Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr. Bean, seems popular in China, and especially with Chinese children. It’s not hard to guess why, either. Out of the types of cultural imports, physical comedy and bodily humor is the most easy to relate to. Think about it: there is no language to translate, no idioms to misunderstand. It’s one of the reasons why, for example, Jackie Chan has been able to find success outside of China. His English accent is terrible, but no American really watches Chan for a witty punchlines or verbal nimbleness. Profound silliness is inherent in his actions. It’s the same with Atkinson as Mr. Bean.
This popularity can be seen first hand in Changzhou. A Xinbei cafe bares a distinctive theme. Even down to the name: Mr. Bean Coffee. Inside the cafe, one can see pictures of Atkinson in his grey suit, but also weird, and rather surreal, portraits of the character on the wall. Other depictions range from cartoonish to semi-life-sized. There’s even a photo of him by the entrance, ushering a patron in.
Sitting and drinking espresso in Mr. Bean Coffee is just an odd, surreal experience. It’s not unpleasant. It’s just strange. But it raises other questions. Is this a case of copyright infringement? Does Atkinson profit from all these kids sitting around in his cafe while eating cake? It’s easy to lob “violating intellectual property” charge at businesses in China. After all, you don’t have to look for in Changzhou to find unlicensed uses of Micky Mouse. This isn’t one of those cases. Mr. Bean Coffee. The cafe is a chain. And it does have a license with Tiger Aspect. In theory, Atkinson should be seeing profit from this.
In Xinbei, Mr. Bean coffee can be found on a sunken, but open-air basement level of the Changzhou TV Tower complex. It’s the same urban block that’s home to a Lafu supermarket and a Secret Recipe Malaysian fusion restaurant. Mr. Bean is the neighbor to an Internet / computer gaming cafe. Wanda Plaza is in walking distance.
Yet, despite all of these location details, one fundamental question has not been addressed. How is the coffee? Not very good. Usually, I only buy Americanos at cafes. That’s because no business ever makes a simple pot of coffee in China. And I have no interest in drinking lattes or other types of liquid desserts. So, my judgement comes on the watered-down espresso shots alone. Starbucks is a lot better. The only reason to visit Mr. Bean Coffee is gawk awkwardly at its novelty.
It’s a sad irony. Yun Nantian – a late Ming and early Qing Dynasty painter also internationally known as Yun Shouping – painted nature. He liked to focus on a single plant in isolation, which was usually a flower. This may sound like simple subject matter; however, he chose to render each petal, each leaf in precise detail. His work is also filled with smooth gradients of color. Think of it this way: he could paint reddest part of a flower and then effortlessly transition into a softer shade of pink. His gracefulness with a brush can also been seen with his calligraphy. Vertical lines of poetry accompany most of his work. Even there, his Chinese characters flow with lines and curves that look absolutely effortless. His attention to craft went on to influence many others, leading to a style sometimes referred to as the “Changzhou School of Painting,” So, Yun Nantian painted lovely pictures and wrote lines of memorable poetry. How is any of that sad or ironic?
It’s not the work that’s depressing; it more part of his legacy generations later. In 1633, Yun Nantian was born in what eventually became the current Wujin district of Changzhou. One might think such an influential artist would be celebrated as a hometown hero, right? Not exactly. Changzhou has had history of producing intellectuals that goes back thousands of years. Somehow, Yun Nantian’s legacy seems to have been glossed over.
His former residence has been preserved, but it is closed to the public. The white exterior walls look dingy, and the parts of the roof look severely weathered. That’s the least of the problem, though. Yun Nantian’s home is located in one of the more destitute, remote neighborhoods of western Wujin. For a man that spent so much time and effort painting plants, the neighborhood around his home is devoid of any lush, beautiful natural scenes, and this is not the sort of place you “accidentally” find. You have to go looking for it. For me, that involved using Baidu maps on my phone. Getting there, I rode my eBike through an industrial shopping district. Think of a gigantic strip mall specializing in plywood, drywall, and concrete blocks. By gigantic, I mean it took up several city streets that run parallel to each other.
Even after that, I steered my bike onto a rough road of concrete slabs. After a turn and over a drab looking bridge, I found myself in the sort of colorless stone maze. As usual, my white face drew looks of from the locals. This is easily a place where westerners in Changzhou seldom, if ever, tread. There was brown “cultural” traffic sign in the direct vicinity pointing to Yun Nantian’s home. But that, like the residence itself, looked weathered and aged. Somebody had parallel parked a huge truck next to the front entrance. Yet, the most disturbing thing turned out to be a notice plastered to the door. Since my Chinese skills are not what I like them to be, I snapped a cell phone pic and sent them to my most trusted Chinese friends. Essentially, I asked what does this say?
It was a legal notice from the Changzhou municipal government. A few individuals were mentioned, and shamed, by name. Judging by their family names, the alleged culprits had Yun Nantian as their ancestor. They had claimed the historical site as their inheritance – their birthright. Only, things don’t work that way in Mainland China. Even in age of economic liberalization and “Communism with Chinese Characteristics,” there is no such thing as the private ownership of land. The government owns everything and makes a killing by selling decades-long leases. When it comes to this ruthless aspect of Chinese real estate, Wade Shepard offers a more compelling, more in-depth explanation in his book Ghost Cities of China. As for Yun Nantian’s descendents, the promised retribution was clear. They had been accused of illegally occupying city property. They had apparently “damaged” the property. They were to pay a very hefty fine, and they were to turn over any profit they had made from using the premises. This was also just the opening salvo. They city government promised an even worse penalty if the alleged offenders did not comply. This notice was also written on January 23, 2015 – seven months before I went looking for any vestiges of Yun Nantian in Wujin.
There is another notable location to consider. The renowned painter’s grave is also located in Wujin. However, like his old home, it’s in an out of the way, nearly obscure place. Wujin is a huge district. The college town is the last major, built-up, urban area the further south you go. The Science and Education complex stands next door. However, if you go east by one more city map grid, you will end up in farmland. Yun Nantian’s grave is located there. Getting there requires first going to the middle section of Xiacheng Road – the area that has an intersection with Mingxin Road in the south and Gehu in the north. The road into the farming area starts wide at first, but that gives way to rough, crumbling concrete. This stone path forks, and once you veer north, the grave site is easy to spot. It’s a small walled-in compound.
Like his former residence, his resting place seems closed to the public. Each time I have visited, there big brown entrance doors were padlocked. If Google Translate can be trusted, the site had revamped and refurbished a couple of years ago. You can tell, too. The surrounding walls have a fresh, unweathered coat of white paint. While the doors were locked, I was able to peer through two glassless windows. I wasn’t able to see much, but I did see enough to know the place was being routinely cared for. The grass had been cut, and the plants were not overgrown into a jumbled thicket. Somebody had left a hose and bucket out. I tried sticking my arm through the window to take a couple of pictures, but I didn’t get much – the curved outline of a small gazebo. Reviewing my digital snapshots later, I did find one thing apropos to Yun Nantian’s spirit. When I stuck my arm and camera through the window, I ended up with some useless pics. One, however, depicted a few green leaves crisp against a blurred background.
Note: This has been crossposted from my personal blog, where it was originally published.
This one is one of three within the Nandajie area proper. Each of them are extremely close to each other in proximity. This one, however, is located at the North Entrance of the Landmark Shopping Center along Yanling Road. The burning question most people have is… does it have a western sit-down toilet? Answer: Yes it does.
Before taking a job at Hohai University, I taught for two years at the Changzhou College of Information Technology (CCIT) in Changzhou’s southern Wujin district. Essentially, it’s a vocational school — similar in spirit to the many community colleges I have taught English at in North Carolina and in New Jersey. Vocational students are not university students. It would be silly to equate the two. For example, you would not put Coastal Carolina Community College on the same level with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Many students have gone to CCCC because their grades were not good enough for UNCW or other institutions within the University of North Carolina system..
However, there are still a number of drastic differences between American colleges and what you might find in Chinese higher education. At this point, I’m just going to point to the biggest one: mandatory military training. It is something high school seniors and incoming college freshman must do.
At the beginning of every school year, new freshman must don military uniforms. Classes are assigned drill sergeants, and the students learn to march in formation, chant patriotic slogans. Sometimes they hold fake, dummy rifles, and sometimes they do not. During this time, these students do not attend any classes. Their job is basically march, march, march. Afterwards? March around some more!
In the College Town / 大学城 part of Wujin, there are six institutions clustered together. Each college has its own, distinctive uniform. Some have different colors of camouflage, and some students look more like officers. It’s done this way, I guess, to tell students apart. Pretty much, they walk around all day wearing these uniforms.
I am neither applauding nor criticizing the practice. I’m pointing out what is, essentially, a reality on Chinese college campuses at the start of fall semester. I have seen it twice now, and it never stops being a slightly surreal spectacle to behold.
This seems to be the appropriate place to start: a cell phone shot from my apartment. I live on the seventh floor of the Hohai University Guest Center. In the foreground, you see some of the rooftops on Hohai’s campus. The school is the Changzhou branch campus of the more prestigious, and older, Nanjing campus. It’s a 211 school, which gives it a lot of prestige and funding from the Chinese government. In the background, you the Changzhou TV Tower. I often call it the “Xinbei TV Tower,” because — um, well — Wujin also has a TV Tower.
Wujin is the southern district within Changzhou City. Xinbei is the northern one near the Yangtze River. Xinbei basically has more foriegners and expats than most other parts of the city.
Speaking of Wujin, I lived there for two years before moving up here. What is likely to be echoed in the About This Blog page, Real Changzhou will focus on exploring the whole city and the surrounding Changzhou “prefecture lands.” All too often, expats living in Xinbei tend to think they live in the only part of the city that matters. Simply not true.