Archive | March, 2012


30 Mar

Historic buildings in Shanghai, unless of very high profile like those on the Bund, do not currently have very long life expectancy. The notion of urban regeneration is not really widely practiced here and wholesale redevelopment is generally preferred to re-use or adaptation of the built fabric.

1933 is a welcome and refreshing exception to the current paradigm of Chinese urbanism. It is an ex-slaughterhouse, which has been converted in 2008 by Axon Concepts into a retail venue, with some shops, restaurants, cafés (all of which are independently owned) and a few offices. It is located in northern district of Hóngkǒu.

As its name suggests, the slaughterhouse dates from 1933 and was built by a British architect. Sadly that is as much information I’ve been able to gather from the net and the few books I’ve got about Shanghai and China. The structure is mainly characterised by the use of concrete throughout and by the way it is organised. It consists of originally two fully open buildings, a round one enclosed by a large square one, which are linked by a series of steps (for humans) and ramps (for cattle), which spiral around the structure’s four storeys into a series of bridges between the rotunda and the square, creating amazing views and perspectives. The place is a real Escher-like maze and after visiting it three times, I still get lost but somehow make my way to the roof very smoothly.

Every time I go there, I am amazed by the care put into designing a slaughterhouse (!) and the refinements of the details, such as the “balcony” or passages’ geometric balustrades, the facetted columns (or flowering columns as they are called) or the wrought iron on the windows, which are either original or are faithful replica. The redevelopers have been thoughtful enough to provide some explanation (in both Chinese and English) along the way, but you still feel you need to understand the meta-organisation of the place better. Apart from the segregation between cattle movement and human movement, I still can’t tell where the slaughtering actually took place (logically somewhere on the top floors), then how the meat was channelled and where it was stored and how were the carcasses disposed of.

Funnily enough, I’ve recently seen the movie “Temple Grandin”. Temple Grandin is an American scholar specialised in animal husbandry. She is behind what you could probably call humane slaughtering of animals, i.e. creating stress-free environments for animals before they are slaughtered. Grandin also happens to be autistic and has made use of her condition to understand animals better (she has also written a lot about autism). Visiting 1933, you can clearly see that some of her precepts were applied way before her time, namely through the spiralling internal movement, the sloped ramps and the high barriers, all of which, according to Grandin, replicate the natural moving patterns of cattle and therefore significantly reduces stress. In 1933, they even allowed spaces for animals to rest and feed before they eventually met their fate.

Anti-slippery ramps for cattle

Adjacent neighbourhood

Canal on the other side

The only negative thing I have to say about 1933 is that I am a bit worried it isn’t successful enough. Every time I’ve been there weren’t many people and those who come don’t seem to spend much, however impressed they are by the place. Take me for instance, I’ve only had a cup of tea there. Across the road, there used to be an artist’s residence, which clearly didn’t work out well as it is now only used for private parties. Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate being able to enjoy the place without it being over-crowed, but I fear that if it doesn’t pick up it might be stamped with that red character, which I’ve been told translates into “erase”.

Conversations with my Chinese teacher

14 Mar

I get along very well with H., my Chinese teacher. Apart from teaching me Mandarin, we actually talk about lots of other things and ask each other questions about our respective countries and cultures. She’s been teaching foreigners for a long time and therefore is very exposed to Europeans and Americans. Less so to people from the Middle East, so she sometimes asks me what’s going on Syria these days. Apparently and unsurprisingly, the Chinese media convey very matter-of-factly information, such as: “there are some skirmishes between a faction of the population and the government.” We then had a whole conversation about the Arab spring and she didn’t know what the word “dictatorship” meant.

Other times, she gets really perplexed about some specific issues pertaining to western culture and asks me about them. I think she perceives me as somehow mid-way between a Westerner and non-Westerner, having lived in Europe for a long time and being familiar with it, whilst not being a European myself.

The other day, she told me in a very serious way: “Lì Yà, I need to ask you something. Can you tell me what’s the difference between cheese, butter and mayonnaise?” So I explained to her that mayonnaise, even though it is white, is not a dairy product, how you could derive different products out of milk through either fermentation or concentrating fat. Likewise, the sequence of a “western” meal was very alien to her. She didn’t fancy butter and bread (Chinese eat neither). Aside from the fact that she thinks there are too many dishes, what she finds the least logical is the alternation of hot and cold dishes. “But how can I eat ice cream after eating a warm dish?” From what I’ve understood so far about the Chinese conception of the body and philosophy of eating is that you have to maintain the balance of your guts (and by extension of your whole body). So you shouldn’t brutalise it by eating really warm food and then iced food or the other way around.

She also doesn’t mind me asking questions about China. I also enquired about the sequence of Chinese meals (tea, cold (room temperature) appetizers, hot appetizers, main course, rice to make sure you’re full if you haven’t eaten enough of the rest, and I think desert is more of a western influence), about Chinese manners and other things derived from our lessons. I refrain from asking anything directly relating to politics, periods of Chinese history or other sensitive issues. I let her do the talking and every now and then she expresses quite strong opinions about some policy and other governance issues, but without ever elaborating too much. However I do get to tease her sometimes and she’s always taken it well, even on Mao, who apparently comes from her hometown in the province of Hunan. She was once explaining to me how the hometowns of various presidents became really wealthier or experienced economic booms due to the guānxi (i.e. almighty personal relationships or networks – good luck doing business in China without the guānxi) with the government of the time. So I told her, with unambiguous extra sarcastic enthusiasm: “Yeah well this guy may come from this town and this other one from that town, but surely no one beats Mao Zedong!” And it made her laugh!

One Hundred!

4 Mar

I have come a long way since my post titled “Zhōng wén” as I can now write ONE HUNDRED Chinese characters!!! Yes, I can! This means more than one hundred words as each character is a word of course, but combining characters make other words.

At the time I wrote the “Zhōng wén” post (November 2011), I was seriously discouraged about being able to write Chinese. Soon after, I decided to persevere and took a more methodical approach. I bought the special Hànzi (Chinese characters) gridded pads and started with the basics: I, you, he/she, it, we, you, they, to be, to have, father, mother. Then I learned characters that would enable to make sentences, in order to write more intelligible stuff and remember characters more easily. My first sentences were: “My father and mother do not live in China”, “Hello/How are you?” (same thing in Chinese “Nǐ hǎo”, literally “you good”), “Very good and you?”. Over time, it got a bit more elaborate: “Are you hungry? I’ve got an apple and a banana.”, “Are you thirsty? Would you like to drink tea?” or “His older brother is a teacher.”, “Too expensive!”, etc.

As you write and write and repeat and repeat characters – it takes an awful lot of time and I think by now I can cover the walls of our bedroom with all of my writing sheets, you start developing a relationship with each character. For an inexplicable reason, I like the characters “I”, “tea”, “méi” (i.e. negation for the verb to have or negation for the past), “to be” and “this”. For equally elusive reasons, it took me ages to finally memorise “banana”, “can”, “study” and “Chinese”. Not a trivial combination regarding the latter three…

When I browse through my books to pick on the next characters to learn, I become very choosy. No not you, you look very unsympathetic, not you either you’re too complicated. You’re not too bad, but not very inspiring. I don’t need to know you now, you don’t fit with my sentences. You sound exactly like the other one I know, you’re going to confuse me. Ah, you look alright, likeable and useable. You too and you too!

Although a hundred is not much and I have to pace the learning because I need to do repeat sessions before getting on with new words, it has become slightly obsessive. On the streets, I keep trying to decipher shop fronts, advertising boards, etc. and get very excited when I can.

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