Beijing Diary, August, 2008

My twelve- day trip to Beijing was the result of two invitations, first, to exhibit artwork at the Chinese Calligraphy Biennial which opened August 2nd and second, for the Olympic Fine Arts 2008, with an opening ceremony on August 11th, the latter offering a ten day hotel stay for participants. It was an eventful journey of contrasts.

Friday, August 1. For the Summer Olympics of 2008, China had transformed Beijing, literally spending billions, and mobilized thousands of young people in blue and white uniforms to greet and assist visitors at the airport and at booths on street corners and gathering spots throughout the city. I arrived at Beijing airport after 10:00 pm (China is 15 hours later than California time) after traveling about 22 hours. I had not brought the Chinese translation of the address and directions to my first hotel (for a two night stay). This is a necessity when traveling by taxi. Not seeing an information counter and greeted by three of the young Chinese offering help, I asked where I could have the hotel information translated. They carried my bags, saw to the translation, led me to the taxi, instructed the driver, and just before the cab pulled away, the young woman ran over to whisper a phrase that I, and most other visiting women, would hear often, “You are very beautiful.” I never did find out if there was an equivalent standard compliment for men (such as, I imagined, “Are you an Olympic Athlete?”) Striking, on the ride to the hotel, were the continuous and extensive glowing lighted panels outlining the undersides of overpasses in the complex of roadways into the city – a city of night lights.

My first hotel, the Crowne Plaza, within line of sight of the “Birds Nest,” the Olympic Stadium, was a center of activity around the bend from one of the five new upscale shopping centers with a large open Plaza with huge outdoor screens for Olympic viewing. As the Plaza was not visible from the hotel entrance, I did not yet know it was there. Though I had a reservation, the hotel was so fully booked they did not have my room ready, though late at night. They sent me to the lounge for a complimentary drink and a rather long wait. There was a singer, highly amplified. Very loud live or recorded background sound turned out to be typical of restaurants or other public spaces. The lucky part of their having wrong rooms at the ready, meant they made up an upscale one, lately vacated, which turned out to be worth the wait.

Saturday, August 2. Had an elegant breakfast at the hotel, where Olympic athletes and their associates were at many of the tables. I soon went to the Ku Center in an art district – one of several in Beijing for contemporary art – for the opening events of the first Chinese Calligraphy Biennial in which I had my Dimensional Alphabet of Bones. The exhibition complex included contemporary art galleries, an artist residency, studio buildings and meeting halls. The exhibit of about 30 international artists was beautifully installed in elegant space. Meeting artists from other parts of the world, we photographed each other with our work. It was a festive opening with costumed performances, standard formal ceremonial opening with dignitaries and later, a bus ride to take the artists to a dinner at a local restaurant. Seated at opposite ends of the very large dining hall our noisy art group shared the space with a separately catered, equally noisy wedding party, both competing with very loud, very dated, background music. On both sides of the hall the buffet lines were congenial and long.

In a taxi back to my hotel we came upon huge crowds. The driver, unable to turn, pulled up and stopped at an unfamiliar Plaza. I could not see my hotel though it had a large lighted name on the top of the building. We were surrounded by crowds, many wanting the taxi. The driver insisted I get out. I refused, not knowing how far I was from the hotel or where it was. He would not move and an English speaker of sorts watching this, said “Hotel is there” and waved a hand, but, without English language, could not tell me how far or how to get there. I had to get out as the cab was not moving and with the crowds, could not. I was not sure of the direction, did not know what was happening with so many people. A young man said “I show you hotel, please to follow ”and seeing my distrust said “not be afraid.” With so many people around, I did follow and across a park-like space, around a corner, across the huge plaza, I saw the hotel. It was the night they lit the Birds Nest, the Olympic Stadium, and had spectacular fireworks, not only visible from the Plaza and hotel front, but displayed on enormous outdoor screens. The event had just ended. Hundreds of people were streaming out on the streets and walkways. One had to be identified and wanded before entering the hotel for security reasons, an omnipresent fact of Olympic season life in primary areas. Not so in many of the more local places I was to visit.

Sunday, August 3rd. I was to check out by noon and transfer to the Schonbrunn Hotel for my ten day stay courtesy of the Olympic Fine Arts 2008. It was forty minutes away, far west in the fourth ring of Beijing and isolated. The ride was a tour of street plantings, an investment of millions. Blocks and blocks of roadside and median rose bushes and shrubs and mature street trees (where none had been even weeks before) and elaborate planting displays with topiary garlands and flowering plants.)

The Schonbrunn was an old Palace intended to be rebuilt as a grand hotel. It had been open barely a month. (I had not been able to find it online until I called and was given a coded website. All arrangements, including visa letters and art shipping had been done by email with the OFA through many, often confusing emails). I did not see another hotel guest at all, either checking in, leaving or lounging. Asking if other artists had checked in I was told there was a couple from Italy and an American. As it turned out, the American was me. I left a note for any others there to meet at breakfast and though late in the day, with precise directions in Chinese, I took a taxi to the Museum of Natural History. I had read about an exhibition on Origins of Life. The museum had a very large Plaza in front set back a long way from the street. As at many prominent sites there was an elaborate floral display at street side, surounded by a barrier, behind which, was a temporary mesh fence that blocked access to the Museum Plaza and Main Entrance, Approaching an entry gate on right side I was told it was not a visitor entrance, and to walk to the opposite end of the fence to buy a ticket. Given the closure of the shortest walk across the Plaza it was a long, uncomfortable hike to the other side, circling the fenced floral display through street crowds. No one was at the ticket booth though there was still more than an hour until closing time. I went to the exit door to inquire and was waved inside.

What was striking in this modest museum, in extreme contrast to the Olympic Special street plantings, was that their most elaborate displays of natural elements were manufactured, as fake trees, plastic plants and projected imagery. I was most taken with the skeletal structure of a dinosaur – it evoked the image of one of the installations (in Styrofoam) of the Chinese Calligraphy Biennial. Leaving the museum I walked around the neighborhood. A guide book had listed a local department store nearby, which I never found, but did discover local shops with sweet breads and cakes (where I should have bought more) and extremely elaborate bridal costumes in a string of window displays. Stopped the taxi part way to the hotel for a local shopping street. Bought a light cotton shirt for 15 dollars.

Returning to the hotel, thinking I would have dinner there, discovered there was no food service and no food nor wine by the glass in the bar. My dinner was two small buns from the sweet shop, an apple and almonds from my plane trip and the small supply of good chocolate from home.

Monday, August 4th.In the large dining hall, a young couple,the Italian artists were having breakfast. We were glad to see each other. Got acquainted and made plans to meet at the hotel and go to the best duck restaurant for dinner. They had an elaborate set of well researched sightseeing plans for the week. My first plan was to change my room for one with more space, no glass wall to the bathroom shower and a good view. With that done I was able to witness daily the constant haze over the city, even with all manufacturing plants closed and traffic cut in half for the Olympic period.

Taxis were inexpensive for in transit sightseeing opportunities. Driving off to the Ku Art Center was an architectural tour. At Ku Center I was to photograph the show and have help from the lovely gallery assistant, Jing, to arrange appointments at the Institute of Automation at the Chinese Academy of Science. My personal agenda for Beijing included some investigation of their new medical imaging technology. She helped arrange an initial meeting for the next day. From there I found an island of isolation as the only person in Beijing to visit the Museum of Chinese Traditional Medicine and the Museum of the History of Chinese Medicine. Even the taxi driver had trouble finding them on the campus of Peking University – mostly closed for the duration of the Olympic Games. The two people working there seemed surprised to see anyone. One unlocked the cash drawer so I could pay. The other turned on the gallery lights and kept watch over me, but in a friendly fashion, and typically, with a perpetual smile.

I continued to Wang Fu Jing Street a main avenue to visit a primary silk shop. Had endless samples at a special tea shop and hot chocolate in a very upscale, air conditioned Haagen Daz. Back to the hotel then to meet Christina and Allesandro for our duck dinner, which guide books and hotel staff claimed was the best in the city. Two days later my Chinese friend informed me it was only second best, though that night it seemed very special (after my non-dinner the night before). Our duck, carved at the table, was numbered and a souvenir card verified its pedigree.