mardi, juillet 12, 2011

Mercedes Benz Area, Shanghai

Company celebration at the Mercedes Benz Arena

The company celebrated its 15 years in China last Friday at the Mercedes Benz Arena in Shanghai. An indoor arena/flying saucer that until January 2011 was known as the Shanghai World Expo Cultural Centre. Mercedes was reputed to have paid quite a fortune for the naming rights and the venue was part of the company’s celebration of the 125th year of the automobile and a symbol of its foothold in the fast-expanding automotive market in China.

The Italian Consul in Shanghai was guest of honour and present were a number of business partners, top company executives and of course the company's fun-loving CEO. I was one of the few spouses invited to the event - but I wasn't bored since I know quite a number of Hub's colleagues by now and be they Chinese, Taiwanese, Malaysian, Italian or French - I managed to keep a few jokes to share with every one of them.

Fancy having an ice sculpture in summer

Dinner was served buffet-style and though the spread was limited it was quite good - especially the desserts the ones with a lot of cream. I drank quite a bit of champagne and red wine - because Hub said he had paid for it with his budget and that I might as well drink it up!

There was a drum performance, guzheng performance and live jazz all through the evening. Also a lucky draw and as usual someone from my table won the first prize.

Mercedes holding centre court

At the VIP table sat a beautiful Chinese woman named...Mercedes and she is in charge of the arena from what I've understood. She had all the men's fantasies up high that night smoking a big cigar at the table and drinking cognac. Hub probably hoped I would do the same, but I snorted in his face and went off to pick up another cream tart. Seriously, she'd stink all night no matter how many times she'd gargle with Listerine. And if she's like Hub she'd also be snoring away.

Before and after sunset

From the arena you have quite a lovely view of Shanghai - if the rainbow-coloured bridge was a bit kitsch if you asked me. They hold sports games and music concerts in the arena and one of the prizes in the lucky draw was a pair of tickets to Luo Dayou's concert actually. Whoever he was.

Happy 15th anniversary in China, MM. To at least another 15 more, cheers!

jeudi, juillet 07, 2011

Diaolou in Kaiping 开平碉楼 - Unesco World Heritage Site

Li Yuan Xie Family Diaolou

It was raining cats and dogs when the cousins drove us to Kaiping an hour away from Jiangmen to visit the famous watchtowers or Diaolou 开平碉楼 in Kaiping county. They became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2007 :

"...the Diaolou...display a complex and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and Western structural and decorative forms. They reflect the significant role of émigré Kaiping people in the development of several countries in South Asia, Australasia, and North America, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the close links between overseas Kaiping and their ancestral homes. The property inscribed here consists of four groups of Diaolou, totaling some 1,800 tower houses in their village settings."

As a matter of fact we learnt quite a lot about Chinese immigration to America, Canada, Australia and S.E. Asia in the late 19th/early-20th centuries when we were in Jiangmen. The city governs the famous 4 (now 5) counties sei yup 四邑 : Kaiping, Enping, Xinhui and Taishan. Many of the former migrants have returned in recent decades to build universities, museums etc in the region which probably was the most important originating point of Chinese immigration to the rest of the world in that period. There was an interesting museum in Jiangmen on the subject that we also visited.

The cousins brought us to one of the more accessible Diaolou in Li Yuan. Entrance ticket was 90 rmb per person up from 60 rmb just last year. There used to be around 4000 of these fortified towers (watch towers, residential towers, communal towers confounded) in the 1920s and 30s, but there are only about 1800 of them standing today. Most of them can be found in Kaiping county. When you drive into Kaiping, you can see them dotting the landscape everywhere you go.

Diaolou were built by returning Chinese immigrants from the Americas and S.E. Asia. They usually contained both Chinese and Western decorative forms, many of them inspired from postcards of famous buildings in Italy, Portugal, France etc. They served as housing and as protection against bandits (and later the Japanese). In fact Kaiping county itself had been created from the need to break up a few counties in order to battle against the rampant banditism in those days.

View from the main Diaolou

The family in Li Yuan

The more popular Diaolou are found in the Sanmenli, Zili, Majianlong and Jinjiangli villages. If you are in the region, they would be worth a visit and I would recommend that you hire a car and a driver instead of trying to make your way there by public transportation.

There were chimneys and high ceilings everywhere

The floor in the main Diaolou

The Li Yuan Diaolou were built by the Xies who left Kaiping for America and made fortune in the herbal medicine business. The founder had 3 wives and tonnes of children and we also visited the Diaolou he built for his beloved 2nd wife who died during child labour. I thought it looked more like a prison than a residence, but compared to living in a shack that must be luxury. The whole family left China for good in the 1940s, and the property is now under the management (but not ownership) of the Chinese government. The main Diaolou was gorgeous though, I loved its interior.

mercredi, juillet 06, 2011

Visit to Ancestral Village 荷塘篁湾村

The Old House

As you know, I am Singaporean with Chinese origins. Though often I was told that I do not look that Chinese. Anyway my paternal grandparents came from the same part of China (they were Cantonese) and my maternal grandparents came from another part (they were Hokkien) and as a result I am as Chinese as a Chinese should be.

Walking into the compound where a few generations of dad's family lived in

I have promised dad that I would bring him to visit (for the first time) the village of his ancestors if I moved to China. Which I just did. 5 days in Jiangmen city down in the south - including a day out in Hetang 荷塘篁湾村.

Guangzhou is more than 2 hours away from Shanghai by air and Jiangmen another nearly 2 hours by car from Guangzhou. 3 cousins (son of dad's half brother and sons of dad's half-sister) came to pick us up and they took turns to look after us during our entire trip, driving us every where, feeding us, bringing us visiting, shopping etc.

I became an aunt and even grand-aunt a few times over on the first evening. Never realised that I had so many relatives in China and thank God for the country's one-child policy in recent times or the number would have been even greater.

Parents and I with 4 cousins and their wives

Fortunately I speak Cantonese though nobody back in our family in Singapore spoke the Hetang dialect. We spent our 5 days eating 3 meals daily (invited by the cousins) as we met up with a few generations of relatives, prayed to deceased relations, visited different homes, travelled to Kaiping to tour a Unesco World Heritage site...

Burning money for the dead to spend in their world

I must admit that I had reservations about the cousins before I met them - fed with stories about greedy Chinese relatives expecting returning relations to build new homes or renovate ancestral buildings. Added to my uncles in Singapore all not wanting to have anything to do with the family in China especially if it should involve spending money - I was very nervous before the trip.

I was therefore surprised to find most of the cousins so kind, generous and willing to please. They have not forgotten how my dad often helped them financially before China opened up economically and were eager to repay him for his past generosity; They were happy that we have made the effort to visit them and couldn't wait to bring us around.

An alley in the old village

Most of them are also doing quite well today. Almost everyone has bought at least a flat or house (if not several), some even a few shops to rent out. Almost everyone has a business of some sort, a few have connections to the Communist Party and 2 cousins have managed to send their children overseas to study in universities in Australia and New Zealand.

The village's watch tower

At the entrance of the village - narrowed from the time when 3 coffins could go through at the same time

Dad was relieved to see them doing well. It was a weight off his back. For some reason he felt guilty that his father had left his wife and children back in China and never saw them again. Our family in Singapore came out of grandpa's union with a new wife.

The pond where grandpa used to swim in

The temple where he used to gamble in front of

We probably wouldn't receive the same royal treatment if we should return to the south in the near future, but honestly I am not sure that I would go again anyway since I do not feel any real connection to Jiangmen or to our ancestral village. While I am sincerely keen to discover my roots, I will not be false and claim that I feel more than just simple curiosity for the land of my ancestors. I am Singaporean first and foremost. Though it is difficult getting too attached to a HDB flat that probably wouldn't exist in another decade.

The well that quenched the thirst of the family

Jiangmen and even the old village have developed a whole lot since my mum's first visit 12 years ago. In those days kids would gather when there were visitors to the village and expect to be given a sweet or a few coins. On our recent trip, nobody even blinked when they saw us. But as my cousin explained, besides the fact that they are now better off, the village is increasingly populated by migrants and is no longer as safe as it used to be.

Vegetable seller in the village

Meat seller

We grew pretty sick of food in Jiangmen after a few days. It wasn't the fabulous Cantonese cuisine we were expecting - probably no thanks to the country being poor and all closed up until 2 decades ago. All the good chefs must be in Hong Kong, London or even Vancouver.

The kitchen in the old house

The weather was as freakish as in Shanghai - super hot and humid one day and rainy the next few. And unlike Shanghai, people smoked everywhere they went - including in restaurants and toilets.

Dad and his nephews in front of the old house

180 year-old star fruit tree planted by my great great great grandfather

I found out that my first (half) uncle was an educated man who lived ahead of his times. He had amazing penmanship both in English and in Chinese, substantial knowledge both in medicine and in commerce and was the only Roman Catholic in the family. Unfortunately that didn't go well in the turbulent Communist era and he was often tortured and jailed for all that. It was a pity that the Japanese invasion of China prevented grandpa from getting him over to Singapore - I'm sure that he would have done much better if he had left China in those days.

An old cabinet containing some of 1st uncle's books and medicine

His youngest sister had never seen her father in her life as grandpa left a few weeks before she was born - never to return to China. To save the family from hunger later on, his oldest sister would sacrifice herself and become the second wife of a much older man. Stories like these were sad, but I believe that they made this branch of the family much more united than our branch back in Singapore. I do not recall being invited to a meal by any cousin or uncle back home in the last 2 decades. My family is usually the one doing all the inviting (when we are not as well-off as some of them).

Dad's 3rd sister and her hubby in their very big house

My oldest cousin (from that first uncle) still lives in the old village. But he has rented out the old house when he got married, building a bigger one down the road for his mum, wife and 2 children. They sell meat dumplings in the wet market and apparently business is usually good. His fat wife makes frequent gambling trips to Macau and wears heavy pure gold chains on her ample bosom.

Entrance of 1st cousin's "new" house - contains a few stories

We never found the courage to stay with any of our relations, preferring to spend 4 nights in the 5* Yucca Hotel in Jiangmen. As it was toilets were much cleaner today than they used to be - but we couldn't take the risk.

The inside of the old house

A room in the old house

The visit was a success. Dad looked really happy to have met his Chinese family and visited his ancestral home. I know that he would have loved to possess the means to rebuild the old house - but the family is now doing well, I'm sure it'll only be a matter of time before they manage to do so themselves.

Meanwhile, before I forget, we found out on this trip that grandpa's first wife was a Lau - the same Lau (village, clan, family) as the famous Hong Kong singer Andy Lau. Not that it got them any advantages, of course.

Tianzifang 田子坊

Taikang Lu

Tianzifang 田子坊 or Taikang Lu 210 has become my new favourite shopping area. It contains shikumen and other old Shanghai houses like Xintiandi, but is not as massively restored/renovated and therefore retains a more authentic look, a less touristic feel. In addition to that, more than half of its old residents actually still live there. The place has a mix of boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and residents going about their business like before.

A few lanes in Tianzifang

Read an interesting article about the man behind it. Liked the fact that a few more old houses have been saved from the bulldozer. Fancy Shanghai looking just like Singapore or Sydney soon and I feel sorry for us all. I am all for clean toilets (a must) and modern amenities, but at least try to keep some of the old shells for the future - lest we look, eat, buy the same no matter where we are.

Big panty small shoes

Having said that, I just bought a few dresses from Promod and Zara at jacked-up prices - but I had no choice since I couldn't fit into the small Chinese sizes sold in the local shops. Waiting for the Chinese to fatten up like the rest of us so that I can start buying local designs - not just western stuff made-in-China.

This is the back of a boutique so it's clean and bright

Opposite Tianzifang is a new shopping mall that I have yet to explore (remember that I haven't had much time since my arrival in the city), but I've walked through the few lanes in Tianzifang rather quickly and look forward to re-discovering them at a more leisurely pace soon.

Chat with your neighbours as you wash up

There seemed to be quite a number of Thai restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, fashion boutiques, a café claiming to serve the best cheesecake in Shanghai, art galleries, a nice little creperie...and here and there you'll find dirty, dark old doorways with an old lady sitting outside chatting with her neighbour(s). As the boutiques etc are usually clean, well-renovated affairs, the old houses in more or less their original states provided a sharp contrast - very interesting, actually.

How many families live in this house?

I found the paintings I've bought in Dongtai Lu selling for "fixed" prices over there in Tianzifang, though I suppose one could always try to bargain if so inclined. At 20 euros each for a small one they were pricey - but if you can't afford a real Warhol of Mao, they'll have to do.