Dear Shaded Viewers,
While I was in Beijing a few weeks ago, my friend Nancy somehow convinced my friend Jeffrey Ying and I to take the Bullet Train south to visit the strange city of Tianjin. I’m always up for a lark so it didn’t take much prodding, and the odd rewards were numerous.
Eerie view from my train window of one of China’s many pop-up cities in the process of being built. As most readers probably know, the Bullet Train gained instant notoriety several weeks ago when it crashed, leaving hundreds dead. The government responded with a news black out and quickly tried to bury the wrecked train in a wacky attempt to hide the evidence. I expected a super-fast ride that would cause the skin of my face to flutter back in folds, like those of sci-fi astronauts in spaceships hitting light speed. Instead, it was a smooth ride that did not feel fast at all–but we reached our destination in only 30 minutes. (The journey used to take 2 1/2 hours!)
When we emerged from the station, my first instinct was to turn around and dash for the first train back to Beijing. The toxic smog-drenched plaza was excessively muggy and exuded post-apocalyptic dread. For a moment I thought we had gotten on the wrong train and arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea instead. (Although in defense of Pyongyang, there wouldn’t be any smog–there’s no industry there.)
The clock tower in the foreboding plaza reminded me of Bender on “Futurama.”
This kooky clock eschewed the Chinese zodiac and paid homage to the Western version instead.
Despite having no map and no idea where the hell we were (the train station is on the outskirts of the city) we managed to stumble upon Tianjin’s #1 tourist sight: The “world-famous” China House!
According to our ticket stub, the China House was designed by Zhang Lianzhi, who turned this formally desolate French-style building into “a showcase of porcelain with more than 700 million porcelain pieces dating from Tang (AD 618-907) to Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, 13,000 porcelain vases and dishes, 300 stone lions, 300 marble sculptures….After 10 years’ refurnishing, China House Museum has become a landmark and the most facinating architecture in TianJin Municipality.”
Well, I don’t know about “300 stone lions” (I only remember seeing a few) and one can’t help feeling skeptical about the authenticity claims of the porcelain. (How did he get his hands on thousands of ancient vases and plates?!) But the house certainly has that “explosion in a Chinese shingle factory” (to paraphrase the famous review of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”) type of charm. Or rather, a Canal Street knock-off of a Gaudi structure. (In fact, much of this is a blatant ripoff of Park Güell and Casa Batlló in Barcelona.)
Jeffrey Ying remained stoic throughout our day trip, peppering our journey with droll quips in both English and Shanghainese.
We ventured inside the China House, which purports to be a museum…
The house has a few pieces of dusty, ramschackle furniture scattered about it but nothing much of interest. Jeffrey and I couldn’t resist walking around the house and exclaiming, “WHAT a DUMP!”
And here’s the kicker. The ticket stub makes this hilariously dubious claim: “The Huffington Post, a US news blog, has listed the China House as one of the world’s 15 most stunning museums. Others on the list include New York City’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, LeLouvre, Paris, France, etc.”
Wow. Needless to say, a search of the HuffPo site produced no mention of the China House. But the house’s promoters certainly picked the right website to lie about–the Huffington Post is such a shameless dumping ground of news cut-and-pasted from all over the web, there might as well be an article on the China House on it.
On our way to the China House we discovered Tianjin’s notorious cult in which an abominable pastry monster (the representation above is over 8 feet long) is displayed as a gesture of worship in various shops. The creature reminded me of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu of “Dunwich Horror” fame.
A miniature of the Cthulhu pastry god on a pedestal.
This figurine depicts a small child being devoured alive by the Tianjin monster-god, a sacrficial ritual that’s done to ensure a plentiful harvest each autumn.
We moved on to more normal territory with a visit to the Temple of Great Compassion, a Zen Buddhist Temple that lies in the shadow of the world’s 6th tallest ferris wheel.
This girl bolted out of nowhere, grabbed Nancy and demanded that Jeffrey take a photo with her camera. I’m pretty sure the girl thought Nancy was Helen Mirren.
A German police car in China?! What the hell is going on here….?
Tianjin retains a distinctly European ambiance, thanks to a history of occupation by Italians, Germans, French, Russians and Austro-Hungarians that began in 1900 and continued through WW II when the Japanese were also partial occupiers.
Welcome to the Italian (and German) Style Town!
Have a Bavarian beer with Audrey Hepburn…
…or watch Nikita Kruschev make-a da pizza!
We settled on a Bavarian beer hall for lunch and I opted for the “Judgement at Nuremberg Sausages” with gluey mashed potatoes and an outsized mug of German ale.
Back in Beijing, Nancy posed with the Bullet Train which, as you can see, resembles a sinister serpent, complete with flickering tongue.
Thanks for taking this trip with us.