From April 2008

Beijing Ancient Observatory

During my week in Beijing there was only a single day of clear blue sky the entire time I was there, the rest of the time the sky was sadly thick with pollution. Luckily that day fell somewhat appropriately on the same as my visit to Beijing’s Ancient Observatory located in the southeast of Beijing next to Jianguomen subway station. As it was a weekday and a little off the normal tourist trail I practically had the whole place to myself and was able to enjoy a quiet hour at this unassuming yet fascinating piece of Beijing’s history.

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The pretelescopic observatory was built in the Ming Dynasty in 1442 and is one of the oldest in the world. The central attraction of the small museum are the huge bronze astronomical instruments situated on the top of the ten-meter tall brick platform. With exotic sounding names such as “celestil globe” and “equatorial armilla” it is amazing to think that the ancient Chinese began to unlock the mysteries of the stars here using only these instruments and the naked eye to take precise measurements of their movements.

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Aside from being functional object the instruments are also aesthetically beautiful, covered in ornate carvings, apparently reflecting both the influence of Oriental craftsmanship and European Renaissance understanding of physics. The museum also have some interesting displays on the role of astronomy throughout China’s history.

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If you’re interested in this sort of thing you may want to check out Cheomseongdae Astronomical Observatory in South Korea which I visited last year.

Sinister S.H.E

Is it just me or are the lyrics to this rather tacky pop song a bit sinister?

People of every skin colour, People with hair of every colour
What they’re reading, what they’re saying,
Chinese is becoming the new trend

How many years did we painstakingly practice English pronunciation and learn their grammar?
For a change, now it’s their turn to get their tongues all in a knot
How smart the Chinese are! And how beautiful our language is!

The whole world is learning Chinese
Confucius’ words are becoming world culture
Our language makes the people of the world listen up

The first question this raises is exactly who in the world is learning Chinese other than a handful of business men and language students at university? An audacious statement perhaps but doesn’t quite represent the whole world to my mind, although they got the part about it being a ludicrously difficult language to learn correct!

Aside from being a little naive what’s perhaps more worrying is that this was one of the main performances at the 2008 Chinese New Year gala broadcast on CCTV (the state controlled TV network in China). If there was ever a subtle way to try and get your message across about intentions of world domination then this sure isn’t it!

Ironically the group (S.H.E) are from Taiwan and were formed in a talent contest, rather than having any artistic ideals. Just another cog in the propoganda machine?

Beijing 2008 Part 3: Mega Structures


Design by chocorange [via]

Beijing is perhaps the largest construction zone in history, with thousands of new projects under way. Once a flat cityscape dominated by the imperial Forbidden City and monumental but drab public buildings, Beijing has been struck by skyscraper fever. Over the past 30 years, China’s economy has averaged nearly 10 percent annual GDP growth, driven by the marriage of world-class technology with a vast low-cost workforce. That same dynamic has turned China into an architects’ playground, first in Shanghai in the 1990s as its skyline filled in with high-rise marvels, and now in Beijing, which is building at a mad pace in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in August.

Beijing’s newest buildings push aesthetic and technological bounds, each outshimmering the last. Most major projects have been designed by foreign architects: Chinese clients crave innovation and hunt beyond China to get it, says American architect Brad Perkins, founder of Perkins Eastman in New York. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, architects were more technicians than artists (even the term architect was considered bourgeois), and private architectural firms were a rarity until a decade ago. “By turning to foreigners like me,” says Perkins, “the Chinese are buying 30 to 40 years of experience they didn’t have.”

[via National Geographic]

Here are some of the architectural marvels you can sight in this incredible city of change:

National Centre for the Performing Arts “The Egg”

The cause of much controversy for its situation right next to the Great Hall Of The People, the $360 million egg-like structure is built from titanium and glass sitting on a shimmering artificial lake with an underwater entrance. The centre contains three main halls for opera, music and theater with capacity for 6,500 people.

national theatre
Photo by azurelan_space

National Theatre by Andreu
Photo by d_brown

Beijing Capital International Airport Terminal 3

Built in just four years at a cost of $3.6 billion, T3 opened last month and boasts the title of the world’s largest airport building with more than a million square meters of space designed to accommodate 50 million passengers a year by 2020. Construction also included a badly needed high speed rail link to central Beijing, cutting journey times from around an hour by taxi to 18 minutes. More info & pics.

P1000259 DCF New Beijing Airport-DCF
Photo by dcf_pics

Beijing New Terminal3 Section C & D, ZBAA
Photo by wyddenise

Beijing National Stadium “Bird’s Nest”

Possibly the most impressive construction to arise out of the boom so far is the main National Stadium, suitably nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest”. Wrapped in a seemingly random lattice of twisted steel, which acts as an exoskeleton for the interior, the 91,000 seat stadium certainly justifies its $500 million price tag.  Designed around the “randomness of nature” it took over 7000 migrant workers to construct – no doubt this will go onto become an icon of modern design and the centerpiece of this year’s Olympics.

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Beijing, The Bird's Nest
Photo by antonhazewinkel

Beijing National Aquatics Centre “Water Cube”

Standing right next to the National Stadium is the Aquatics Centre resembling a giant water cube made up of interlocking synthetic foam bubbles/cells (ETFE membranes). Seating up to 17,000 people the center has three pools and cost around $200 million to build. Amongst many eco-friendly innovations the translucent walls absorb solar radiation and minimise thermal loss thus reducing energy consumption by as much as 30%. It looks particularly spectacular when lit up at night.

Beijing National Aquatics Center
Photo by Wang Qian

Watercube Test Event (pool 26)
Photo by xiaming

Central Chinese Television (CCTV) Headquarters

Located in Beijing’s Central Business District (CBD) the construction of CCTV’s new $750 million HQ is hastily nearing completion. Seemingly defying gravity the two inverse ‘L’ shaped towers rise out of the ground at an alarming angle leaning towards each other and then link at the top and bottom in a ‘Z’ criss-cross. If this wasn’t a challenge enough already the building must also be able to withstand significant seismic activity which the whole of Beijing is prone to.

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Freak
Photo by zebrapares

China World Trade Centre Tower 3 (CWTC)

Bearing an eerie resemblance to the design of the former twin towers in New York, Tower 3 of the World Trade Centre is the tallest skyscraper in Beijing at 330 meters with 73 floors. To service it’s full height  requires over 30 elevators and will feature a hotel, a number of retail and entertainment venues as well as office space. Tourists will be able to get a good view (on pollution-free days) from the observation deck at the top. Perhaps not the most inspiring of buildings but certainly adds a focal point to the skyline of the CBD.

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Photo by rudenoon

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Photo by rudenoon

MOMA Linked Hybrid

Possibly the most avant-guard of all the structures featured here, the MOMA Linked Hybrid is the only designed as a housing development. Consisting of eight towers linked together by a suspended walkway the complex provides 700 apartments and recreational areas at different multifaceted spatial levels. As well as being unique in appearance the project also utilises geothermal cooling and heating systems by circulating water from deep underground. It effectively forms a city within the city and has been called “an ultra-modern expression of 21st Century ecological urban living”. More info & pics.


Photo by Steven Holl Architects


Photo by Steven Holl Architects

Others Worth a Mention (+ videos after the break)

SOHO Shangdu
The Digital Building
Xihuan Plaza
Any others I’ve missed?

Whatever your opinion of China or the taste of these buildings there is no doubt that there are no holds barred in China’s relentless rise and quest to be the biggest and the most powerful regardless of whether that image supports the reality. Beijing isn’t just reinventing itself as a showcase for the Olympics but as a global city which will undoubtedly play a massive role in the future ahead.

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Ghost in the Shell Live Action

What exactly is the definition of human in a society where a mind can be copied and the body replaced with a fully synthetic body? Where is the boundary between human and machine when the differences between the two become more philosophical than physical? Ultimately how do we define what it is to be human?

I’m not going to try and answer this today but these are the philosophical questions that form the basis of the futuristic manga and anime series ‘Ghost in the Shell‘ created by Masamune Shirow (first published in 1989). Whilst being nearly 30 years old the franchise is still alive and well with three movies, a TV series, game and trilogy of novels being spawned from it along with many aspects having slowly percolated into popular culture (it heavily inspired The Matrix).

With such a strong pedigree it’s rather worrying that Production I.G has sold the rights for a live-action movie to DreamWorks under the direction of none other than Steven Spielberg. For fans this is a pretty worrying development. Whist there is no denying Spielberg’s talent it’s an altogether different proposition when applying it to something like this, the main fear being that it will be severely dumbed down for a Hollywood audience.

If they can respect and stay faithful to the original maybe this has a chance but then again the likelihood of that is pretty low – the precedent is already pretty well established for ruining Asian cult classics.

Update (10/2009): Apparently Dreamworks has hired Laeta Kalogridis as lead writer (who also worked one of the Tomb Raider movies) along with Avi Arad (formerly of Marvel) and Steven Paul to produce what’s being called a “3D live-action film”. Anyone care to speculate what that means?

Mutianyu Great Wall

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One of the highlights of my recent trip to Beijing was getting another chance to visit the Great Wall. This time I visited an older section further out from the city at Mutianyu (about 80km northeast from Beijing), generally regarded as one of the best preserved and most impressive sections of the whole wall. It’s also a good choice for those who want to avoid the hoards of tourists who plague Badaling most of the year.

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After an interesting bus trip riding along with a horde of migrant workers I arrived near the base of Mutianyu – there are probably easier ways to get there on organised trips but this seemed more interesting! For the intrepid you’ll want to look for bus no. 916 from Dongzhimen bus station. It’s about a 30 min climb to the wall which was built in the Qi Dynasty (550 – 557) and provides around 4km of rugged walking with watchtowers approximately every kilometer.

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Magnificent views are to be had in every direction although the best time of year to visit is probably in the spring/autumn when there is green foliage on the trees which cover the sounding mountains. The day I visited was a bit overcast but pleasant enough to enjoy the fresh breeze and a chance to stretch my legs. One part is particularly steep and potentially dangerous so the old and unfit be warned.

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Sadly once you reach the end of the maintained section the wall starts to dramatically crumble away and is overgrown with weeds. Although it’s tempting to continue along the wall into the looming mountains there is a guard to stop intrepid tourists – I saw him wittling a stick with a rather large knife so you’ll probably not want to cross him!

Beijing 2008 Part 2: Out With The Old

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Throughout the world there have been countless instances where irreplaceable pieces of history have been flattened in the name of progress only for future generations to look back and wonder how their forbears could have been so short sighted as to destroy that which was their last connection to the past.

With China developing at an unprecedented rate nowhere is the mantra of “out with the old, in with the new” more visible, especially in Beijing where many of the dynastic treasures lie. Whilst the government may be going to great lengths to preserve and promote the tourist honey pots it’s the less obvious treasures of ‘old’ Beijing which are at risk of disappearing and with them an important part of China’s heritage.

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The pictures above and below show the rapidly developing new face of Qianmen, just south of Tiananmen Square, almost entirely demolished under the “conservation” plan and its occupants removed to make way for an idealised version of it’s former self in what can only be described as Olympic vandalism of the most senseless form. Unique local merchants are being replaced with international designer brand names to create a disneyfied version of China (supposedly in the Ming-era style) with about as much character as a meeting of the communist party.

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This urban renewal also takes it’s toll on the communities who have lived within the remaining enclaves for generations and are being uprooted to make way for a world which is as foreign as it is Chinese; herein lies the tragic irony, mirrored across this vast land of conflicting extremes. I was particularly dismayed to see some of the fascinating hutongs which I visited last year had been bulldozed and their former inhabitants now banished to the history books (or in all likelihood cheaply built tower blocks on the city outskirts).

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Further along from Qianmen lies the Beijing Natural History Museum, famed in The Rough Guide To Beijing for its grotesque display of pickled human corpses. Whilst the appropriately named “Room of baddies” is still shown on the english language guide map the human remains are no more; as with everything in this city of change they too have fallen victim this latest round of cultural cleansing.

Above, a video from the Hard Hat Show documenting the destruction of a 600 year old temple, yet another casualty in Beijing’s ever-shrinking hutong neighborhoods.

As Beijing says goodbye to the past you can’t but help wonder if it’s vision of the future is just the rebirth of Maoist reform wrapped up in a new veneer but contianing all the same mistakes of the past

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GO! GO! PiKAPiKA!!

We interrupt our usual coverage to bring you one of most unique short animated films I’ve seen in a long time from some very creative folks in Japan (all made without a single drop of CG):

PiKAPiKA THE MOVIE

Using stop-motion animation and time-lapse photography techniques the film was shot in Tokyo over a period of 10 nights, using 77 people, different coloured flashlights, and a digital camera with a long exposure to capture over 16,000 frames (behind the scenes). It’s no small feat for a semi-amateur production and the end result certainly has the wow factor.

A group in Germany called Lichtfaktor do something similar for a living and have made some seriously cool tv ads which you can find on their website. It would appear to becoming a bit of a fringe art form with some calling it “light writing” or “light graffiti” but a whole lot less destructive than its spray-on counterpart (interview)!

You’ve got to wonder when Sony will commission someone like this to do a Bravia advert for them – it certainly has all the right visual elements to go with their “colour like no other” campaign.


Photo by Lichtfaktor

Painting with light is something which anyone can try fairly easily themselves, still images being the simplest. You’ll need a tripod and a camera which can do exposures of 10-30 seconds at around iso100 with as small an aperture as possible (plus a whole lot of practice and patience!).

Xiabu Xiabu

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One of the best part of traveling is undoubtedly the food and trying new cuisines. Being such a large country China has a particularly rich array of options to choose from, with almost all regions being represented in Beijing and numerous local varients. On the evening after my day wandering through the north of the city I went for hot pot at Xiabu Xiabu (a popular restaurant chain) in Wangfujing.

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Here you choose from a selection of vegetables, meats and seafood to cook in your own individual hot pot containing stock of varying degrees of spiciness. Once cooked you usually dip the food in sesame sauce before eating with a bowl of rice. It’s not the first time I’ve had hot pot, but this was a slightly different varient known as Shabu-shabu (hence the name of the place). Delicious!

Beijing 2008 Part 1: A City Evolves

China is currently in a headlong rush to reinvent itself for the 2008 Olympics and more importantly as 21st century super power. Nowhere is this more is this evident than in the capital Beijing which is undergoing a transformation like no other city has ever seen before. In this series of posts I’ll be examining the growth from my own perspective as an outsider and from native Beijingers who are forging a new China out of a situation which can only be described as extremely complex.

Construction
Photo by bmgallery

The first thing which greets any foreign visitor to Beijing is it’s impressive modern airport (recently expanded) which far outdoes anything which London has to offer and judging by recent events anything the UK is capable of. As you head into the heart of the city the scale of Beijing becomes quickly apparent with row after row of high-rise accommodation and multi-lane carriage ways which house and carry around its 17 million inhabitants. On the way you get glimpses of both the old and the new with one overriding theme: construction. No part of the skyline is free from cranes which work day and night building ever upwards and outwards consuming what little remains of “old Beijing” (more on this in Part 2).

For such a large populous Beijing has a woeful transport system which is horribly overcrowded and the volume of road traffic only adds to the dreadful pollution which casts its grim shadow over the city most days. Below ground things aren’t much better. The subway system consisted of only 2 lines in 2007 (compared with 15 in London, a city half the size) but after a cash injection of over $30 billion things are looking up and by the time of the Olympics it will have more than doubled in length with an extra 561 kilometers planned by 2015.

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You could never accuse the Chinese of not thinking big but unfortunately the cost of this expansion has been felt in human lives as well Yuan. Beyond accidental deaths (negligent or otherwise) its also worth remembering the thousands of migrant workers who work 7 days a week with few if any rights and get to see their families once or twice a year if they’re lucky. They are the ones truly baring the cost of this mammoth undertaking.

At the other end of the social spectrum I was surprised to see that the iPhone was very much the fashion du jour amongst the rich elite who apparently buy them on the black market having been brought over from the US or Europe; somewhat ironic considering where they are manufactured! They are of course pre-hacked to work on the local networks and in a feat of home-grown ingenuity have software installed to enable Chinese language input. One estimate puts the number in China at a staggering 400,000 (about 1 in 10 sold worldwide)!! The other interesting fact is that they cost more than 4,000 RMB (US$570), about 40% more than in the US and around 50% of an average urban family’s income.

One of the visible improvements since my last visit has been the proliferation of signs in Pinyin (Mandarin written in roman characters), around the main sites at least, which makes getting about a whole lot more easier as a foreigner. Coverage is far from universal but a step in the right direction. Alas it’s a little sad to see that many of the comical chinglish signs have undergone linguistic cleansing and are in sharp decline. On the up side the notion of standing in a queue still hasn’t made it this far east so it’s every man for himself still!

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RAF Anniversary Fly-Past

Red Arrows Fly Past London Bridge

I’m a little late in posting this but on Tuesday I was lucky enough to be in central London at the same time as the RAF (Royal Air Force) was celebrating it’s 90th anniversary which included a cool flypast of the Red Arrows and Typhoon fighter jets. I watched from London Bridge which gave a great vantage point as the planes appeared seemingly out of nowhere over Canary Wharf leaving coloured smoke trails in their wake.

Red Arrows Fly Past London Bridge

It was all over in a matter of seconds but I still managed to snap a couple of OK pics with my iphone – more from the BBC. Not a bad way to spend a weekday lunchtime 🙂