China – Genuine or Fake?

Everyday when you wake up in the morning here, it is hard to know what is genuine or fake…from the bank notes you exchange to buy things, from the clothes or objects you purchase. I sometimes think the smog outside is just dirt on my glasses or window pane. RJW and I NEARLY got scammed this week, but I tell you about that later on. So another Thursday, another meeting, another interview. I was up early that day in preparation for my meeting with Simon Kirby, Director of ‘Chambers Fine Art’. I’ve met him a few time before but in limited time frames at conferences or social high art celebrations situations (I mean private views and their after parties). He is a genuinely lovely, honest and highly intelligent man…he really does think beyond the average and makes you question every step, which is what I need for this PhD. I’ll talk more about our chats later on. Before RJW and I met Simon, we cycled to ‘Platform China’. RJW needed to stop in the way at the bike repair man at the side of the road as his pedal crank had come loose. The guy repaired it for 1RMB, and it worked to some degree, for the rest of the day.

‘Platform China’ like ‘Chambers Fine Art’, is in the ‘Caochangdi Art District’, north of the ‘798 Art District’, which is also on the way to the airport. I had a DVD/publication to collect from the exhibition ‘Subtlety’, which Karen Smith and I spoke about last weekend. It was a group show of commissioned works from ten leading contemporary artists, who present a diverse range of ideas, thought processes, and sensibilities. The works ask the viewer to respond to their subtle nature, and consider what distinguishes enduring art from temporal trends – the importance of the search, and a desire to build on what has gone before. I might show it as part of my teaching in Shanghai. I’ll note that down. I thought Claudia Albertini wasn’t at ‘Platform China’ that day, but she as well as Sun Ning, both were, and it was really good to see them both. They had a favour to ask…could RJW and I, when on our way back to the UK, take a projector for an artist as fragile hand luggage, or stowaway? I think hand luggage would be safer…though it is quite large. I said I’d speak to my university colleagues to see whether any of them could take it at an earlier time at the end of November when they come out for the ‘Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA)’ conference. I need to email Joshua about that request, and about my CCVA conference title ideas…and I still need to email Jonathan Watkins about the spotlights in Noguchi Rika’s exhibition space…hmmmm the to-do list is growing as ever, even in a different country, but that was expected.

Another appointment. RJW and I cycled and parked up in the courtyard garden of ‘Chambers Fine Art’ and waited for Simon to finish up. He took us to ‘Fodder Factory’, one of his favourite lunch spots in that district. I am enjoying the way my interviewees introduce me to some of their favourite places. It tells me a lot about them too, about their personalities, characters and outside of work interactions. It was a quirky, hidden gem of a restaurant, located in between people’s residences, and very local which I loved. Other Westerners and workers from the art district knew where it was too. I would never have found it as it was so nestled in between Chinese home-life. Over some spiced mustard cucumber, chilli chicken with peanuts, tofu squares and pak choi, we discussed his experiences and understanding of contemporary China and contemporary Chinese art. Simon did tick the ‘proof read and edit before publishing’ box on the consent form so I can’t say much.

He mentioned Philip Tinari (as other interviewees have), a Westerner who’s been working in China for many years and who recently set up the bilingual publication on contemporary Chinese art, ‘LEAP’ magazine. I have spoken to him before on Twitter but thought it was perhaps time to have a more formal and proper chat face-to-face, so I emailed him to get a prompt reply saying we should catch up in Shanghai at the end of October. Fantastic…and it has only just dawned on me how busy Shanghai is going to be, especially around 3 weeks of teaching.

We decided to make a couple of stops on the journey home, the first at the ‘798 Art District’ to hunt down two interviewees, which was to no avail. All I got was a different email address from on gallery, and completely fobbed of by the other. I’ll name no names. Some people are difficult to pin down courtesy of the art world being so damn international, everyone is always travelling here, there and everywhere, usually for the same events too like the up-coming ‘Frieze Art Fair’ in London. After cycle time and just round the corner from our apartment, we decided to check out the food market – all things fish, meat, spices, fruit and veg, kitchenware, homeware and tea. I was on the hunt for a tea strainer, like a mini sieve that goes on the top of a cup or mug to stop the fresh tea debris from infiltrating. After spending a good while in the kitchenware section, we discovered it was of course in the tea warehouse, and it really was a warehouse. I also discovered they sold the very tasty wheat tea I drank and rather liked at Li Xianting’s studio and home. What made me super happy was the fact I got three tea strainers, one bag of wheat tea, and a packets of wheat teabags all for 9RMB, that’s less than a pound! By the end of the experience for all the sense, RJW and I need a snack – for me a sesame seed triangle, for him two deep-fried sausages on sticks…then it was time for Sanlitun clothes fitting at Alice Tailor Shop after at little sit down at home.

My shirt dresses weren’t ready to try on which I was a little disappointed about, but RJW’s three pairs of copied Levi’s were…and they were all just a little tight so some alterations were made. They look so good though, you can see them below. We had to go back on Saturday night for a final, final fitting. We seem to be cramming so much into our days now…I think Shanghai will be even worse.

On Friday morning the scam began. RJW and I, and his two friends, Jim and Laura from the UK who are travelling round the world, NEARLY got done over by ‘China International Travel Services’…they seemed genuine on their name/business card but then anyone can have one nowadays…really what is genuine and what is fake around here? Sometimes it’s so hard to tell, especially when you put your trust in someone. I’ll tell you what happened…we had pre-booked a trip to the Great Wall, to the Mutianyu section, a mini bus tour that included lunch, entrance and hotel pick-up/drop-off all for 100RMB. Ok, given, it did sound to good to be true and…ummm…it was. They said they would pick Laura and Jim up from their hotel at 8am, and RJW and I at 8.30am, only for them to call me at 7.30am to say they would be outside our apartment in 10 minutes…10 minutes??!! So I said we wouldn’t be ready, they replied saying I would have to get a taxi to our friends hotel, I said I wouldn’t pay, they then said I had “a good deal as you get so much with the tour, visiting 4 different museums, all free, the 100RMB won’t cover the wall, so we go other places”….ummmm that is NOT what I signed up for. Thankfully, no money had ever parted hands. The girl on the phone, apparently the guide for the day, said well “you coming or not”, errrr NO! She hung up abruptly. Man, she was rude! I immediately phoned Jim and Laura at their hotel to let them know not to join in on this facade. This sort of deal is very common, where they say they will take you somewhere but instead they take you to shopping malls to spend money and then take you to your wanted destination for 5 minutes. This caused a right faff first thing in the morning, but at least we were up, nearly ready, and could use every minute of Friday. Jim and Laura managed to find a train which went from Beijing North Station to a different section of the wall called Badaling…so RJW and I got our skates on, well got on our bikes, cycled to the subway, got two trains and a little lost only to find out the train times were different and we missed it by a long, long time. So we’re going tomorrow instead. As we were all in the same boat we decided to spend the day together….firstly on the hunt for a bird and then animal market in the same area to no avail. Whilst using my iPhone translation app, people thought when I asked for “animal market”, I meant zoo. Nope. Literally lost in translation at its best. We never found them but had a good walk around. From here, we went to the ‘Yonghe Temple’, also known as the ‘Palace of Peace and Harmony Lama Temple’, but sat down for a break and lunchtime snacking before hand. We found a street seller that made these pancakes with egg, spring onion, soy, chilli paste and parsley that were pretty good. I wish I could upload the video RJW took of her making them. She put this fried, crispy cooked sheet in the middle, a bit like a poppadom, which soaked up all the flavours. It was very filling. That little window vendor also sold those lovely dark flour, sesame seeded buns I had with Li Xianting, so I bought two to snack on throughout the day.

After re-fueling, we started our journey at the ‘Yonghe Temple’, and this Beijing tourist attraction could be the best I’ve seen so far. This working temple and monastery of the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism is one of the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world. The building and the artworks of the temple combine Han Chinese and Tibetan styles. As I had seen the exhibition ‘Scorching Sun of Tibet – Contemporary Tibetan Art Show’ at the Songzhuang Art Centre a couple of days before, I actually had a little knowledge I could apply, especially about the prayer wheels. People still come there to pray and meditate there with incense, it was really captivating.

I felt a little ignorant and sometimes disrespectful as I was unsure as to what their rituals involved. I think I might have stared a bit too much sometimes as well. There were statues…buddhas, some bigger than four-storey houses…all embellished in colourful materials and gold. They were stunning. Some of them made you questioned how they were constructed.

W sat down for about an hour in there, just people watching and looking at the world go by…it was serene and peaceful. After here, RJW went off to find ‘Arrow Factory’ which we struggled to locate last week. After emailing them, Rania one of the founders told me exactly where it was, so we couldn’t go wrong. The funny thing is, is it is right next door to the English food stuffs shop we went into last time. We just didn’t notice it. They currently have an installation piece by Zhang Peili on show, which you can just about see through the window. Arrow Factory has presented exhibitions and projects that have been distinguished in part by their concrete or hypothetical relationship to the social context of its immediate local setting. In Zhang Peili’s work, the back wall inside the space creeps towards the front glass façade and slowly retreats back again. Correspondingly, a pale circle of light on the wall widens and narrows as the wall moves forward and back. The installation 38 Jianchang Hutong “asks of its viewers not casual engagement, but meditative patience. As such, it can be interpreted as both a desire to attract and pull in one’s attention and an act to willfully repel and disregard it.”

I really do like the work of the ‘Arrow Factory’, its location, space and its overall premise. Below are some photos from the wander to and from the space…RJW really loves taking photos.

RJW and I decided to catch the subway back to where the bikes were left in the morning, stopping on the way at the ‘Ancient Observatory’. RJW loves all things ‘The Sky at Night’, so this was his thing. It was, like the temple, super peaceful there, apart from the sound of the ring road and inner city buzz…so maybe it wasn’t that quiet, but it was empty and our haven for a little while.

On the cycle home, we decided to see how much tickets were to see an acrobatics show. In a word – expensive so we just rode home to have a quiet night before the mission the next day to the Great Wall. Below is the famous Beijing CCTV building next to its burnt out friend. It makes such an impression in the skyline.

So the photos below tell you where we went on Saturday…yep…the ‘Great Wall of China’…specifically the ‘Badaling Great Wall’…the most touristy section of the wall as well, but we had no choice courtesy of the liars the day before. We got the train from Beijing North Station to Badaling at the cheap as chips price of 17RMB each.

The journey took just over an hour and was full of wall go-ers. It took about 15 minutes to walk up the hill to the entrance, and as we had bought tickets on the train we didn’t have to queue…and so the trek began. I’m hoping that some of the photos catch the scale, size and sheer magnitude of this thing…some sections were so steep, they made my legs shake under pressure and a little fear, as Chinese teenagers threw themselves with such force down the slopes running as if they’d never stop. I suppose ten years ago I would have been the same. This seriously tired you out. The strangest thing was, during our walk and hike, Chinese people wanted photos with us, like we were celebrities…when we were super sweaty, out of breath and half way up a staircase where the steps were the equivalent of three a piece. It made you feel like a child in a giant’s house. It was VERY random. I pulled out some genuine Asian poses for those, as well as for some of our own record as you can see.

Right at the end of one section of the wall you can drop down to a different area, which is where we stumbled across the Badaling Bear Park or Garden. In reality, it was actually three large pits full of these bears that didn’t look content in any way. They were doing that rocking their head side-to side-thing, which is an obvious key indicator of unhappiness. It was actually quite distressing. Whilst we were there we also saw the ‘Great Wall Museum’ where there was a fake reproduction of the Great Wall inside that people were being photographed by (funny in so many ways)…actually when you come to think of it most things in there were fake or reproductions…and the ‘Circle-Vision 360 degree Theatre’ where we saw a short 15-minute film on the Great Wall. It claimed “seamless imagery” when you could see the lines in between each section. As we were watching the film, there was constant chatter from the Chinese audience as they had played an English version for us. A little annoying and I don’t think they would have liked it if we did the same to them. I think we got the train back to the city at about 3.20pm, arriving around 4.30pm and then went straight for free dinner at the cafe Copycat at the ‘Today Art Museum’. We still have so many vouchers left. We were so tired by that point but had agreed to see people that evening for weekend fun times…firstly having a drink with Russell at ‘The Den’ where we spoke of Mongolian weddings, food poisoning and fixed gear bikes, and then onto a Reggae Party at ‘2 Kolegas’, not far from where we live, to meet Cory and Marta.

The venue is right by a American-style drive-in movie theatre that looks amazing! When we turned the corner in the cab I realised that ‘2 Kolegas’ is an outside and inside kinda place…and the party started outside. It was freezing that night and I had no coat. I think that was the coldest night we have had so far, and it’s just going to get colder. They had a huge Jamaican DJ set up outside, a bar and a BBQ, where we had lamb and chicken skewers, and some sort of spiced sesame white flatbread. I only had a little as we’d had free din dins earlier on. We did eventually move inside to watch the live band called ‘The Discounts’ – a mix of reggae, ska and funk from Canada…they covered some songs as well as playing their own stuff. I really kinda liked them, especially the trumpet interludes, so I got their CD to listen to on the rest of this China adventure. I’m glad I managed to find reggae for RJW in Beijing as I know how much he misses music, well good live music and his first love, reggae. I’ll have to find some in Shanghai too. If anyone knows of any good live music places to go there, contact me! As long as they are genuine, right?


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