Thursday, October 31, 2013

Team Photo

A stiff hike up a wooded path leads us to a restored but not-yet-open-to-the-public stretch of the Wall. Grace from Guangzhou art-directs a photo which will be used on the British Council's intranet, along with a story of why we're here. 
Basically, we won an award for Best Team Contributing to Cultural Relations - for the UK Now fest last year, the prize-money paying for our awayday. Except the team you see here is only about a third of what it was. So here's to the rest of you wherever you are. The sun is out, the foliage is turning amazing hues of gold and red, and we have the place to ourselves.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Modernism by the Wall

Today we moved the arts meeting to The Commune at the Great Wall. It's less a hotel, more a private collection of contemporary architecture nestled in the hills around the Badaling section of the Wall, north-west of Beijing. There are 40 villas designed by 12 Asian architects, all commissioned by China SOHO in 2001 (and exhibited at the Venice Biennale the following year). I stayed in one of Antonio Ochoa's five Cantilever Houses (see right), while other colleagues were in one of Kengo Kuma's Bamboo Wall villas. 
Beautiful, tranquil place, with most of the buildings blending in sympathetically with the surroundings. That said, I found some of the more austere, modernist examples somewhat jarring, the interior fit-out of our villa a bit of an afterthought, and a few were beginning to stain and surrender themselves to nature. The whole concept reminded me a bit of Le Corbusier's experiments in Chandigahr in the '50s.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Constructed Situations

Strategising with the team, followed by a trip to 798 to see three exhibitions at UCCA. Wang Keping's so-so wooden sculptures; Taryn Simon's chilling A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters which documents bloodlines through photographs and text (much of which appeared to be censored); and Tino Seghal's two installations or 'constructed situations' as he calls them...
The first is a pitch black room in which you grope your way into, slowly realising that there are people in there, chanting & dancing. The second a huge white hall with nothing in it except four people: a young boy, a twentysomething woman, an older man and an oldish woman. The boy asks you "What is progress?" and you start a conversation as you walk around the gallery, passing from one person to another. It reminded me of Turn Left Turn Right's You Once Said Yes which I took part in in Edinburgh two months ago. One was presented as 'art'', the other 'theatre'; one inside a museum, the other in multiple public spaces (but definitely not in a theatre); one you can sell to a collector (usually a museum), the other you can't. Ah, the vagaries of the art world...

Monday, October 28, 2013

RIP Lou Reed

Transformer was one of the first albums I owned, forever associated with Ziggy-era Bowie, Mick Ronson and that Herbie Flowers' bass riff (much to his disgruntlement probably). After that I bought the less accessible Berlin and then discovered the Velvet Underground. But for me he'd lost it by the mid-70s. There was a welcome blip with New York in '89 and Songs for Drella (with John Cale) in '90, and the hype of the VU reunion a year or two later (which I didn't catch)... and the surprise of his marriage to Laurie Anderson. Anyway, I shall play Walk on the Wild Side, Satellite of Love, Perfect Day and all in his honour tonight. "It's time to say goodbye, bye bye"

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Chinese Painting Comes to London

Court ladies preparing silk, 12th Century
The V&A's Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900 exhibition opened in London today. I wasn't there but I gather it was a hit. Amazingly, it's the UK's first major exhibition of Chinese painting since 1935. The western telling of art history tends to focus almost exclusively on Europe and (later) North America, and yet here is evidence - if it were needed - of sublime art from the east which has been otherwise pretty much ignored. Depictions of Buddha dominated early on (just as depictions of Christ did in Europe), but court life, landscapes, wildlife and other subject matter follow, much like in the west. It's true that there are differences: painting in China was generally on silk, rolled up in a scroll and viewed occasionally, not on framed canvas and hung permanently on walls; much of the development of western art has been about technique and perspective while Chinese art is perhaps more about the poetry of expression. But what do I know. In any case, sounds like a great show.

Friday, October 25, 2013


This week a super-smog has covered Harbin in the north-east of China. It seems that a combination of the switching on of the coal-powered municipal heating system (temperatures plummet to -40C in winter) together with, ironically, an unseasonably warm week, plus the usual car exhaust and other pollution issues, has resulted in the PM2.5 level rising to an incredible 1,000 micrograms per cubic metre, forty times the recommended daily max. Today visibility dropped to 50m in much of the city and the international airport, highways and 2,000 schools have been closed. 
Last week the WHO's cancer research agency officially classified outdoor pollution as carcinogenic. Hey ho. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

West Bund Cultural Corridor

Running around Shanghai, finishing with a jaw-dropping visit to the new (or what-will-be) West Bund Cultural Corridor.
Even in the context of China's booming economy and ambitious town-planning, the West Bund project is, to coin a phrase, 'awesome'. It seems that the half-a-dozen major new museums that have opened around town in the last year or two aren't enough. So a long strip of semi-industrial land on the west bank of the Huangpo River, opposite the Expo 2010 site, is being transformed into what officials hope will be a cross-between Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural Centre and London's South Bank. It will take 10-15 years but they're not hanging about. In December, two private museums will open: billionaire investors Liu Yiqian & Wei Wang's Long Museum 2, and the Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneur Budi Tek's Yuz Museum. They are a mess of construction and yet they are due to open their doors in 6 & 8 weeks respectively. Of course they will do it. 
Next up will be the public West Bund Museum (designed by David Chipperfield) and Waterfront Theatre (designed by a Swedish company). Then there's the massive US-Chinese Oriental DreamWorks film production centre.
But my main purpose was to check out the Shanghai West Bund Biennial of Architecture and Contemporary Art which just opened, staged in a series of fabulous derelict factories and oil tanks. No time to go into it in detail, but it was well curated and impressively presented. I was particularly interested in the sound art exhibition called RPM. David Toop was in town last weekend to give a talk and I didn't know. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Premature Hippy

To Shanghai. A delayed flight prompting groans from fellow travellers left me secretly pleased. A little extra time to finish Patrick French's biography of Francis Younghusband, the 'last great imperial adventurer'. I knew vaguely about his travels in Kashmir & the Gobi and his 'invasion' of Tibet in 1904, but didn't know the half of it. Starting as a soldier and explorer, he then became a journalist, an author, a founder of many societies and finally a sort of mystic, pre-New Age philosopher. A life led to the full... though he lost me with his cosmic rays and divine love.
Coincidentally I was given a book yesterday called On the Culture of Harmony by a chap called Gordon Wang, which very much followed on from Younghusband's musings. It's a slight thing at 92 pages but even so, its brief search for "where humans are headed in terms of both time and space" went straight over my head.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chewing the Cultural Cud

Spent most of the day in a kind of attic at the top of the National Art Museum of China - a gathering of EU Cultural Counsellors and Chinese officials, museum directors, various cultural commentators, the odd artist, tasked with "Mapping the fields of cultural heritage, cultural & creative industries, and contemporary art... and accelerating the process of situation analysis as well as catalyzing future oriented ideas through the lens of this core of experts". So, that's clear then. 
The most insightful contribution, I thought, came from Michael Kahn-Ackermann, sinologist and former Director of the Goethe Institut here. His view was that China-EU cultural exchange was weakening rather than increasing... 

Monday, October 21, 2013


A off on a week-long school trip to Hainan today. Where? It's that big island (bigger than Belgium) off the south coast of China. It hit the headlines in April 2001 when a US plane was forced to make an emergency landing there following a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet. Nowadays, people know it for Sanya, China's most popular beach resort. So, sounds like a tough week for A and her school chums...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

That Old Chestnut

Mutianyu is known for its chestnuts. It's the end of the harvesting season so they're all over the place. In the trees, underfoot and on the dinner table. We had chestnut soup and chestnut & bacon rolls last night. And Liz, Sarah & Oddveig made pasta & chestnut sauce this morning.
But what happened to conkers? Cue boyhood memories of filling up plastic bags full of the things, drilling holes in them, passing through a knotted string and then competing with my brother to smash his to smithereens. I believe 'health & safety' has put paid to conker competitions at school, but The World Conker Championships are still held in the the village of Ashton somewhere in the middle of England on the second Sunday of October each year. So that was last week. A quick check reveals that Sophie Knox was crowned 2013 Conker Queen and Simon Cullum Conker King. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Brian the Biochemist

To Mutianyu by the Great Wall where my cousin David has rented a villa for the weekend. (Not sure what the difference is between a house and a villa but this was definitely the latter). Amidst beautiful autumnal weather, we were joined by his sister/my cousin Sarah and their dad/my uncle Brian. He's 88 but made it up the Wall OK.
It's funny how little I know about my uncle. Oxford biochemist. That's about it. So I took the opportunity to have a good old chat about his working life. At 18 he was about to be drafted into the tail-end of the war but there was a need for bright young scientists so instead he found himself studying chemistry in Aberystwyth, then moved to Cambridge where he got his MSc and PhD, and then on to Oxford where he taught & researched, specialising in such things as photosynthesis and enzymology. He's been at University College in one form or another for 50 years.
He told me an interesting story back in his Cambridge days though. The assessor for his PhD viva was Dr Dorothy Moyle, the wife of Dr Joseph Needham, who was the British Council's unofficial first  representative in China during the war (see post). After the viva, Brian joined the couple for lunch during which a courier arrived with a package for Needham. It contained the proofs of the first volume of his monumental Science and Civilisation of China. On looking at them Brian spotted a few grammatical mistakes. "They're entirely occidental", quipped Needham.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


We have a new hamster. Having started calling our previous rodent, Snowy, a him and then slowly coming round to her, our new pet is a he but we're calling him a her. His/her/its name is Coco, as in -pops, the girls' current cereal of choice. Not the rubbish pop group who came 11th in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1978. Nor Channel.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Beijing Fringe

A couple of years ago in Edinburgh I met a Chinese dramatist, Wu Zhuhong. Last week I got an invitation from her out of the blue, inviting me to her new play, Ming Qiang An Jian, in the experimental space within the People's Art Theatre. It's actually an interpretation of a Canadian play from 20 years ago, Three in the Back, Two in the Head  by Jason Sherman, but translated and set in China. It's an odd choice for China - a story loosely based on the life of Gerald Bull, the maverick weapons designer who would have delivered Saddam Hussein his supergun had someone not silenced him. Performed in Chinese, I didn't really get a lot of it, the plot was changed and it was minimal in the extreme - a desk, two chairs, basic lighting - but it was good to see young Chinese packing an experimental theatre space watching something very leftfield. 

Creative Banter

Thomas Heatherwick
Interesting forum at Opposite House today, featuring a mix of UK and Chinese creatives: Angelica Cheung (Editor, Vogue China), Graham Fink (Ogilvy), Huishan Zhang (fashion designer), Ian Livingstone (game creator), Simon Chua (architect), and top of the bill Thomas Heatherwick (designer; he hates being called an architect). They talked about what makes them tick, making things, London-Beijing connections... all inspiring stuff. And George Osbourne joined for the reception afterwards before being whisked off to the airport and Wuhan. 
But the thing that made it particularly enjoyable, even relaxing, was that someone else organized it all.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Contenders for the Throne

Boris Johnson and George Osborne are in town this week, the first high-level British government officials to China for some time. The former's trip has been planned ages ago, Osborne's more recently. This morning they coincided on a stage at Peking University. "We're like two harmonious doves" said the Mayor. "More like yin and yang" quipped the Chancellor.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


A sociable weekend. Dinner with French friends in Tower 3, who also invited new-to-Beijing Brazilians from Tower 4, another French couple from Tower 5 and recently-arrived Americans from across the road. 
And we have new immediate neighbours from the Czech Republic. He's a Segway user. Even commutes to work on it, which attracts lots of attention. We had goes on it round the block. Surprisingly easy. Lean forward to go, lean back to stop. N still managed to crash it into a bush.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Downton Abbey Wows China

Downton's Michelle Dockery in Macao
One of the things about living abroad is that we're often a year or so behind the popular culture of back home, particularly television. Often we've missed out on things altogether, like reality TV. We've never seen an episode of Big Brother or I'm A Celebrity...; nor Pop Idol or The Apprentice; nor what are undoubtedly great series like The Sopranos or The Wire. Of course we could download them and much is available in the local DVD shop, but generally we can't be bothered.
However - and this is faintly embarrassing - I've just got into Downton Abbey. It's been a huge success in China, with regular audiences of 160 million per episode. So as much for work's sake as anything else, I thought I'd better check it out. Yes, it's a "cosy pocket of sameness", not much different from Upstairs Downstairs made 40 years ago... but I'm hooked. But don't tell me what's happening in the current series. I'm still on the first one.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Race for Lhasa

Just finished Peter Hopkirk's Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Race for Lhasa, a history of early western travellers who tried (and mostly failed) to reach Tibet's mysterious capital. 
The manic determination of a seemingly endless line of British, French, Russian and American adventurers, as well as the inevitable Jesuits, is well told. All got turned back or died along the way... until a Japanese abbot got there in 1901 (doesn't really count?), followed by Francis Younghusband and army who entered the city by force in 1904.
Despite its allure, many were rather disappointed by what they found. Apart from the Potala, most of the city was ramshackle, its inhabitants living in squalor.  
One niggle: the book starts in the 1860s and therefore misses out much that happened before, including another earlier envoy, George Bogle, who spent time in southern Tibet in the 1770s (although to be fair, he wasn't particularly aiming for Lhasa). But the real omissions are the much earlier travels of Jesuit priests like Johann Grueber & Albert d'Orville who reached Lhasa in 1661, and Ippolito Desideri & Manoel Freyre in 1716. I'm no expert but I read about them this summer (see post). Hopkirk's book was published 30 years ago so maybe their exploits only recently came to light?

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Cycling home from work through the streets of Beijing and I suddenly thought, "What am I doing here?!"

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Madness of Peter Grimes

This evening I attended the China premiere of Britten's opera Peter Grimes, which we'd had a little hand in arranging. Because of cost, it wasn't the full opera with stage & costumes, but the concert version. But it was impressive nonetheless, with full orchestra, choir of 60+ and soloists crammed onto the Poly Theatre stage.
Grimes is a sad, strange story, written during the Second World War when Britten & his partner Perter Pears were based in California. Was the antisocial fisherman responsible for the deaths of two boy apprentices? The Suffolk village-folk seem to think so, but It leaves the audience to make up its own mind. It's seen by many as an allegory of the struggle of the individual against the masses, but I thought of it as a study of madness. The tenor Andrew Staples, who looks increasingly like Eddie Izzard, played him with nervous ticks and fixed gaze.
Interesting to see the Chinese reaction. Most opera presented here is of the Rossini-Verdi-Puccini variety and it's quite rare to see a 20th Century work, especially from Britain. But it went down very well. As had Britten's other biggie, War Requiem, at the weekend (which I missed).

Monday, October 7, 2013

Seeing Double

Trivia time. On this day in 1977, with ABBA dominating the charts and Borg winning his second Wimbledon title, 90 sets of Swedish identical twins descended on Felixstowe. It was part of a research experiment, though to the good citizens of the Suffolk port it must have seemed like an episode of The Outer Limits

Sunday, October 6, 2013


At about 9 o'clock this morning as we sat on our camels, our caravan venturing deeper and deeper into the Tengger Desert, it suddenly occurred to me that (a) we were in China, and (b) in 24 hours time I will be back in the office staring at my PC.
The Tengger Desert - which I'd never heard of until a month ago - is the size of Switzerland. And yet it is really a mere part of the much bigger Gobi Desert (which would swallow up France, Spain and Portugal combined). It's a majestic place and, our two hours in it today, the highlight of our trip.
Then it was back to the dune buggies for an altogether faster return journey to 'civilisation'. On the approach to Yinchuan we passed bits of the Great Wall and Zhenbeibu China West Film Studio where Zhang Yimou shot Red Sorghum in 1987. A great trip.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Desert Oasis, Inner Mongolia Style

Xi Xia Tombs
After a decent breakfast (which didn't involve Sauteed Magpie Gizzards, though could have), we headed off to the Xi Xia Tombs, created by Emperor Jingzong in the 11th Century. There's not much left of them now, having been ransacked by the Mongols two hundred years later. They look rather like giant termite mounds.
Moving on, we drove through a pass in the Helan Shan, crossing into Inner Mongolia, and then on for another two hours through a landscape reminiscent of Nevada or Utah, until the road simply stopped. From here we transferred to small jeeps which careered off into the Tengger Desert. And I mean this was real desert - classic Sahara-like dunes. Whether you have to drive fast in order not to get stuck or the drivers simply get high on the thrill of it, I don't know, but the half hour trip was exhilerating, cresting 50m high dunes and coming down the other side at alarming angles. It was the closest I'll ever get to being in the Dakar Rally. 
David of the Dunes
Finally we arrived at an oasis called Moon Lake, an 'eco-resort' on the shores of an improbable lake. Here we were let loose. We slid down giant dunes, the children went swimming and a bunch of us went horse-riding. This last activity was a slow, boring, tethered plod... until the Mongolian leader called a halt. He then untethered my mount, turned it around, smacked it on its rump and - before I could argue - off we galloped through the dunes back to the starting point. It was all I could do to just stay in the saddle. But I had to laugh - a kind of hysterical convulsion born out of the fact that I'd got there in one piece.
Following a beautiful sunset and dinner, we experienced an amazing display of lightning. There was no rain, nor even thunder, but for half an hour the desert sky was filled with lightning bolts (vertical and, oddly, horizontal) as well as more general bursts of light like God was switching a light on & off. Fantastic.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Do Not Terrify the Craven Bharal

Baisikou pagodas
Up bright and early for a flight to Yinchuan, capital of Ningxia Province, 1,100 kms away in China's arid mid-west, on the border with Inner Mongolia and the Tengger Desert. 
It's our first Chinese package tour, though only the guides are local - the rest of us are German, Polish-Swiss, French-Canadian, Italian and a Finn, including - by coincidence - our German friend Ruth and her two children (much to the delight of our two).
Helan Shan
Yinchuan is a 'small' city of about 1.2m, situated on the Yellow River. To the west rise the Helan Shan mountains, which is where we headed - first to see the twin pagodas of Baisikou, built as part of a (now gone) temple complex in the Xi Xia Dynasty in the 1100s. The pagodas themselves are incredibly well preserved. 
We then drove further into the mountains to see a valley full of petroglyphs (rock carvings) dating back to around 500BC. It was an easy stroll up an arid rock-strewn valley, past some great Chinglish signs like "Do Not Terrify the Craven Bharal*", and there they were: some barely discernible, others suspiciously pristine after 2,500 years of being open to the elements. The museum at the entrance was disappointing in the extreme, though the view across the mountains as sunset approached was gorgeously dreamy. 

* Bharal are mountain goats

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

From Beijing to Brixton

It's National Day in China and the beginning of a three-day break. Like Beijing we have gone into idle-mode, lounging around at home... I finished off Geoff Dyer's The Colour of Memory, a book which takes lounging around to artful extremes. It's about a bunch of twentysomething friends in late 80s Brixton. They're sophisticated enough to quote Nietzsche and Calvino and listen to jazz rather than hip-hop (indeed, the book is peppered with jazz, and Dyer's next book would be a homage to the genre), but aimless & unambitious enough to prefer hanging out, claiming dole and avoiding careers. There's no plot to speak of - just a succession of get-togethers in pubs, cafes, parties and each others' homes. It could have been depressing but actually it's very up, revolving around sympathetic, friendly characters who clearly care for each other. 
I lived in Brixton for most of the 90s and it brought it all back to me. The Albert, Atlantic, Trinity and Effra pubs, Franco's in the market, the Fridge and the Ritzy, the wholefood shop, Brixton Rec - they're all featured. Dyer lived there too and his affection for the place is obvious. Fifteen years on from when Liz and I moved out, it's become trendy, bordering-on-gentrified but there's still a buzz about it.
Funnily enough, Geoff Dyer was in Beijing six weeks ago - we helped arrange a talk for him in a bookshop - but I was in Edinburgh. Drat.