idea of getting suits tailored, or for me perhaps a skirt…but you have to go with a full idea of what you want as they don’t have design skills. For me it would cost about 300-400RMB for everything, again this super cheap shopping business is lethal.

We got the train from Tianjin at about 6.15pm after a two-hour wait as the trains were so busy…rush hour time. We sat outside the station and RJW was quite the focus. People would come up to him really close just to check out his hair. And they weren’t discrete. When we arrived back in Beijing, the surprising thing was the roads were actually clear, so we got home quick fast only to discover the water was off, so I had to phone Ma from the apartment company who came round to find the whole building didn’t have water and we wouldn’t get it back until the next day…nice. No shower for me then. Time to do the best I can with what I’ve got.

At about 10pm that evening, RJW and I went to the Santilun area of Beijing to join his friend Corey. (Nick and RJW lived with him at university – always nice to add a bit of context for the reader.) As we arrived in the taxi, we immediately realised it was an expat kinda place and comparable to any main, generic street filled with bars and clubs in any UK city…but at the same time it wasn’t as it was Beijing. We were in China. I sometimes wonder how it happened. Our first stop was at a very famous joint called ‘Fish Nation’, of all places a British chippy in the heart of Beijing.

Battered sausage, fish and chips…you name it, they had it and super cheap too. It was extremely surreal. Here we met, Corey’s Kiwi colleague Russell (middle), Corey’s Polish model girlfriend Marta (left), and her Czech model friend Eva (right of Marta), who has just featured in the latest Esquire magazine. Seriously those girls were tall and something to be super jealous of, I wish my legs were that long and hops were that tiny. Corey knew the owners of Fish Nation so well, Russell put his own music on and we all basically took over the place. I think the absurdity of Fish Nation and the diverse international mix of our party crowd was enough to make you realise this night was going to be random…and it completely was, seriously. After some chippies, tempura prawns and numerous mojitos (I wish had by me), we moved onto a hotel club, the ‘Yan Club’ in the five-star Kunlun Hotel. I only found out later on in the evening, or very early morning I reckon, that it was the opening night of the club, the launch hence all the super fuss we got from everyone. We sat in these huge dark red Chesterfield chairs that could seat two people at the same time. Corey ordered woo woo’s, and not just any woo woo’s…it came in the form of a full bottle of Limited Edition Absolut 72 of which there are only 350,000 produced (600RMB a piece), a bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice, and ice, lots of ice. We’re playing with the big kids tonight guys, though we did last weekend at the Ritz-Carlton…what and who are RJW and I turning into?! Ha.

So pulling out all the stops and this was an average night for these kids, but they work hard for it. Work hard, play hard right?! I know the feeling. The waitresses made sure your ice was refreshed in your drinks, your cigarettes were lit for you and your drinks replenished non-stop…as well as many other usual services. Though I don’t think they appreciated when we started to throw peanuts into each others mouths at a rapid and messy rate. RJW managed to get one in Eva’s mouth from the other side of our booth, that was the only success. The pleasures of being sober, you remember every last detail.

So before the third bottle of Limited Edition Absolut 72 was ordered, opened and drank, which it would have and god knows what would have happened, seriously…we moved onto another infamous prestige club in Beijing called the ‘Suzie Wong Club’, described by Russell as less pretentious that the ‘Yan Club’ but ummmm more bad??? (that’s being polite).

We were here for about 5 minutes as a whole world of random Chinese chaos kicked off. Are you ready? Apparently this situation happens quite a lot, for this group anyway. We got into the club, which was basically full of the expat elite, pushed past all the crowds as they stared at you wondered who on earth you were to get by the dance floor, stood there for a minute or two and decided to go back to ‘Fish Nation’ for cheap drinks and late night snacks and to be honest the atmosphere was far better. As we made our way to the exit, Russell tapped Eva on the shoulder and as she turned she accidentally caught this Chinese woman’s face with her hand and clutch bag…here’s where the world of trouble kicked off. A huge male Chinese entourage appeared out of nowhere to back up the female as everyone got pushed outside. RJW and I stood clear of all this…shouting and cursing ensued in the street. We just got out of there as fast as we could. Well, we can tick that off our list of Beijing experiences…if that happened in the UK you’d just apologise, but as here East met West it seemed to all fall apart into stupidity. As said we went straight back to ‘Fish Nation’ for more drinks and snack-age, returning home at I think about 5am…though I can’t be sure. RJW and I are slowly working out the real things to see and get involved with and RJW is attending a design meeting with Russell on Monday or Tuesday so lets see what comes out of that. Exciting right?

A few things art to finish off the um chapter from a novel??? I seem to write so much nowadays. Firstly, in an all American kinda way, I’d like to dedicate this post to a colleague who is about to move onto to pastures new from Wolverhampton Art Gallery to Arts Council England. Kate Pryor-Williams, I wish you all the best and many happy days in your new job. Thank you for providing me with curatorial guidance, expertise and knowledge during the early days of my career. You will definitely leave a gap at WAG and will be greatly missed as a friend, co-worker and a Wolverhampton Curator, and be a great asset to ACE. I raise a hypothetical glass to you as a toast from Beijing. Next, the artist Wit Pimkanchanapong from Soi Projects who created the ‘Fruits’ project for ‘Negotiations’ e-mailed through a link to his Beijing Flickr photo album…I’d take a look as there are some really beautiful images in there of his whole experience. I have meetings with Platform China and Curator Karen Smith in the next week. Oh, RJW and I have also managed to change our return flights so we can go our see our two friends out in Dubai over the Christmas and New Year break. We are so pleased about this as we don’t often get the chance to see them. Some super winter sunshine on its way…I can’t wait, as they days are getting cooler here. I thought I’d finish with a comparison of smog to no smog so you can see how bad it gets, and these pictures prove it. On National holidays here they turn off all the factories so a blue sky can break through…some difference right…? The top image is an average day in the city…your thoughts?


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