There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Suzhou (2) The Humble Administrators Garden and Other Gems: Part 4 of South East China

This a new post though it describes the events of the 15th of November 2016.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days' time.
 
Perfect.
I love complicated
You come me you'd alway
slogan seen on a coat, Suzhou Museum
 

Seen leaving Suzhou museum
In the morning B turned up with the same driver in the same car; he had spotted my glasses on the back seat and kept them safe. I was relieved to have them back.
 
We set off across town to the Humble Administrators Garden, one of the finest in the garden city of Suzhou, indeed one of the finest in China.
 

 Suzhou and Jiangsu Province
I was predisposed to dislike the 'humble administrator' (though not necessarily his garden) because anyone who calls themselves 'humble', like Uriah Heap or Emperor Tu Duc of Vietnam (we met him in Hue) almost certainly is not. But the Chinese word translated as ‘humble’ also suggests a level of, at best, semi-competence. Ming official Wang Xianchang was unhappy in his job and was passed over for promotion so in 1510 he threw in his post, bought a cheap patch of land outside the city and planted a market garden - a humble enough occupation.


Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
The story might be believable except for the history of the land. In the 9th century the plot had been the garden of Tang Dynasty poet Lu Guimeng after a fallow period it became a garden again in the 12th century while during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) it was the Dahong Temple garden. If the administrator was humble, the plot was not.
 
Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
And then there was the involvement of Wang’s friend the eminent poet and artist Wen Zhengming. As a garden designer he was not a man to settle for a couple of rows of beans.

Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
The garden was perfected, Wang Xianchang died and his son lost the garden in a game of cards. The story then becomes complicated and for a century or two the three parts, the Eastern, Western and Central Gardens were under different ownership. They were brought back together under state ownership in 1949, restored and opened to the public in 1952 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
 
Bonzai trees, Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
The 5 hectares of garden are a maze of walkways, punctuated by decorative rocks and pavilions, surrounding pools thick with lotus. Trees and flowers sometimes seem an afterthought in such a garden though the lotus would have been spectacular earlier in the year and the sweet smell of osmanthus would have wafted across the garden only a month ago.
 
Better when the lotus was in bloom, Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
Even in November it was worth seeing, a thought that had also occurred to several thousand Chinese tourists, some in small groups, many following a leader with a flag. In summer the garden must be seriously crowded – a state at odds with the original concept.
 

A Chinese tour party, all in identical caps, file past the pond
Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
In several places artificial 'mountains' have been raised, the largest a couple of metres high. We paused on one where an arbour was inscribed with a short poem by (I think) Wen Zhengming
 
'Among Mountains, Flowers and Wild Birds'
The cicada's churring makes the forest quieter
The singing of birds makes the hills more tranquil.
 
The same cannot be said for the chatter of Chinese tourists.
 
When westerners were a novelty it was common for people to sidle up and shyly ask to be photographed with such an exotic curiosity. It still happens in remote regions, but among the more cosmopolitan and sophisticated denizens of Suzhou an excuse is required. Here the photograph was for granny who lived deep in the countryside and had never seen a foreigner. Of course we cooperated, but retaliated by having our own photo of us with them!
 
Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
From the garden we took a short walk to the Suzhou museum.

A short walk to Suzhou Museum
B (like the museum’s website) seemed more excited by the museum building than by its contents. It is the work of I M Pei, the Chinese-American architect responsible, among other things, for the 1993 glass pyramid outside the Louvre. His family came from Suzhou, but he was born in Guangzhou in 1917 (he will be 100 on the 26th of April 2017) and spent his childhood in Hong Kong and Shanghai before choosing to study architecture in the USA and eventually becoming a major international architect influenced by Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.  Apparently incapable of retiring, he was pleased to be asked to design a new museum for his parents’ home town in 2005.
 
I really cannot like his earlier Brutalist works. Unlike them, the museum is based on old-style Chinese houses but it is so geometrical it looks, to me anyway, like a kit building.

I M Pei's Suzhou Museum
The installation in the atrium is intended to suggest a traditional landscape painting, but at first glance I though it was a scene of industrial dereliction. I doubt that either I M Pei or the Suzhou city fathers will lose much sleep over my disapproval (yes, I am as humble as an administrator).
 
Traditional landscape or industrial dereliction? Suzhou Museum
Among the routine display of old coins, porcelain and all the other things you might expect there are two star exhibits, both found in collapsed pagodas in the days when they were allowed to decay as symbols of the feudal past.
 
The thousand year old Pearl Pillar of the Buddhist Shrine was rediscovered in 1978 in the Ruiguang Pagoda (see next post when it is written). The main body is made of nanmu wood with decorations of crystal, agate, amber, pearl and sandalwood, with carved jade and woven golden and silver thread.

Pearl Pillar of the Buddhist Shrine, Suzhou Museum
The 10th century Olive Green Lotus-Shaped Bowl found in 1957 in the Yunyansi Pagoda is a remarkable example of ‘Five Dynasty’ period (907-960AD) ceramics.
 
Olive Green Lotus-Shaped Bowl, Suzhou Museum
The older (1960s) section of the museum is in the former residence of the self-styled Zhong Prince of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (1850-64) and contains his throne room. I wrote about the Taiping Rebellion here).
 
Throne room of the Zhong Prince, Taiping Rebellion, Suzhou Museum
Near the museum is another canal side area like the 7-mile Shantang. B was greeted by a European man she obviously knew. He was a Finn who ran a restaurant and was celebrating eighteen years in China. I asked him if he had expected to be here so long when he arrived. He said he had been sent by Nokia for two years but had not wanted to come and tried to argue then down to one year but once he arrived he realised he never wanted to leave and in the end left Nokia rather than China. He said his restaurant was No 1 on Trip Advisor and pressed a flyer into my hand. I don't know why he mentioned he had been born in Iran, but as we shared that oddity we seemed to bond and I said we might well return for lunch.
 
Canalside area near Suzhou Museum
We had a late coffee in one of the new breed of Chinese coffee shops. There were no other westerners around so we inevitably had the place to ourselves. We looked at the Finn's flyer and discovered he was selling meatballs and mashed potato to the Chinese along with other Scandinavian favourites and the odd pizza. Perhaps a visit would not be such a good idea after all.

Boat ride on the canal, Suzhou
We took a short boat trip along the canal. It was a pleasant way to view our interesting surroundings, and very relaxing, though not perhaps for the chap doing the rowing.


Canal bridge, Suzhou
Afterwards B was keen to choose a restaurant for our lunch, but we decided to assert our independence and find a restaurant ourselves. There was plenty of choice and we picked one, sat down and ordered a couple of small, cheap pork dishes that we hoped would make a light lunch. They did, though neither was particularly inspiring and the dishes were too similar - at least they were not meatballs and mashed potato.

Easy enough to find a restaurant along here
After lunch we returned to the hotel. As we had a late start tomorrow B suggested a nearby temple/garden we could visit in the morning and left us with the instruction to 'rest this afternoon.'
 
We may be getting older, but we are not so old we need to lie down all afternoon after a morning's sightseeing, nor are we so helpless we cannot find our own places to visit. Hanshan Si, Cold Mountain Temple, was according to the map, a mile or so down a dead straight road west from our hotel.
 
Canal alongside Feng Qiao Road, Suzhou
It was indeed a simple walk beside a canal along Feng Qiao Road to the district of the same name. I commented on the flatness of the walk and how it was a relief after all the steps in Nanjing. We found Cold Mountain Temple devoid of cowboys, of any sexual orientation, and mountains - and cold though it was cool. There was, though, an excellent bell.


Bell, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
The temple had been here since 500AD and is well known in China and Japan because of a few lines by the Tang dynasty (618 -755) poet Zhang Ji
 
Moonset; through the freezing air the caw of a crow;
By Feng Qiao, breaking my rest, the fishing lamps glow;
To me as I lie in my boat the dark hour brings
The plangent repeated sound as the temple bell rings
At Hanshan beyond Suzhou.
 
It is a remarkable evocation of a scene in so few words. Reading it I find myself pulling my cloak closer around me and shifting uncomfortably on the hard planks of my boat.  And it is not only me, at New Year Hanshan is crowded with Japanese visitors who come to hear the midnight bell. The temple has grown rich on their donations.
 
Hanshan Si, Suzhou
Continuing through the temple, Puming Ta is an eleventh century seven storey pagoda. Apologizing for my earlier comment about steps, we set off up it, but the stairs above the first floor were roped off. We did not miss the climb, but were sorry we were deprived of our view of the Grand Canal. Started in the early 7th century the canal runs for 2000km connecting the rice bowl of the southern Yangtze with the heavily populated but less fertile lands of the north. It enabled China's early economic growth and although built to benefit the north, the south also benefited, and to such an extent that both Nanjing and Hangzhou became the national capital at various times.


Puming Ta, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
I liked the view of the temple roofs, though, even if it was not the grand canal.
 
Roofs, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
Outside the main Buddha hall was an incense burner bedecked with red ribbons. It can be difficult to tell Buddhist from Taoist temples but usually red denotes Taoism and yellow Buddhism. This, though, was a Buddhist Temple. People were attempting to flip coins through the holes at the top or land them on the upper surfaces. Success would doubtless indicate forthcoming good fortune.

Ribbon bedecked incense burner and flippers of coins, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
Inside the main Buddha hall the Buddha himself...
 
Main Buddha Statue, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
 
....was supported by what looked like a jury of arhats (and more of them tomorrow).
 
A jury of Arhats, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
Later we visited another small restaurant in the same row as yesterday. I left my glasses in the hotel so Lynne looked at the pictures and picked a chicken dish and some cauliflower. The chicken looked spectacular when it arrived in a wok placed over a heater, the sides lined with what I would have called puri had we been in India. The chicken came with potatoes, onion, garlic and peppers in a rich gravy while the cauliflower was accompanied by star anise, onion, peppers, ginger, soy sauce, chilli and a lot of oil. Washed down with a couple of bottle of Tsingtao, one of China's least worst beers, it made an excellent evening.


Sunday, 26 February 2017

Malacca (or Melaka), The First of the Straits Settlement: Part 1 of the Malayasian Peninsula

25 Feb 2017

We touched down in Kuala Lumpur at 8 am - midnight according to our body clocks - stumbled through the airport and spent an hour queuing to be pointlessly photographed and fingerprinted. Parts of the airport had yet to be declared free of contamination after the murder of Kim Jong-nam, but that never crossed our minds, our abilities to reason and remember had leaked into the ether somewhere over the Andaman Sea.

The two hour journey south to Melaka (traditionally spelt Malacca in English) was a blur, indeed I slept much of the way though I have retained an impression of endless palm oil plantations, and a succession of well maintained, multi-lane dual carriageways.

Melaka's old town, by contrast, has narrow streets lined with low rise Dutch colonial buildings.

Our hotel, a typical narrow-fronted building
We stayed in a hotel on a street whose Dutch name, though now unofficial, is still used. Typically it had a narrow frontage but extended a long way back, an architectural style developed when the Dutch imposed a window tax in the 18th century. Inner courtyards created more than adequate lighting, and our room at the back was traditional and characterful.
 
Hotel room, Melaka

After a much needed sleep we took a stroll. The air hung hot and humid, but the forecasted rain that had threatened all day somehow never came.
 
Jonker Walk, Melaka

Nearby Jonker Walk, Melaka’s Chinatown, is another street better known by its Dutch name. Later, after investigating Jonker Walk night market, we fancied a Nyonya meal – a Melakan-Chinese speciality. Many Nyonya kitchens, we discovered, including the one we had earmarked during our afternoon stroll, close early so instead we went to the bistro next-door which claimed to be Portuguese but had a very similar menu. As long standing Lusophiles I suspect Lynne and I know rather more about Portuguese cuisine than the operators of the bistro, but the spicy squid sambar and the unspecified fish baked with ginger were excellent (if as Portuguese as sauerkraut and toad-in-the-hole).

26th Feb 2017

After a leisurely breakfast we met local guide C for a walking tour. We started opposite our hotel at a shop selling traditional Nyonya Batik clothing where they still make the tiny shoes for bound feet. We did not feel we needed an expensive souvenir of a barbaric and long abandoned practice.
 
Further down the street was a house of a wealthy Chinese merchant built back from the row of narrow houses. Still owned by the builder’s family it is well maintained, but further along was a similar but sad-looking house which the owners cannot afford to maintain and have not succeeded in selling.
 
Chinese merchants house, Heeren Street, Melaka
 Back on Jonker Walk C stopped for a 'one bite durian puff'. We encountered durians on our first Chinese trip in 2004. The fruit is popular in southern China but as our travels have taken us further south through Indo-China we have seen it grow in popularity. Here in Malaysia we may have hit peak durian - they have whole shops dedicated it.
 
A shop dedicated to the durian, Melaka
Photographed the following morning before they opened - durian eaters are not early risers it seems
To those unfamiliar with the fruit, it resembles a conker in its spiny jacket, though with the diameter of a Size 4 football. Splitting the leathery outer casing reveals what looks and smells like a nest of albino turds; its aficionados say it smells like Hell but tastes like Heaven. The first time we ate durian was one of the inevitable errors you make when ordering dim sum by sight; we scoffed the little durian pastries out of bravado and were rewarded with cloacal reminders for the rest of the day. It seemed we were about to eat durian again and with C looking on and relishing our forthcoming discomfort there was nothing to do but man and woman up and take it on the chin - and hand and forearm as it turned out.
 
'One bite, one bite,' said C, but Lynne decided it was too big and bit it in half. Foolishly I followed suit. The result was the distribution of durian cream over a wide area. The third that went into my mouth was sweet and not unpleasant, similarly the third I licked off my forearm. I cannot speak of the third that splattered onto the pavement.
 
The one-bite durian puff, Melaka
 'But they were too big,' Lynne complained as we borrowed the shopkeeper’s sink to clean ourselves up. 'They are puffs,' I pointed out, 'they disappear to nothing.' Any idiot can be wise after the event.

We continued along Jonker Walk before taking a left and right onto Jalan Tukang Emas.

Although Melaka is the oldest city on this coast, much older than the other Straits Settlements, Singapore and Penang, it dates only from 1400. Parameswara, a Sumatran prince with ambitions found no room for himself in Sumatra, fled to Tamasek (now Singapore) and then found himself pushed up the coast. One day while sitting beneath a Melaka tree be saw a mouse-deer turn on one of his hunting dogs and drive it off. Deciding it was time to stop running he chose that spot for his new capital and named it after the tree. There are still plenty of Melaka trees. Their yellow/green berries resemble gooseberries and are said to be edible, rather in the way that sloes are edible but I did not try one; I tasted a sloe once and learned my lesson. Less romantically, the site of Parameswara’s city was probably selected for its a natural harbour at the narrowest point of what is now called the Melaka Straits.

Melaka tree beside the Melaka River, Melaka
The city’s Muslim founders built mosques but Masjid Kampung Kling was built by Indian traders in 1748 though the current structure is largely the result of an 1872 make-over. It is mainly in Sumatran style with no dome and a very different minaret from any we have seen before.

Masjid Kampung Kling, Jalan Tukang Emas. Melaka
The wudu features English and Portuguese tiles, and the roof is supported by Corinthian columns - an eclectic collection of styles.

Wudu, Masjid Kampung Kling, Jalan Tukang Emas, Melaka
 Unusually for a mosque the original cemetery was within the compound.

Cemetery, Masjid Kampung Kling, Jalan Tukang Emas, Melaka

Melaka thrived. Zheng He, the Chinese admiral, explorer and diplomat visited around 1460. Relations were established between Melaka and China and the Ming Emperor sent one of his daughters (with a retinue of 500) to marry Sultan Manshur Shah (reigned 1456-1477).

This may be folklore rather than history, but the wholesale arrival of Chinese merchants was the start of Baba-Nyonya culture, a group who are ethnically Chinese but whose culture is a fusion of Malay and Chinese. The men are ‘Baba’ and the women ‘Nyonya’, though their distinctive cuisine is known only as Nyonya – so we know who does the cooking.

Many of the Baba-Nyonya, also known as Peranakans or Straits Chinese, became wealthy and were important intermediaries when the next wave of Chinese arrived. Between them they built Chinese temples, both Taoist...
 
Taoist Temple, Jalan Tukang Emas, Melaka
...and Buddhist.
 
Buddhist Temple, Jalan Tukang Emas, melaka
67% of Melakans are Malay and 26% Chinese. Most of the rest are Indian, mainly Tamils who came to trade and work in the rubber plantations and they, naturally, built Hindu Temples.
 
Hindi Temple,Jalan Tukang Emas, Melaka 
The mosque and three temples are neighbours on Jalan Tukang Emas, also known as Harmony Street, an example of tolerance and understanding of which Melakans are justly proud.
 
Jalan Tukan Emas, Melaka
Looking at the Taoist Temple and the Mosque from the balcony of the Buddhist Temple (The Hindu Temple is hidden behind the mosque)
 From here we crossed the Melaka River to Dutch Square where red brick buildings crowd in on stalls selling tourist tat….

Dutch Square, Melaka
…. and the air is filled with music, some of it unnecessarily loud, from the themed rickshaws.
 
Hello Kitty themed rickshaw, Dutch Square, Melaka
The Dutch were not the first Europeans in Melaka. Attracted by the city’s wealth the Portuguese King Manuel I sent his envoy Diogo Lopes de Sequeira to Malacca in 1509. At first he was well received but refugee Goan Muslims, who had first-hand experience of the Portuguese, turned the Sultan against him and he was lucky to escape with his life. Manuel then sent Afonso de Albuquerque who arrived in 1511 with 1200 men and 18 ships, and that was game over for the Melakan Sultanate.
 
The Portuguese ruled Melaka until 1641. Continually under pressure from neighbouring states and boycotted by Chinese merchants it was a difficult time, but they built the massive Forteleza de Malaca and controlled much of the trade spice trade through the straits.
 
A foundations of part of the Forteleza, which was demolished by the British in 1806/7, sits beside the Melaka River near Dutch Square….

Part of the ruined Forteleza de Malaca
…opposite the Church of St Francis Xavier built in 1856. St Francis Xavier, the indefatigable evangelist to the east, visited Melaka several times in the 1540s.

St Francis Xavier's Church, Melaka
The Dutch took Melaka by force in 1641 with the help of local sultans. The Dutch East India Company controlled the city until 1825 and although they contributed much to the present architecture they failed to develop the port, concentrating on their possessions across the strait.
 
The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 tidied up European interest in the area. Some swapping of territories gave the Dutch control of what became the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the British control of what is now Malaysia. So Melaka became British and stayed that way until independence in 1957.
 
In the redbrick square the Dutch Reform Church, built in 1753 and the oldest Protestant Church in Malaysia  became Church of England and ….

Christ Church, Dutch Square, Melaka
…in 1904 a fountain was erected to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee – a little late as she was dead by then.

Commemorating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, Dutch Square, Melaka
Steps leading up the hill behind the square opened up some impressive views.

Looking out to see from St Paul's Hill, Melaka
St Paul’s Church on the summit claims to be the oldest church in Southeast Asia, though how much of the 1521 Portuguese chapel survives in the current building is a moot point. It was named St Paul’s when it became a Dutch Reform Church in 1641. When Christ Church in Dutch Square was completed in 1753, St Paul’s was deconsecrated and has been quietly rotting ever since.
 
St Paul's Church, Melaka
St Francis Xavier used the church as a base for his Chinese expeditions. When he died in China in 1552 his body was brought back to Melaka where it spent two years before travelling on to its final resting place in Goa. It is surprising how many people feel the urge to throw money into an empty grave.
 
The former grave of St Francis Xavier, St Pauls Church, Melaka
On the other side of the hill is the Porta de Santiago, the only existing part of the Portuguese Forteleza. It was saved from demolition by the personal intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles and is now known as A Famosa (The Famous).
 
A Famosa, Melaka
Behind it is the Memorial to Malaysian Independence. Independence was declared here in 1957 before it was declared in Kuala Lumpur and the museum explains the lead up to the event. It gives the impression that the process was very amicable and avoids the strident anti-British rhetoric of the Gandhi Museum in Madurai.

Malaysian Independence memorial, Melaka
According to our itinerary C was now supposed to provide us with a Nyonya lunch – I had been looking forward to it since breakfast!
 
We had misgivings as he led us into the four star hotel at the end of the square and up to a huge dining room where three tables were occupied – none of them by locals. A menu arrived for the Nonya set lunch and C disappeared to wherever guides go at moments like this.
 
We decided to drink water – I could have paid £10 for two small cans of beer but decided not to - overcharging is not to be encouraged. The meal started with a non-descript soup and some pieces of chicken smeared with a sauce which should have been chilli but tasted of tomato.
 
Then the main dishes arrived and what promised to be a poor meal became dire.

Nyonya Lunch - allegedly
The sauce in the bowl at the front had a pleasant tamarind tang but the fried fish had lain in it long enough to become slimy. The vegetables at the back were just dull. The chicken to the right in a flavourless brown sauce had been so overcooked it was dry and barely edible while the dish on the left looks like an ordinary omelette – because it is. Omelettes are eaten on every continent; to serve one as an exemplar of a particular cuisine is nonsensical and lazy. It shows disrespect for Nyonya traditions and contempt for the diners. Coconut, lemongrass, tamarind, galangal and chillies are among the prime features of Nyonya cooking but apart from one tamarind sauce all were absent.
 
Dessert was cendol, available from a hundreds of stalls across town and many thousands more across the country. Shaved ice with coconut milk, green coloured rice noodles, a few red beans and a lot of unrefined palm sugar – you cannot go wrong.
 
After the meal I tackled C about it. ‘Is that real Nyonya food?’ I asked, ‘or Nyonya food for tourists?’ He had the good grace to look uncomfortable. ‘They leave out the spices,’ he said, ‘because westerners and the Japanese don’t like them.’ I expressed my displeasure in measured tones, it was not entirely his fault, we should have spoken up earlier. ‘Did you like the cendol?’ he asked. ‘The only redeeming feature,’ we replied. He looked surprised. ‘Foreigners don’t usually like the palm sugar.'
 
I despair. Sometimes bad food is a conspiracy between ignorant consumers and idle providers.

C left us in the afternoon and we decided to take a river trip.

Boat rides on the Melaka River
Melaka does not show its best side to its river but we saw some colourful street art,

Street art beside the Melaka River
....a footbridge which looked like it should be somewhere else and…

Footbridge over the Melaka River
…the Melaka Monorail. The 1.6km track opened in October 2010 and closed in December 2010 after a series of problems. It has not moved since.

The non-functioning Melaka monorail
We also had a look at the replica of the Flor do Mar, a Portuguese carrack which foundered in the Strait in 1511 while carrying off the deposed Sultan of Melaka’s treasure. The wreck and treasure have never been found.
 
Flor do Mar, Maritime Museum, Melaka
Having eaten little (and enjoyed less) earlier, the evening found us in the Geographer’s CafĂ© where we could keep an eye on the night market, sink a beer or two and eat Thai-style mango chicken and ayam masak merah (Chicken in spicy tomato sauce) – a vast improvement over lunch.