Category Archives: Tianning

A Time for Roses in Tianning

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Some places in Changzhou are time sensitive. By that, I mean it’s best to visit them only certain times of the year due to climate and more. This is definitely true of Tianning’s Zijing Park. This is the place with the massive metal Farris wheel that doesn’t work. Yet, that can be seen all year. So, what is the other attraction here?

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It’s June, and we are at the beginning of summer, still. The flowers in Zijing Park are beginning to bloom. While they are spread liberally through the park, the best place for a stroll might be the International Rose Garden. This place goes above and beyond the typical Chinese passion for flowers. Actually, the World Federation of Rose Societies singled out this area of the park with their Award of Garden Excellence in 2012.

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As of this writing, the roses are just starting to bloom, so this garden my be more beautiful in a few weeks. It should also be noted that this area is dubbed as “international”  as based on where the species of each rose comes from. Walking through here affords a visitor to see a variety of shapes and colors.

Oh, and this goes without saying. Don’t be a D-bag or an A-hole while walking around here.

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Zijing Park is in the part of Tianning that is close to Xinbei. Actually, it’s just a few kilometers south of Dinosaur Park.

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Between Nothing and Something

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Searching for history in Changzhou can lead to amazing finds like a tiny museum dedicated dragons and another dedicated to cigarettes, and sometimes it’s downright quixotic. Searching for the Dacheng #3 Factory historical site was one of those quixotic searches. I first noticed this place from across the canal. I saw a historical marker and some traditional-looking roof lines, and curiosity ensnared me. I actually spent a month or two looking how to get to this place. Finding it actually meant riding my bike down random narrow alleys.

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This is basically a poor neighborhood, so the sight of a tall white dude on an ebike garnered weird looks. “Why is he here?” I have grown immune to it. In fact, I just smile, wave, and say 你好!That usually generates enough good will that people smile back. That especially helps when I had to get off my bike and do some searching on foot. A genuine smile, I have learned, can go miles while you do not have adequate Chinese skills. I still have no doubt some of the locals are still thinking, “What the hell is this weirdo doing in this obscure part of Changzhou?”

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If you have roamed around Changzhou long enough, you will find that people will actively seek out every bit of space possible to garden and grow vegetables. It doesn’t matter how tiny the plot. Eventually, I found the historical site that had alluded me for a month or two.

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Yeah, it was a little bit overgrown. The historical marker was still intact.

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So, I mentioned the word “quixotic” earlier. So, what is was useless and silly about this search? What was the windmill I was tilting at? Remember the sign says “protected” for “historical and cultural value at the provincial level.” Yeah, right. This is what the place looks like behind the wall.

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Believe me, stuff like this is so normal in Changzhou. It’s the one of the many signs of a city rapidly changing. Like or not, Changzhou is undergoing a rapid transformation and metamorphosis. Right now, that means a lot of rubble, everywhere. But sometimes, idle wanderings lead to things you don’t expect.

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Apparently, in the back alleys next to a canal, I found a grave site. The two huge stone boxes are caskets. Lots of people were buried in them. The signage did not say if they were local, or if these things were simply moved here because there was open space and it was convenient. Honestly, in China, you can never tell, especially if you are a foreigner trying to figure out a local culture that is not in your native language. From the signage, I eventually that two important people were among the interred.  They were 白埈 Bái jùn and 样淑 Yàng shū. I was told these two guys were important in Changzhou. Funny, thing, Baidu searches go nowhere. I can’t find anything on who they are. So, these stone caskets will linger in my mind until I can understand the story behind them. In short, the search to understand China continues. I always will.

 

Art and Cigarettes

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During my first year in Changzhou, I used to collect empty packs of cigarettes. It was a silly hobby that came as an extension of a highly self destructive habit. However, the culture around tobacco and smoking in China is extremely different. In the west, packs of cigarettes are simple and focused on branding and logos.In China, some packs of cigarettes can havd gold and silver embossed packaging — not to mention holograms of things like pandas and cats. The weird thing is that I was beginning to treat collecting empty cigarette packs the way I used to collect comic books and trading cards: Ooh, look! It has a shiny foil stamp!

This is a marked difference from other countries. Thailand, for example, has graphic pictures of diseased lungs on their cigarette packaging. Of course, in America, it’s gotten to the point where smoking has gotten so taboo, I once got yelled at for smoking in Central Park, New York City. That’s right. I was outside, far from people, and was ashing into an empty water bottle while sitting on a bench. In short, I was trying to hide and not litter. Somebody still felt the need to go out of their way to shout at me and inform me that I was slowly killing myself. Like I didn’t know that already. Like most smokers do not know that already.

Of course, smoking doesn’t have the same social stigma in China. At weddings, gift packs of smokes await guests on restaurant tables. It’s seen as a sign of respect for one guy to give a cigarette to another — especially while conducting a business meeting lunch that also requires drinking baijiu. As mentioned earlier, there is the strange ornate artistry of some on the packs themselves. While I eventually threw my collection out, apparently this is not an uncommon hobby in China. In fact, Changzhou has a small museum dedicated just to tobacco packaging and related paraphernalia.

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The Ge Xiaoxing Sino-Foreign Cigarette Packs and Appliance musuem has AA rating from the from the China National Tourism Administration. Sure, this is the second to lowest rating, but it still means that it receives government support and funding. AA just means it’s not as important as something classified as AAAAA. It’s a very tiny place, and inside you can see old and rare packs of cigarettes wall mounted as if they are priceless art.

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There are other things too, while I found the old packs interesting to look at, I found the older advertisement wall hangings even more intriguing to look at as art. In a sense, it gives a sense of how old popular culture in China differs, slightly, from the west. Yet, part of me wondered how different these are from the Guinness For Strength! pub ads you used to see in the UK decades ago.

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Besides these and the packs themselves, there are also tins, vintage ashtrays, snuff bottles, old pipes, and more behind protective glass.

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As mentioned earlier, this place is tiny.  It’s also near the smaller pagoda in Hongmei, but it’s not actually in the park itself. It’s easy to spend roughly 15 minutes to half an hour in here and see everything. In a way, it’s best to pair visiting this place with visiting the park itself and the other small museums there, like the Tu Yidao Stump Carving Museum.

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Chinese address at the bottom of the screenshot.

In many respects, this place celebrates a form of folk art. In that way, it’s not that different than the Hidden Dragon Museum over in the former Qishuyan district to the east of Changzhou. It’s the same concept. A man spends his life passionately collecting something, and that collection becomes a public exhibit documenting a certain aspect of culture. That makes me wonder about something else — something more related to habitual failing attempts to quit smoking altogether. In 100 years, will there be museums dedicated to vaping and antique vaporizers? Time will tell.

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An Elegy for a Building

Memory, with the hand of a giantess
You lead life like a horse by the reins,
You will tell me about those who lived
In this body before it was mine.

–Nikolay Gumilyov

Downtown Changzhou has one less building now. Currently, subway construction has long been underway where Wenhuagong / Culture Square used to be. The demolished place was a huge, unsightly yellow building that housed a few shops, a Pujing Hotel, a Spa Massage Place, Global Kids International English, and a few other things. There was a massive food court behind the building. All of it is gone now. While it is always poignant to lose a place you had a personal connection to, stuff like this is normal when a city is growing. So, this is not criticism, per se. It’s just an opportunity to remember the past. Plus, instead of explicating the poetic lines from Gumilyov and extrapolating it onto Changzhou, I thought it just be best to let those four lines and a few pictures do all the talking right now. All of these images are mine, with the exception of three screen captures I took from videos that went viral on Wechat.

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Beautifully Grotesque

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It’s not everyday that you look at a work of traditional Chinese art and become reminded of Millia Jovovich and sub-par horror movies, but that did happen to me, and it did happen in Changzhou. How is this possible? I was looking at the above sculpture. Specifically, I was looking at the pits, nooks and crannies in the dog’s torso, and I had a vague feeling I saw something similar once. It had something to do with tendons and ligaments stretched over bare, exposed bone. And then it hit me all at once: Resident Evil. The above sculpture was reminding me of the zombie canines featured in that movie adaptation of a video game.

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Actually, a lot of Tu Yidao’s work made my mind lurch towards the grotesque.

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Tu Yidao 屠一道, a native to Changzhou, was born in 1913, and he went on to attract fame across China for a very particular form of Chinese art: root carving.

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The tradition of carving roots extends back thousands of years to the Warring States period. In art, form is often an extension of the medium. Some of resulting sculptures take on a slightly grotesque appearance because the wood being used is oddly shaped in its natural state. It takes a skilled eye to actually look at a stump and network of roots and see a peacock. It takes even more skill to then fashion that tree root into something resembling an actual peacock or any other type of bird.

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Or a horse.

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The Changzhou municipal government began funding a small museum in Tu Yidao’s honor in the 1980’s, according to the Chinese language Baidu version of Wikipedia. So, this place has been around for a long time. I have been there a few times since I moved here in 2014. Sometimes I have gone there, and the doors were locked. Other times, it has been open. It sometimes felt like a gamble on whether the place remained open to the public or not.

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It’s relatively tiny, and it’s in a northern corner of Hongmei Park — not to far from the RT Mart near the downtown train station. It costs five RMB to get in, and each time I visited, the worker behind the front desk had to turn the lights on. Each time I have visited, though, I have always left thinking about more than just zombie movies and reanimated canines. Chinese culture is more inventive than what some foreigners give it credit for.

Pictures as Addresses

Petersburg! I still have the addresses
Where I can call on the speech of the dead.

–Osip Mandelstam

The above lines come from a poem entitled Leningrad, and it can be taken as an elegy. The dark imagery is suggesting that Mandelstam is critical of the Soviet legacy he finds in a city he deeply loved. It’s also evident, that as somebody else has pointed out, that the yearning voice is crying out for St. Petersburg, the older name, and the one that was restored in the 1990s. It’s certainly not pining away for Leningrad.

Yet, Mandelstam’s words here actually reminds me of Changzhou for a very specific reason. Generally, the older you get, the more you can summon the voices of the dead. By that, I don’t mean by holding a seance or doing hocus pocus black magic. Ghosts are memories of things, people, and places that have gone away for good. Simply having memories can be ways of summoning the dead. I was reminded of Mendelstam recently while going through my photo archive. I found these three pictures…

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This was a largely abandoned food street near Wenhaugong in downtown Changzhou. It was behind a large yellow building that had a hotel and was home to a number of businesses — an English language training center for kids being one of them. While these pictures certainly look bleak, this area was once a busy food court called 大排档 Dà páidàng. This area is where I tried duck blood soup and few other “new to me” Chinese dishes that were delicious. That building / food court now looks like this…

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You can usually tell when a building is slated for demolition. I used to go inside this building all the time. A friend of mine runs the earlier mentioned language training center that used to be on the sixth floor. Three years ago, the insides of the place used to be almost fancy. Then, it’s like people stopped caring. Lights would not be replaced. Renovations stopped.  Peeling wall paper wouldn’t be replaced. TV equipment would be stripped out, and so on and so on. They likely knew this place was slated for demolition.

In a sense, it makes sense that this building would be torn down. After all, across the street is where a new, modern subway station is being constructed. This hub will be the central station as it’s going to be the interchange of the future two lines. It seems logical that there would be new, and modern buildings around what will become a new city center with the focus shifting away from Nandajie. Yet, it’s not the decrepit building that reminded me of Mandelstam’s lines. It’s the very concept of old photos. In a way, they can be a sort of example of the “addresses” he writes of.

Hengtang River Wetlands Park

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Hengtang River Wetland Park is located in northern Tianning District and is between Dinosaur Park and Xijing Park (where they have that non-functioning Ferris wheel. You can actually see it from from some parts of Hengteng.

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For the most part, this ecological park stretches along side the river for a few kilometers.

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The long concrete paths make this area good for riding bikes. This also seems to be a pet friendly park. Many of the locals were walking their dogs. Not all parks in Changzhou allow dogs, and some park officials will actually kick people out if they have brought their pets. There is just one thing about this place.

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Where there certainly is enough area here to go for a stroll, this place is unfinished and a lot of it is still under construction. So, that just makes one thing certain. This place will look a lot different in a year.

Tianning’s Hidden Waste Land

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What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock …

                     — T.S. Eliot, from The Waste Land

To quote a part of a poem is to usually take it out of the context of it’s greater meaning.  A quote usually works to build the aim of a larger text. But, in the history of literature, people have been taking quotes out of context all the time. It’s the way people try to understand the world; take somebody else’s beautiful language for which you have ascribed a different meaning. Shakespeare has often been abused this way. I’m pointing this out because I know full well the phenomenon, yet I do it all the time myself. The above words from Eliot ring in my mind a different meaning about Changzhou and other economic developments in China.

 

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Wastelands are not that hard to find here. It’s a fundamental part of urban development. Each new residential high rise cluster or shopping center used to be older buildings. Those structures where then knocked down into piles of bricks that were then carted away so that the foundations of new construction projects can be dug. So, that blasted pile bricks is just a normal step in an ongoing process.

I guess I find myself attracted to these places because I come from New Jersey — in specific, I lived in Asbury Park. New Jersey is a place in America where things get knocked down in the name of development, and then the funding dries up and you left with a ruin for many, many years. Take some of these pictures, and then imagine the Atlantic Ocean and a dirty, trash strewn beach nearby. That was Asbury Park for a long time.

As for China, what these wastelands look like depends on where in Changzhou your are standing. As I have mentioned before, the former Qishuyan district is currently the worst. It looks like a bomb hit many parts of it. What I found more interesting, lately, are some of the ones in city center part of Tianning. Some of these look like post apocalyptic settings, but they are mostly hidden away and sometimes hard to notice.

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Think about this: the busiest part of Changzhou’s city center, and Tianning District in particular, is the railway station. Hundreds of thousands of people pass through there everyday. The scenes of devastation in this post is merely one to two city blocks away. It’s mostly hidden behind buildings. I accidentally found this place because I was at the huge antique, furniture, and other goods market near the  downtown train station.

When it comes to historical preservation, I am hardly a fanatic. I believe it’s best to pick and choose some of these battles when they come up. The sad fact is not all old places can be saved. I choose a pragmatic view. Structural integrity is one issue, but historical value is another. Just because something is “old” doesn’t necessarily make it “antique.” I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a charlatan. This is why those lines from T.S. Eliot ring out in my brain.

There is shadow under this red rock …

From time to time, I have let the poetry nerd in me out. So bare with the quick explication. There are no “shadows” under rocks. If they are laying on the ground, the rock is touching dirt, and you need space for shadow to be cast. So, we can take “shadow” as having a little more of metaphorical meaning. In this case, I am choosing “ghosts.” Sometimes, when I talk about ghosts, I don’t mean that in a supernatural sense. Ghosts can be forlorn or forgotten memories, or memories that follow you around. These wastelands, whether they are in China or New Jersey, are where people once lived and worked. There are countless untold stories buried under these red rocks and shattered plaster.  Yes, some old neighborhoods cannot be saved; that is a pragmatic way of looking at it. The more idealistic perspective is that, under these red rocks, are the shadows of lives lived and times that have passed. These are ghosts that will be forgotten. That’s the sad part of looking at these places; they are more than discarded heaps of garbage.

 

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What Was Unexpected at the Changzhou Martyr’s Memorial

“To do good is noble. To tell others to do good is nobler and much less trouble.” Mark Twain

America and China usually have had some misconceptions going between them, and as an American living in China, I am usually surprised when I run across some nugget of American intellectual culture in China. Sometimes, they turn up in odd places. For instance, there is bust of President Jefferson over in Wuxing Park in Zhonglou. It’s near a statue of a rather fierce looking unicorn. However, I recently ran into another bit in a place I thought i would never see an American face. Turns out, I found two of them at Changzhou’s Revolutionary Martyr’s Memorial in Tianning. This place is down the road from Jiuzhou New World mall, and it is dedicated to all of the Changzhou people who died during the Communist Revolution / Chinese Civil War. I went there for a walk and sort of got flabbergasted by two minor details.

img_20161217_215846 If a foreigner visits this place, they should show some respect. It’s open to the public, but it’s not a public park. It’s actually a cemetery. Human remains are housed here. But first, the other facilities.

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The museum and other facilities are locked and shuttered. However, you do see some people milling around, and most of them are in the mausoleums respecting family members who are at their final resting place.

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The first picture above depicts Yun Daiying, Qu Quibei, and Zhang Tailai. All three were important members within the Communist Party. All three came from Changzhou. Qu was actually a party leader before Mao Zedong. The second picture is from the sculpture wall behind the statue.  However, here is what surprised me.

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To translate the quote: To do good is noble. To tell others to do good is nobler and much less trouble.

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Yes, that is Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain in a communist cemetery. But then again, my surprise belies a sort of nationalism I didn’t think I had. There are no such thing as exclusively American ideas and exclusively Chinese ideas. There are just ideas, and they do not know borders or nationalities. This part of the cemetery demonstrates that perfectly. Twain and Lincoln are on a wall that has other quotes from Chinese thinkers, Gandhi, Shakespeare, and many others from countries far away from the Changzhou and China in general.

Tianning Temples Luohan Halls

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Someone once joked that I visit too many temples. It’s something I freely admit to, as well. The beauty of Buddhist and Taoist temples are the ornate attention to detail. If you love art, you will always see something you never noticed before. You just have to look closer.

This is especially true at Tianning Temple in downtown Changzhou. One of the things I most often like returning to are the two halls of luohans. These are relatively close to the front entrance — so, nowhere near the pagoda. Here are some of the shots from my recent visit.

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