Saturday, December 26, 2009

Chongqing Zoo

In Chongqing Zoo there are not only pandas

but bears with honey-coloured faces,

which when enticed with crisp-fried noodles

will perform a clumsy pirouette

or lie with legs extended and vulnerable parts unnaturally exposed.

Meanwhile a Bactrian camel blinks his long-lashes and dreams of caravans and marches through a cold desert

and an old black chimp remembers another time - of chattering from branches, and leaping from trees -

instead of this concrete pen with a fugitive mouse.

By the lake, meanwhile, a crane spreads his wings

tends to an itch

then watches the world with an evil eye.

A Pere David's fawn - timorous, inquisitive, vulnerable -

is smelt by the tigers who wipe their lips - futilely - foiled by barriers and ditches.

The mist turns to rain.

Soon now, the skin of the old black sow will surely shrink to fit

and the gardens

and the city will be hidden behind this moving mesh and veil

and grow smaller.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


In Chongqing zoo there are pandas, and even though this was not part of my mission (my mission was silk) I thought I may as well go and take a look at them since I was there. Here is a panda from far away.

Here he is a bit closer

And here closer still.

As pandas go he was not very active.

This panda, though, was much more interesting. He was eating. Pandas do this a lot.

In fact nearly all the time.

They eat only bamboo. In this way they resemble silkworms which eat only mulberry.

They have fine teeth - which convinces me they are probably not as cuddly as they might seem.

Sometimes they have to solve difficult puzzles like which branch of bamboo to eat next.

Or whether to grunt or squeak at a neighbouring panda

But generally life is not too arduous.

In fact things can usually be taken very easily...


The fingertip of the middle finger of the right hand

I woke to the sound of birds and music. It took me a few seconds to remember where I was. The sound was gentle, lulling, and it drew me from my bed like the magical singing of sirens. I was in China - somewhere exotic, somewhere I'd dreamt about for so long. I drew back the curtains and looked into past the trees into the park and saw people moving as if in a dream.

Tai Chi, of course - one of Hodmandod Senior's favourite pass-times. Ah, if only he could see this, I thought, and wished, not for the first time, that he were here alongside me. So often he has told me that moving slowly is a difficult art-form - much more difficult that the faster movements I tend to favour in the gym. I watched for some time - admiring the bright red silk outfit of one woman, and the superb balance of the elderly man in front. There is a strength in slowness, I know, and a sort of beauty.

Clearly Tai Chi is much favoured in China. This was a sight I was to see again and again and not just in Chongqing. Mostly the people doing it seemed middle-aged or sometimes elderly, and often the students were women.

Apart from various weapons fans seemed to be a favoured accessory,

as demonstrated by the Tai Chi 'master' (the white silk seemingly signifying prowess).

At first I hesitated to take a photo, but soon it became obvious nobody minded in the least. I suppose choosing (or having) to practise in a public park is bound to attract attention. The idea, perhaps, is to focus on every tiny movement and blot out the rest of the world, to gain balance and inner serenity - and then some irritating woman with a camera can be disregarded.

A bird sings. A leaf falls from a branch. Above us the sky clears itself of cloud and the fingertip of the middle finger of your right hand moves a hair's breadth to the left.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Into Chongqing; a change of scenery.

It was my last morning in Shanghai, and the view through my hotel window looked like this:

and this:

Everything was tall and grey with just enough haze to obscure the horizon. Haze is a Chinese speciality.

It was Saturday and in consequence Shanghai was slightly quieter. We travelled slowly but steadily. On the car radio Chinese voices sang in time with a western pulse, while in the street two workmen in red hard hats leant a bamboo ladder against a wall. The old and the new: China seems to pick out exactly what it requires from the modern world, and leaves the rest behind.

The car increased speed as we left the city and drove through what appeared to be a building site. As we crossed a bridge I could see why - a large sign advertised that in 2010 Shanghai is hosting 'Expo 2010', and part of this will take place in an interesting building shaped a little like an inverted pyramid. It looks unstable.

Perhaps in readiness for 'Expo 2010' there is a new airport - which when I was there late morning in October 2009 fairly empty.

We flew over the Yangtze river with the container ships sluggishly returning to dock on the grey water; and then over islands, each one with parallel canals as if the skin on the earth had stretched and broken. The sun lit each section of land as we passed, the canals suddenly white and gleaming, as if picked out by a laser pointer.

Then, all at once, we veered west and there was uninterrupted cloud, and I could see no more. The cloud lasted until Chongqing (approximately 900 miles away) and there apparently extended to ground level because I landed in fog.

I sniffed the air. It was colder than Shanghai and sulphurous. The fog seemed tinged with yellow, and above the tang of sulphur was another chemical that persisted even when the car door was shut. On the ground were puddles as if it had been raining hard.

Chongqing is the largest city in China with a population of 80 million. I had imagined that it would be much like Shanghai, but when I got there it seemed smaller with more human-sized buildings which seemed to pay homage to the landscape. Apartments were built within the confines of a gorge for instance, and the hills left to nature.

I had read that around the time I was born the people in Chongqing were starving as a result of a failed agricultural policy. A recent report in Nature China described how the young girls (but, interestingly, not the boys) that survived this era are now overweight (just like the Dutch people that survived the deprivations of the second world war). The study did not offer an explanation.

Because Chongqing is at the confluence of two main rivers it is subject to fog. With the advent of heavy industry these have changed into what we in the UK used to call 'pea-soupers'. During the war Chongqing's famous pea-soupers saved it - they were so thick that the Japanese bombers had no idea where to drop their bombs. The people hid in caves in the cliffs (which are still visible and used for storage), and the Chinese government decamped to here from Peking to run the country. So it was not surprising to find some of this life-saving fog at the airport.

I retrieved my baggage and made my way to the exit. This was always a tense moment: would there be anyone there, and what would I do if there were not? As I looked around me in the arrivals hall I noticed that couldn't see another European face - an unusual and slightly disconcerting occurrence. At the barrier were names on pieces of paper. I looked along the row a couple of times before, with relief, seeing my name. My new guide introduced herself. She was called 'Joanne', and it was soon obnious she had very good English.

By the time we got to the city it was dark. We stopped at a restaurant and I was led past a raucous wedding reception (October is considered to be a lucky month for weddings) to a large empty room with a sideboard and a table set for one. Joanne drifted away and the usual bowls of food were deposited in front of me - a small bowl of soup with china spoon, a dish of rice, and then two more, one of meat in sauce and one of a mixture of vegetables. A greasy looking glass of 'cola' was placed by the side. The room led directly to a toilet and wash hand basin with broken red tiles on the walls and the remains of grouting. At the door leading to the corridor a sweet girl in a bright yellow tunic top stood and stared at me with a child's unselfconscious curiosity, although she was not a child.

My hotel was at the top of a hill away from the traffic. Behind it was a park and when I got there was in darkness except for this in the distance.

The room was not as luxurious as the one in Shanghai; it had a slate floor which was cold underfoot, and a bathroom only partly partitioned from the rest of the room by a sliding screen, but it was clean and comfortable. A large French window led onto a balcony, and when I opened it the only sound I could hear in this vast crowded city was a cricket. At last I felt I had reached real China.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Looms, computers, embroidery and snakes in jars.

When I started at university I had to punch cards a little like the long snakes of paper that can be seen above the looms in the picture below.

Once I'd finished with them I had to leave them in a place for a mysterious thing called 'a computer' to work through them and come up with an answer. Usually it came up with a load of error messages claiming I have failed to end my commands with sufficient semi-colons, and nothing would have happened. Clearly the programming of these Jacquard mechanisms are more successful. They instruct loom which the warp threads should be held where as the weft is threaded through, and so the pattern is woven into the fabric, rather than printed afterwards.

I'd already seen primitive version of this machine in a museum in Macclesfield, but these in the silk factory in Suzhou were modern versions. In the old versions the cards had had to be laboriously compiled by humans from designs (a highly skilled job involving elements of maths and design) but these days the work is done by computer - which takes me neatly back to those Fortran code cards again.

The end results of those Jacqard-controlled looms were lustrous tablecloths like these:

Silk makes a great embroidery thread too and in Suzhou there were examples of embroidered silk bed-spreads

and screens.

In a nearby institute there was something called the Silk Research Centre where students are trained to make double-sided embroidered pictures which are different each side. I couldn't take pictures but I did buy a sample of the students' work. It is skilful rather than particularly artistic since all the pictures are copied from photographs or paintings.

Then it was time to go back through a flat landscape teeming with building cranes, new housing blocks, factories and hoardings until we reached the skyscrapers of Shanghai, and I was deposited in a restaurant for my meal. I sat at a bench which incorporated a hot plate and I was able to watch him refry rice and bits of meat and fish. Next to me were a Chinese-Australian couple, obviously on a trip through the ancestral home. They had been through Japan, Korea and were now stopping at a couple of places in China and soon were flying home. The wife warned me to watch out for pick-pockets because she had been relieved of her purse in Beijing, and then she directed my gaze to this (click on the picture for a better view inside):

It is, apparently, 'Snake-wine', but it wasn't part of my menu.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A couple of Links

1. Rain Taxi's Benefit Auction.

This auction helps support Rain Taxi - an award- winning literary magazine. '...contains a multitude of items sure to please book lovers, many of which were donated by authors in support of Rain Taxi! There are first editions, gorgeous broadsides, rare chapbooks, quirky used books, as well as original art, an article of clothing, a decorative bag, a crazy quilt, and more...'

2. Jenny Krowbury's book of poetry.

Jenny Krowbury has had severe M.E. from her first year at university and has been bed-bound for five years. She is trying to raise money for treatment not on the NHS. Her book of poetry is now available on Amazon.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Suzhuo Silk Factory 4: Double-cocoons and Quilts

Around any silk factory in China there are always three sorts of cocoons on display: the spoilt, the single and the double. The double cocoons are where two silkworms have spun a cocoon together. Since the two threads are intertwined the silk cannot be reeled and so is used in a different way.

The cocoons are first soaked until soft and then broken open

and the pupae and waste removed.

The softened cocoon is then stretched over a form

layer after layer, and then allowed to dry.

This flattened dome of silk is then stretched by four people pulling at once

and again several layers are built up until there is enough for a quilt.

The wadding is then covered with zipped internal white cover and tacked into place.

I saw this quilt-making process again and again in China - in a couple of factories and also, strangely, in a department store in Shanghai.

The resulting quilt was light and warm (and also claimed to be anti-germ, anti-mildew and to have '19 kinds of essential microelements and 98% of protein for human body'). When covered with more silk it was also strikingly beautiful and I wished I'd had enough room in my bag to buy one.