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Living and teaching in Hangzhou

3 Busy Days, 12-15, Downtown Hangzhou

CHINA | Sunday, 19 April 2015 | Views [342]

Lovely vendor at Wushan Square

Lovely vendor at Wushan Square

The public lecture on American Sculpture was well attended. From the number of cell phones out taking pictures of the images, it seemed there was real interest or at least curiosity about some of the art. The relaxed atmosphere at dinner afterwards was delightful, all enhanced by the translations offered by the young woman who had been by Rob’s side throughout the lecture. She had studied in London, and had only been in Hangzhou for two weeks herself, so she was also enjoying the company, talk of art and slightly spicy food. We walked “home” together in the same direction, as she and her boyfriend are living in the apartment complex past the big grocery. He is a freelance cartoon illustrator. She comes from the North of China, he is Cantonese, from the South.  Rob spotted a frog heading out towards the road and immediately picked it up and put it on the grass in the direction of the water. Our companion couldn’t get over that. She admits that she eats all kinds of animals, but is quite squeamish over live frogs and mice.

The students had a serious critique on their first sculptures. Rob mentioned that there was much agreement on what might need doing to strengthen the works, but little energy put towards making those changes. He later asked that they spend time over the weekend on this, and he will take final photographs of the works on Monday. They then set about starting on the second assignment, one that investigates the relationships of form that can emerge from a single piece of stiff paper, when scored, cut, folded, propped, and otherwise manipulated. So far it seems the students are engaged and coming up with interesting experiments. Once these basic principles are explored, a larger scale will be produced.

Air quality changes quite a bit here. On bad air days we can feel a dry burning sensation as we breathe. I begin with a headache almost immediately. I can taste it and smell it, a chemical overtone, while Rob tends to feel constriction in his lungs. I bought a local cloth face mask, which comes with 2 removable filters that screen out the PM2.5AQI. We have an app on our global phone that monitors this, along with PM10AQI, Ozone AQI, Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide. There have been bad Nitrogen Dioxide days when the PM2.5 was moderate. But lately it is unhealthy range PM2.5. This is a step higher than “unhealthy for sensitive people.”  There are two other ratings even more hazardous which we have not yet encountered. This real-time air quality index is available through aqicn.org for China, available worldwide if you check for your local city.  It’s strange to walk around in a mask, but we do see others doing it, and I feel a distinct difference when wearing it.  Today, I even closed our windows and am wearing it inside, as I woke up with the headache, and it is definitely in the “unhealthy” range.

We made our way into Hangzhou downtown on the #4 bus on Saturday, getting out at the original campus of the China Academy of Art. The place is more austere, with one open gate, and several locked ones. This inner sanctum of art education in the heart of the ancient city has a groomed and elegant quality, and though the large buildings are dimly lit inside, they have presence. We tried to get in to the art museum that obviously has entrances on the inner campus, but all doors were padlocked until we literally walked out the security gate and entered from the street. The exhibition was 100 years of Ling Feng Mian, the “father of modern art education” in China. Two large halls were filled with chronological narratives by other artists, describing his youth, his early study in Paris, his break with tradition, his trouble with authorities, his rising above all that and becoming the venerated artist/educator. Stylized paintings portrayed the styles of painting from early times through the beginnings of modern techniques. It was an interesting combination of historical story telling, a history of Western influence on Chinese painters, and also just the way this concept was portrayed. We didn’t see any work by Ling Feng Mian, also known as Feng Ming. That in itself was interesting.

The next part of our wanderings took us to Wushan Square, the new open market area at the foot of Wu Hill. We interacted with vendors, bought some tea, and some polished targa nuts, which we picked out as rough shapes, and the merchant ground off the outer layers to show beautiful patterns and colors. From there, we took on the “historical” area that is set up like a gigantic tourist mall of shops, reminding us of pedestrian shopping areas anywhere really. Discovering the authentic from the mimics was hard enough. Here a man beating silver into bracelets, there a man grinding and sanding horn into combs but what is sold next to them could be plastic. Escaping the fray, we tucked into a tea shop that had beautiful tea cups in the windows. The ones that attracted us were 1800 Yuan, so we turned to look at others, and ended up buying two cups and sitting for a pouring of a 20-year aged black tea. Each pouring brings out different tones in the leaves. Strong, bold at first, becomes delicate floral by the 4th pour, and in the 6th it is an aura of rose petals, which was where we left it. 

Enticed up the hill towards a towering temple, called City God Temple, we climbed stairs, and wound around the hill until we came to the ticket booth. Nope, not doing that for a Temple built to the City God in recent decades, so we continued wandering in the direction of signs for a “vegetarian restaurant.” It is hard to describe how there began to be these areas of tables under umbrellas crowded and boisterously active with older people, families, card playing men and women, gender separated, with their own snacks, and clearly many people who had acquired restaurant food of all types, but from where? We saw no servers, no central hub. Some of the food was clearly vegetable, where others were whole fish or meat bones in piles. We found a Temple to the Medicine God (a huge gilded male figure originally provided by two wealthy doctors several centuries ago), and then another lovely courtyard drew us in (where a grandfather was sweetly being led about by a darling little child). Leaving there by a side door we were in another eating area. This time we saw people bringing out food, and clearing away food, so we took two tea cups and a thermos of hot water and sat down with a found menu. Rob used his amazing scanning app (only available to us because we are using a stealth program for our VPN) and we were able to find sweet and sour cabbage and a home made tofu dish. What a great meal in an amazing place.

We are both struck by the social nature of life here. The crowded tables are active and vibrant groups of people eating, playing cards, talking and engaged with each other. Ages range from mostly middle age to much older, some young families or several grandparents with grandchildren in tow. They are there for a long time, eating and playing and sharing the day. All over this hill are settings where people are jammed in, gathering and sharing. The feeling of it is warm and collective, no sense that they mind bumping elbows or sitting cheek by jowl. The crowds down in the marketplace are similar. Crowds crossing intersections, crowds in the Apple Store (the largest one in Asia, I was told by a local), and crowds waiting for buses. Crowds walking along West Lake paths, which we would enjoy in a solitary way, but these are clearly not solitary people. Relishing the group, playing to the crowds, interacting and enjoying the place as it is, populated. Women seem to dress up more for this, and certainly the photographing of self and others never stops. It wears us out a bit, but we sit on a bench to watch it all a minute.

West Lake is body of water that has been maintained as a municipal treasure, so there is no fishing or swimming in it. Ringed by hills that are traversed by myriad paths, among which are hidden many special gardens, Temples, and pagodas, this area is considered to be one of “the most beautiful places on earth” according to Marco Polo. On a bad air day, in Saturday crowds, he might not have felt the same way, but with a little imagination we can easily see where he got that idea.

Tags: apple, crowds, cultural patterns, hangzhou, social life, targa nuts, west lake, wu hill, wushan square

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