Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lulichang Cultural Street--Art Heaven

During a recent lunch hour Jim took me to the ancient art supply hutong. It was lined with shops selling brushes, rice paper, blank fans, inks, how-to books on calligraphy and art, blank books and far more. I was agape. The occasional tea shop, with hand made pots and offering delicious sips of lychee tea, punctuated the street (bought tea, one of the few always expensive things in Beijing). The shops also sold art prints, original art, chops (blank stones ready to be carved with your Chinese name and used as ink stamps), small statues, clothing and antiques.

Some of the calligraphy brushes are as long as a man's forearm. They are used to write poems in water on pavement. Like listening to spoken verse, the words disappear in time. An evaporating recital. Fabulous to watch.

Even on this most ancient of streets, some enterprising shop owners had put up a starbucks-like coca-cola branded sign advertising "Coffee: Latte, Expresso, American" and the whiteboard sign rested against an old stone lion statue the size of a child.

Jim went back to rehearsal and I kept wandering. I inserted myself in a cluster of Chinese to cross a busy thoroughfare (and avoid becoming road kill). The other half of Lulichang had more shops selling chops and antiques. A few stringed instrument shops as well. But plenty of bookstores, artshops, and galleries as well.

At the end of the narrowing hutong, I saw a man in the window who painted on a big sheet of rice paper. Vermilion flowers exploded on a gray and black tree branch... Entranced, I went in to watch him. His wife hurried forth, all her front teeth missing, and assured me in blurry English that he was famous and had been on Canadian TV and many art magazines in the US and Canada. She eagerly showed me laminated articles. I thought he was only a bit better than a Bob Ross, not a deep talent. I wanted to love his work but didn't, there was a leaden quality to it, although a 4 season study of the Summer Palace was lovely. His wife tried to sell me the Summer Palace set for 32,000 RMB! Now even divided by 6.8 to get to US dollars that is a hell of a lot of dough. I was not going to pay $4,700 (1.00 Chinese Yuan = 0.1471 U.S. Dollar). I had to leave without a purchase, there was no way I could convince them I couldn't afford such prices.

I soon found shops where I assume I bought original art (unless it was printed so well I can't tell the difference) and bought a large lovely wall painting of two white birds for Natalie and a sketch of the great wall for Caitlin. At a percent of what the famous artist wanted.

The street is daunting to walk on. Traffic flows in all directions. Rather like a stream with many rocks and waterfalls...tourists, like myself, wander in drunken eyelust darting at shiny things, determined cyclists--often with another passenger or bulky load--arrow through the foot traffic, the pedi-cabs make noisy passage, a horse pulls a heavy cart, school children race and bounce balls, and seem to come from all directions at once and then the cars, kings of the road, brake for no one, and honk their imperious way through the throng. Kindly strangers often indicated I was about to be run down. I hopped like a rabbit off the street into more shops.

I found a carved wooden monkey holding a peach in one hand and licking peach juice off his finger. His feet rested one on top of the other. Now I am not saying Jim looks like a monkey, but I will note the uncanny resemblance to Jim deep in thought as he writes lyrics. I bought it for him, especially since he has been reading the long myth of The Monkey King.

By 3 pm I was hungry. Just off Lulichang I found an old fashioned eatery that had a sign in English assuring me it was a "designated tourist restaurant." I ordered, from the photo heavy menu (so good for illiterates like myself) a bowl of rice noodles with egg and tomato. It was delicious but a bit tricky to eat. One older gentleman kept staring at me. He wore the white silk traditional shirt the younger generation avoids. Was I making an embarrassingly bad a mess of my dining? He came over and instead of admonishing my chopsticking, he asked where I was from. I told him Beijing and New York had a lot in common, always busy and plenty of art to see. He liked that answer. Wished me well. The waitress brought an empty plastic bin and placed my shopping bag in it and put the bin under the table. What an excellent idea! More US restaurants should do this. Especially since a close inspection of the floor is not advised when dining. I either see small roaches looking about for crumbs, or in some places, heavily stained fly swatters stationed all around the room near the floor. Doesn't bear thinking about. I returned to my lunch and took out my new blank accordion page book (size of a hand) and drew the scene.

At one shop, a sales woman with excellent English helped me to find a good beginners set of rice paper printed with character outlines and instructions on how to draw them indicated by arrows. I also bought a brush and bottle of ink. I looked at the art in the room and said to her that it was all rather pretty but only one piece in the room seemed to have real mastery. I pointed to the one painting. She assured me that this was in fact their featured master painter (always compliment the customer?) and he had an exclusive contract with them. She led me to another room and showed me more of his work. Oh he was good! A real artist has a feeling of discovery in their work that schlock art cannot have. The Bob Ross artists of the world repeat themselves without finding anything new to say. This guy used the watercolor in a very loose and suggestive way, leaving out needless detail, capturing motion of water, solidity of land, and beat of sunlight with astonishingly few strokes. I assured the sales woman that I will come back with Jim and we will buy one of his paintings to remember our trip. I am sure Jim will love this work.

I left at 4 pm to avoid the rush hour, returning by subway and starting to feel like an honorary Beijinger. I took my usual seat at rehearsal and I handed the monkey to Jim. He smiled. It fit just right in the palm of his hand.
Calligraphy in water on street
Modern art and calligraphy supply store

Can you see the crickets? Tthey sang again as soon as I stopped taking their portraits.
Looking out of a gallery into an alley
Entrance to Eastern side of Lulichang Street
Lovely horse jade pendant
Here I ate lunch
Men discussing a large calligraphy painting and water evaporates from words on the street.
All dogs are small in Beijing, large ones killed on sight by police to control rabies
Lovely sales lady in teapot shop, her cousin makes many of the teapots
Wish I had bought this set... next trip. The lotus seeds rotate near the frog. Very cool.
Enterprise, modern, on Lulichang, a starbucks-like western sign

1 comment:

Gillion said...

Have you tried dumplings and roast ducks? They are the famous and traditional Beijing dieshes. And also bird's nest soup? Its a delicacy in China.

Enjoy your days~~~