Wednesday, May 21, 2014

All Around China - Famous shows from the North, East, South and West

During our short 16 day stay in the Middle Kingdom, the family and I got to see the most famous shows in China. They all had an incredible amount of talent, and each had their own strengths.  Some were more culturally relevant, while others oozed young talent. Here's my take on the shows of shows in China.

1.  NORTH - The Legend of Kung Fu, Hebei Province, Beijing 

The Legend of Kung Fu is the most popular tourist show in Beijing showing at the Red Theatre. But for a show labeled "The Legend of Kung Fu" there is less Kung Fu, and more attempt at telling a stereotypical story of a man, who happens to be a monk, who is tempted by an [evil] woman and ends up overcoming his trials through a montage.

The story is about a boy, Chun Yi, who is dropped off at a Shaolin Monk temple when he is 5 years old, and he doesn't want to leave his mother, but relents at the coaxing of his new peers.  He grows up in the temple and excels to be the best, when his ego takes hold of him, and he begins thinking of his mother again which distracts from his practice.  He has an inner struggle about this, which is portrayed as a scantily clad seductress fairy, which he eventually overcomes. He passes a final test to show his devotion, and the headmaster passes the torch to him before he dies.

Actor posing before the show starts.

This show was obviously meant for a western audience.  Not only is the show in English, but the western style of big production and lazy storytelling was distracting to me.  The acrobatics were impressive, but repetitive and more dancing-gymnastics than kung fu.  I personally would have rather seen people practicing kung fu rather than dancers and actors simulating what kung fu is. The actors did an impeccable job in their roles; but with the pretense of having a story, the show fell short.

Main character, Chun Yi showing his strength before being taken down by ego.

We saw some of the actors earlier that day at the Temple of Heaven practicing.  These young boys are very devoted and struck a pose for me when they noticed me taking a picture.  Their acting, dancing and kung fu are fun to watch, but realize the show is made for westerners and does not portray an accurate cultural story, nor a well told story. The show is worth seeing for the dedication of the actors who provide stunning choreography and acrobatics, but you will not gain any cultural insight or better understand local folklore. If you're a person who enjoys glitz and glam, and doesn't care much for storytelling, or you enjoy big production CGI movies without much plot, you will enjoy the Legend of Kung Fu.

Devoted practitioner and main child actor on stage. Most of the boys are under 17 years old.

2. EAST - ERA : Intersection of Time, Jiangsu Province, Shanghai

If you are expecting Cirque de Soliel, you are going to be disappointed.  The acrobatic show we saw at Shanghai Circus World was the ERA - Intersection of Time, which is considered the best acrobatics show in Shanghai.

It's not for the lack of talent, but rather the show is just not Vegas big. It is, however, a show none like I have seen before.  The acrobatics in Broadway's Pippin was equally impressive, but the way this show incorporated modern, urban culture with hints of traditional past (hence the name Intersection of Time) was a delight to see and kept me guessing.

I think what makes this show seemingly less BIG than something from Vegas is that there are only about 20 people or less who perform the entire show.  These aerialists are so multitalented that some can perform in every act, doing flips one moment, and throwing and balancing heavy pottery the next. The small number of people make the show seem small, but it really makes it that much more impressive to realize that these dozen people carry an entire show for 100 minutes. Every seat in the house is a good seat which also gives a small feel, but draws you in that much more.

Portrayal of China's first manned space mission in 2012.

There were bicycles on stage, break dancing acrobatics, and the famous finale of caged motorcycles with flashing lights, honking horns, and a moving background of the city : perfectly portraying what it's like to be amidst the hustle and bustle of Shanghai traffic or any city.

Mats facing every direction with road marks give a clear visual of "jumping through hoops" in a bustling city. 

This show really gave me a sense of the city, and though it is not Cirque, there are not nearly as many people, and it's not nearly the spectacle, but it is a stunning art piece all it's own.

7 motorcyclists were in the cage on the left all at the same time.  With flashing white and blue lights and a Maglev train multimedia background image, you feel right in the thick of traffic.

3. SOUTH - Show of Impression : Liu Sanjie, Guanxi Province, Yangshuo 

This show is set on the biggest natural theatre in the world, with the beautiful backdrop of the Karst mountain range, on the Li River.  Created by famous Chinese director Zhang Yi Mou who also directed and choreographed the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing olympics. There are 600 people who perform in the show, most of whom are local farmers and fishermen of the Zhuang minority who get a chance to tell their own history and sing their folk songs which is an integral part of preserving their culture.

The Show of Impression is about the Liu Sanjie, who, in local Zhuang folklore, would inspire the local people with her captivating voice and limitless beauty, as she is believed to be an incarnation of the lark.  The choreography in the show gives an impression of daily life for the locals.  In the 7 parts, each part has a color to demonstrate different feelings of the everyday life of the Zhuong.

First Chapter : Red Impression - The red symbolizes the enthusiasm and labors of the local people.

The story goes that Liu Sanjie falls in love with a village farm boy (Wesley?) and a warlord, Mo Huairen, plots to kidnap her to make her a concubine and keep her lovely voice to himself. When Liu Sanjie resists, he hires an assassin to murder her but the farmboy and her village band together to save her and she escapes. Liu Sangie and farmboy Li Xiaoniu sang as they travelled, and turned themselves into larks so more people could be inspired by their melodious voices.

Chapter 7 : Silvery Impression - Local Zhuong girls come out wearing traditional silver dresses.  The show ends with all 600 people coming on stage and proudly singing their folk songs.

This show was relaxing with a bucolic backdrop of misty mountains on the lake, but remember to bring mosquito repellant and a poncho; all of that beauty comes from lots of rainfall. The water illusions were colorful and impressive, the props are large and creative, and the lights in the show are used to help tell the story and drive emotion. To really get an understanding of local culture, see this show.  This story is so intertwined with local culture, it would be a shame to visit the Guanxi region without having the perspective of how Liu Sanjie pertains to the local people.

4.  WEST - Sichuan Opera : Sichuan Province, Chengdu

The Sichuan Opera blew me away.  Not only me, but my 4-year-old was captivated for the entire 1.5 hour long show. Let me repeat, my 4-year-old stayed up from 7:30pm to 9:00pm after a full day of seeing the sights, without a nap; and watched, laughed and clapped for the entire show.

Neva and I in front of the Sichuan Opera House

The Sichuan Opera is a compilation of talents that is prefaced with ladies dressed in red, and pouring tea from large pots in mirrored synchronization.

After the audience is served tea and has a chance to settle in, the bright colors, costumes and make-up hit the stage along with the high notes from the leading lady.  The first act of opera is jaw dropping not only from the talent, but from the immense energy coming from all of the professionals on stage. The show is both visually and otically stimulating with lots of fun movements and an heir of comedy.

With such a strong beginning act, you might expect the rest of the show to pale in comparison, but the acts stay strong; one after another, after another.

Chinese violinist.  He shredded the Chinese violin, playing fast, fiddle-like songs for his second set.

From the Chinese violin player, to the female puppet master, to the shadow puppet man, and the husband and wife comedy routine, each act hits strong.

The puppet master was seamlessly able to articulate the hands and wrists of the puppet, enough to pluck out a hair pin and wave her handkerchief at the crowd.

With so much going on, the last act sneaks up on you.  After all, the Sichuan Opera is known as the "face changing" act. After an incredible display from multiple actors, artists and singers, the finale is still breathtaking.

There is fire breathing, face changing, and even full wardrobe changes in the blink of an eye; not only from one actor, but a well choreographed line of 8 people moving as one with giant fans waving in front of their face, and after each wave, a new face appears.

If there is one show that you want to see in China, THIS is the show.

I hope you enjoyed that synopsis of my thoughts.  Do you have any thoughts to add on the shows I listed, or know of any famous shows that I excluded?  Let me know in the comments.  Stay tuned for a list of our favorite temples in China!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Top 7 Touristy Spots in China - To Go or to Forego?

As a first time tourist to China, we wanted to see as much as possible.  We hit a lot of the tourist sites and some were more whelming than others.  Here's my list of the top sites in China, and whether they're worth all the fuss.

1.  The Bund/Jin Mao, Shanghai

Shanghai is a very young city that had a cultural come-back in 1989, after China's industrial revolution. Jiang Zemin, a prominent member of the Shanghai Clique, promoted Shanghai as the financial hub of Asia and posed it as the gateway into Asia after China opened it's gates to the rest of the world. The Bund was the center of the financial district : now it resides as a tourist spot in the middle of Shanghai amid the hustle and bustle of millions of people, as a reminder of the economic boom in the early 90's.

The view from the Bund as we headed to the railway station

Now, if you're an economist, or very interested in the history of finance, this is the spot for you. For city views, you can't beat the Jin Mao tower as one of the tallest building in Shanghai.

Neva pointing at the Jin Mao Tower from a cab.  It's the one on the left.

It's about $20 to go all the way to the top and look over the city through a large glass window at 88 stories up.

There's only 2 buttons for this elevator, B1 and 88.  It takes 9 seconds to go 88 stories up.

The problem is the view is going to be foggy if it's a bad pollution day, and most days are bad pollution days.  In the 16 days we were in China, we checked all of the cities we had been in every day.  Shanghai never got below 150 ppm. If neither of these experiences sounds intriguing to you, you may want to forego it as the prices for everything are going to be the highest on the Bund, and Shanghai is already the most pricey city in all of China.

View of Shanghai from Jin Mao Tower.  Pollution was 158 ppm this day.

What to do instead?

Propaganda Poster Museum

A gem hidden outside of the French Concession, nestled in the basement of a residential apartment building, you get all of the post WWII history of China via artistic interpretation through propaganda posters. The powerful images and intense perspective of interesting times was a favorite for me.

Each wall had the different images in chronological order.

Yuyuan Gardens - A favorite tourist destination for nationals, the Yuyuan Gardens is a great spot to escape the concrete jungle and enter into the serenity of abundant foliage, peaceful waters, and hungry coy with mouth agape, anticipating falling corn from casual passersby.  If you're the type who enjoys sitting in the park and taking in the scenery while sipping on some tea, you will enjoy a trip to these gardens.

2.  Terraced Rice Fields, Longji

Going to the mountains in Longji was a nice change from bustling, smoggy Shanghai. The whole family could run around without having to worry about the pollution. The views are pretty, but not overwhelming.

The draw to Longji is the large amount of indigenous people that live there. The Miao, Yao, Dong and Zhong live very modestly and till the terraced rice fields by traditional means.  The grandeur of looking at the fields is from the realization that this massive amount of land is still cared for by the strength of local hands : from the planting of the seeds to the harvesting of the crops.

Horses are the Mao's main source of transportation around the mountainous region of Longji.

3.  Li River Cruise, from Guilin to Yangshuo

You may have caught a glimpse of the back of the 20 yuan bill, it depicts the view of the mountains outside of Yangshuo which can only be seen from the water.

Our very informative tour guide, Bruce, holding a 20 yuan bill with the pastoral scenery matching that which is in the background.

The mist dances with the long train of mountains that tower above the lake.  Four hours of beauty from an extremely touristy cruise ship.  The buffet food was terrible, and the only locals were guides, but the view is a one of a kind and not to be missed; just make sure to bring mosquito repellent, a light rain coat and small snacks.

If you're up to it, you can also get a bamboo raft ride at the end of the cruise in Yangshuo.

4.  Pandas, Chengdu

What's the cuddliest thing you can think of?  A big bear cat?  Well that's the direct translation of what the Chinese call the Giant Panda.

China's national symbol.

As an animal lover, I could not resist this and enjoyed my time taking lots of pictures of these extremely lazy quadrupeds.  To be honest, they do just sit there and chew on bamboo for the most part.  You're lucky if they move at all.

This panda posed only for me. Once I walked away, he sat right back up and chewed bamboo.  Pandas have poor vision and his back was turned when I walked up, so he must have liked my smell...or I got very lucky.

If you have some disposable income, you can pay 2000 yuan (roughly $330) to actually hold one.  That was too rich for our blood, but we still had a good time.  There are red pandas at the sanctuary as well.  They are cute too, but super aggressive and a little scary, I wouldn't want to hold one of those.

If you really love pandas and have the time, there is a panda center 2 hours north of Chengdu where you can volunteer to take care of the pandas.  Mostly you will be cutting up vegetables for feeding, and cleaning up panda poop.  These animals poop as they eat, and they eat continuously from the lack of nutrients in bamboo; but, you will probably have a good chance of getting up close and personal with China's national symbol.

This could be you!

5.  Terracotta Warriors, Xi'an

I know it's tempting to say, "I've seen pictures of that hundreds of times, why should I go in person?" but the amount of art and history in China is seemingly endless and always more impressive than expectations.

The line up of 1000 dug up soldiers.  They were all painted in bright colors originally, but once dug up, the oxidation destroys the color. This is why the remaining soldiers are in the ground still, at least until a good method of extraction is discovered.

Think about this : the terracotta warriors are a hand-made terracotta militia of 6000, including men of different ranks, horses, chariots and weapons. Each piece had its' own cast, each of which was destroyed after the piece was created; one cast, one piece and then back to the drawing board. The level of details from the hairstyles of the generals, to varied facial expressions and features, to  the fingernails and hand positions, is both visually impressive and thought provoking.

The mini horse-drawn chariot built to carry Emperor Qinshihuang's soul to paradise.

6.  Great Wall -Mutinayu section, outside of Beijing

The Chinese say that one is not a true person until they have climbed on the Great Wall. I'm not quite sure what that means, but as one of the 8 wonders of the world, the Great Wall does not fail to deliver.

Standing on the great wall is quite breath-taking as you look down the snaking path as far as you can see, and the wall disappears into the horizon.  It took over 200 years to build and 2500 years later, you can take a cable car to the top and admire the view.

If you are really a fan of running, stairs, and the Great Wall, there are 2 different marathons that take place on 2 different sections of the wall in the month of May...I wasn't ready this year, but my hard-core friend Shannon is, she ran it today!

7.  And the last wonder in China... Neva Jeanne.

That's right folks, Neva Jeanne is a star in China.  We couldn't go anywhere without the paparazzi showing up.  Don't believe me?  Here is a taste.

Neva, with some fans at the Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai.

The Mao women charge 10 yuan to take their hair down so you can get a picture.  Not for us, THEY wanted a picture with Neva.

She had a line of people waiting for a picture at a stopping point from rafting on the Li River in Yangshuo.  You can stop to get your picture of yourself going down the "rapid" but everyone just wanted a picture with Neva.

The hordes continue in Beijing at the Temple of Heaven, before we went to the Great Wall.

And then on the Great wall. Neva working on international relations and world peace.
Since there are so many  people in China, the personal bubble does not really exist.  People would pick her up and grab her if they wanted a picture.  At one point on the bullet train, she was playing with a woman behind us who ended up pulling her over the seat with Neva's feet holding desperately on to the seat to prevent it.  Neva usually draws attention, but I could have never predicted the response she elicited in China.  The middle kingdom is a fairly safe place, possibly safer than the US, as far as random acts of violence are concerned; we always knew her 'fans' meant well, but the cultural difference can be alarming for an unsuspecting American mother.  So if you have a cute, large eyed child in China, know they may get LOTS of attention, and though it can be awkward, cute kids are a universal language.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Things You May Not Know About China

Heading to a foreign country the biggest question on everyone's mind is, "How are we culturally different?" In fact, the draw to experience and understand the unknown is a pretty common human trait, and connecting with people where there is a language barrier is the best way to remember that everyone is human and smiles are universal. There are, however, some things that aren't universal, and here are a few cultural differences I noticed between the US and China.

Bathrooms - Chinese toilet vs European toilet

If you grew up in the US, you probably have never used a squat toilet. It's a porcelain hole in the floor. This may be a foreign concept in the US, but the squat position is helpful for massaging the colon when in the loo. Children get the short end of the stick though because I have yet to see a child size squat toilet and when you're a little person in jean pants, it's almost impossible to negotiate the wide stance.  

Typical squat toilet

In hotels, the showers are also right next to the toilet, with a drain, and no barrier; I think this is a way of maximizing space.  So, how, you ask do you go to the bathroom without finding yourself in a Chinese hospital with a concussion from slipping on wet tile? That’s what the shoes are for.  All of the hotels/hostels include rubbery or wooden shoes in the room so that you may enter the bath area post shower without it ending in tragedy.

When in public, you may find that there is one stall that has a European tioilet, so you may look for those for the little one. And don't forget to carry TP with you, the bathrooms that have it are few and far between!

Typical Chinese shower/toilet set up.

Don’t drink the water 

As an American, we are always told to be extremely careful of drinking water in any other country.  It’s no wonder too, with our western stomachs that are sensitive to everything : gluten, lactose, soy, etc. We worry mostly about local bacteria which locals are used to, but which are foreign to us and can act as pathogens; this is also true for people who visit the US.  China poses a different problem in that most buildings have lead pipes, and the cities are so big that it would be an astronomical cost to uproot a city of 120 million people in order to change the plumbing.  Boiling your water will not take out lead, so it’s best to drink well known brand named bottled water, or bring a handheld backpacking filter which cleans out heavy metals.

Women dress highly inappropriately for the occasion most of the time

You will notice right away when you get off the plane in Japan, Korea and China that women are dressed to a nine. Whether they’re older and dressed modestly, or younger and looking like they’re about to head to the club, a good percentage of the women are wearing 4 inch heels. I sat in the airport in my comfy travel clothes : jeans, t-shirt with flannel and sneakers, and watched women walking by trying not to hobble...they can’t fool me though, I’m a woman, I know what it’s like to wear those things!  You may think, “well, maybe they need to be dressed up for when they get off the plane” but as you visit many famous attractions and engage in outdoor activities for the beautiful view and history, you will continue to see the asian women, hiking up rocky and grassy hills, poking holes in the ground with their stilettos as they go. The heels do come in handy when it rains though, so I will give them that.

Different body types 

Everyone knows the Chinese stereotype of short and slender (very slender) but just like in the US, where different regions have different lifestyles, so does China.  It is noticeable that in the south, people seem to be much shorter and more slender, while in the north, people are taller with a thicker body type.  When you go out to eat, the portion sizes also vary from north to south, as northerners have large plates of food, while southern dishes are more modest in size.

Different food regions 

With such a big country and lots of different climates, there are many different styles and flavors of food in China.  So far, we have experienced Shanghai, which has a sweet notes to it, and various places in the Guanxi province, which is in the south and has lots of lakes, and are known for their rice fields; rice noodles, fresh fish, and chili paste made from local chilies (which is absolutely divine in every way) and that's what’s for dinner in Guanxi.  

I bought chile paste from this lady.  It was scooped fresh off ther new batch.

Chengdu, in the west, at the bottom of the Himalayas, is famously known in China for their spicy food, but not in the same way you might think of spicy food.  “Ma po” is the phrase used to describe this type of spicy which actually makes your mouth go numb. The plant creates a similar numbing experience to that of novocaine.

Spicy fish soup, sweet potato noodles, and bok choy with peanuts in Chengdu.

In Xi’an soon, which is in the flatlands; think Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska weather and terrain, but with mountains on 3 sides.  They are known for their wheat fields, so noodles are the prominent dish here.  I'll do a full food post later, but for now, this is just a taste.

Street vendor making noodles in Xi-an.

Dining etiquette

No napkins or forks, so if you’re a messy eater or not schooled in chopsticks, bring your own. Don’t stick your chopsticks in rice and leave them there, it symbolizes death.  If someone says to you “gan bei” that means “slam it!” and you must drink your full cup, and place it upside down to show it’s empty. There is more, but these are the basics.

Planes serve food

If you have flown within the last 10 years, you know that the meals have dwindled to nothing. The minimum length of time for a flight to serve food in the US is 6 hours, anything less and no food, so you may notice an increase in layovers. However, every flight we’ve been on in China, even the 1 hour flights, served food and it's actually pretty tasty. If you have have a special diet, you just need to make sure to request your special food 24 hours prior to the flight.

Great Public Transport

Whether you want to take the bus, train, subway or the fastest train in the world : the Maglev, it's possible in China to get anywhere on the mainland. Some railway stations are more hectic than others, and some destinations are popular and infrequent, so just do your research to find out what the appropriate time frame is to get tickets. Things like the Maglev and bullet trains you should be able to pick up an hour before, whereas trains which only run a few times a day will fill up quickly, especially the long distance train soft sleeper seats.

Proper attire for a temple 

Possibly no sandals, depending on which temple you go to and who you're asking. On our first day in Shanghai, I was scolded by an elderly woman who only spoke to me in Chinese while in line for the Jade Buddha Temple.  I somehow understood most of what she was saying with only catching a few words a sentence, but when I shrugged my shoulders in an attempt to tell her mercifully that I was no where near fluent in Chinese, she persisted her endeavor to talk to me like a child and point to my naked feet in dismay.  Her Chinese-Grandma-esque tones made me feel like she had me by the ear. She tried to cut us once we got to the window to purchase our tickets at the Buddha temple, but Christian at 6’2” gently (but firmly) nudged her (at about 4’11”) to the side.

Another no-no, for all temples is to not step on the thresholds. There are two reasons for this : to make the devotees look down in reverence upon entering the temple, and to keep out ghosts that tend to shuffle their feet. Apparently I may be part ghost because there are thresholds in most every building in China, and I trip over every darn one of them!

I hope these cultural tidbits are helpful. I know there are many cultural differences in this world, so if there are any that you came across that helped you to understand another culture better, please share!