Saturday, 22 October 2016

More Food Experiences

We were taken out for two other particularly memorable meals while we were in Beijing...

Below are Cookie and Lily, the delightful young women who went every day into each of the schools with us, to set up the bookstall and sell all the books. They discovered that we had not managed to eat Chinese hotpot yet.

Cookie and Lily said we had to try Hotpot before going home, so they took us out for a feast on our last afternoon. Turns out this has very little in common with the Lancashire Hotpot! We each had a little burner, over which was placed a decorative doughnut-shaped basin filled with boiling water. Then the table was laden with fresh food: various finely sliced meats, exotic mushrooms, beautiful green vegetables, more dumplings, this time in pretty colours...

Our job was to pop anything we fancied into our water bowl for a couple of minutes, then fish it out with chopsticks and dunk it into a bowl of delicious satay sauce before gobbling it down. It was a good thing it was our last meal, as we had both got remarkably proficient with the old chopsticks by this stage. Even Julia, who had gone with the fork option during the first week, was scooping and dipping like a pro!

We ate slowly but continuously for 2 hours, until we were completely stuffed (and the restaurant chucked us out). When we went to pay our way, Cookie and Lily insisted on treating us. When we protested, Cookie said 'Don't be Chinese!' Apparently the Chinese way is to fight to pay the bill, to show off how rich and influential you are.

Flora too insisted that we were guests in her country and were not allowed to pay. She took us out for Peking Duck to the very swish DaDong restaurant. It was another feast, where dishes kept arriving. The highlight was the Peking Duck though, which was carved at our table. I did a frantic sketch. Luckily it took him a good 5 minutes:

Thanks again to Flora and to everyone who was so kind and looked after us so well.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Food and Foot Massages!

As I mentioned, Julia and I were looked after very well during our trip by the various schools. It was the librarians at each school, rather than the teachers or heads, who had organised the trip with us, and so it was them who shepherded us around during school hours. It was also the librarians who made sure we were fed in the evenings. Some nights we were left to our own devices: a rather haphazard and random business, but surprisingly successful on the whole. Mostly though, we were either invited into people's homes for dinner, or taken out for a meal.

Two memorable evenings revolved around dumplings. One, towards the end of our stay with Sally from Beijing City International School, was the dumpling restaurant of chef Kenneth Hom.

We went out with her family and with the owner of Obido, the bookseller for the trip. The food was really lovely. What made the evening even more memorable was the way the team of dumpling makers were visible from outside the restaurant, through a plate glass wall. Sally's daughter Annabel was keen on drawing, so I thought it would inspire her if I drew the dumpling makers before we went in to eat.

People started to stop and look as usual. Then someone must have mentioned it inside, because the manager came out of the restaurant. He took a photo of me posed with the drawing in front of the restaurant then gave us a free dessert after our meal!

On another occasion, Becs from Beijing International Bilingual School invited Julia and I to her parent's home for dinner. Their Chinese home help was a dumpling making expert and enjoyed showing visitors how to do it. Again, all the family were there and we sat around a big dining table with lots of flour and pre-rolled dough. It looked easy, in the way these things do when they are not in your hands! We had mini rolling-pins, which we used to turn blobs of dough the size of chestnuts into flat disks, rolling and twisting, rolling and twisting. Mine were never exactly round. Julia was more adept. Then, after a pinch of filling in the centre, there was a nifty technique for pinching it together which, if you were lucky, looked not unlike a miniature Cornish pasty.

Everybody sat together making them until we had enough for a batch, then they were whisked away for steaming and brought back for us to gobble down. Delicious!

The other thing which made that evening unforgettable happened after dinner. Karen, Becs's mum, found out that neither of us had experienced a Chinese foot massage. 'Right!' she said and came back a couple of minutes later, having booked us in for one, that very evening! It got even more strange and interesting: Karen owned her own tuctuc, so at 8 o'clock, Julia and I climbed into the back and Karen whisked us away.

It was fabulous. the three of us sat together chatting in a small room on comfy chairs, while 3 young women gave us first a shoulder massage, while our feet soaked, then a foot massage that felt like it lasted nearly an hour. And all Karen's treat. What a lovely, generous lady! 

Monday, 17 October 2016

Exploring a Hutong with my Sketchbook

The second Saturday that I met up with Urban Sketchers Beijing, Melissa joined us and Julia came along too, to meet people and explore a Hutong with us. The Hutong are the old, traditional areas of the city which have not yet been torn down to build huge, glass skyscrapers, wide, multi-laned roads or flashy shopping centres. There are not many left.

We warmed to the Hutong immediately. The people there were clearly living in very difficult, cramped and basic conditions, in places quite shocking to our eyes, but there was a tangible feeling of community. Everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming, especially once we settled down to sketch.

The area we visited was, a very long time ago, a high-class, red light district. The house many of us painted first was once the home of a top call girl of the time, where she would entertain clients, to play music, discuss philosophy etc. Now families lived inside, in barely habitable, squatters conditions. Nevertheless, one man who lived there was still very proud of the grand entrance with it's lovely brass lion door handles and was pleased we were drawing them.

Children came to look and giggled when I drew them into my picture. It was all very sociable and drawing once again created a brief but magical bridge between us.

We moved further up the street, where I found a lady rolling out dough in her shop. It turned out she was making noodles. I got just one of her arms drawn and she finished. When she came out to meet us with her daughter on her arm, I asked if I could sketch her and drew over the top of the stray arm. Her daughter was shy though.

A man was making and selling dumplings for lunch. He was so adept, his fingers moved like lightning, but I did my best to draw each stage of the procedure.

Then Julia and I scoffed one each. They were absolutely delicious. Julia said they were the best dumplings we had the whole trip. Mine was full of spinach, egg and herbs. Julia's was chopped greens and lots of herbs.

Julia wandered around, taking photos (many of the ones here are hers), which was great as I never have time to take pictures when I'm sketching. We met up at this lady's shop. It was so colourful with all her wares out front, and with her sitting on a little stool, eating nuts, it was perfect.

It was very peaceful away from the constant traffic of the modern city. There was even bird song. Then we noticed the bird's cheeping was singing a tune, one we recognised but couldn't quite identify. Rather odd. Then it swapped to another song. We realised the bird was a plastic parrot on the woman's stall! It was such a naff item, Julia had to have it and. after very unsuccessful negotiations, ended up paying daft money for it. Worth it for a funny memory though.

Mid-afternoon, we finished by all sketching together inside the building which had once been the actual brothel.

It is now a hostel, fitted out with bunkbeds and with stray cats wandering through. Despite huge piles of used laundry on the floor here and there, it was very easy to imagine the building's other life, with beautiful ladies peering over the balconies and clients disappearing into the many doors.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Urban Sketchers Beijing

The lovely thing about Urban Sketchers is that they are everywhere. I wasn't sure about China though, given they are so cut off from our social media. But it turns out there is indeed a very healthy Beijing chapter, run by Flora Wang. I managed to hook up with them and we went out sketching together on two different Saturdays while I was in Beijing.

Our first meet-up was at another park. About 20 of us sketched together in the delicate sunshine (it was being diffused by rather a lot of pollution in the air, but that's another story).

The Chinese parks are beautifully laid out and kept spotlessly clean. I sketched two views from more or less the same spot, first in watercolour, then in my Koh-I-Noor 'magic' pencil: 

Then I spotted sketcher, Peggy Wong, in front of me with an extremely cute, baby bunny in the crook of her arm. After I had stroked it's unfeasibly smooth head, I had to try and capture the memory in my book:

Pi Pi turned out to be the pet bunny of this little girl. It was REALLY tiny. She carried it around in this cute rabbit-cage handbag. It seemed perfectly happy in there.

A bit later, on my way to try and find the loo, I chanced upon a small group practising a kind of Tai Chi. They were moving slowly, turning circles on the spot but twisting in dance-like actions.

Then it was time for lunch. We all went to a café together and, after we had eaten, they asked me to talk to them a bit about my work and my sketch kit. Flora translated very patiently for the rest, who mostly didn't speak much English.

Then they took me to a massive art materials shop (where you could buy all our brands from home). After hearing my usually enthusiasm about Inktense pencils, a couple of people bought sets.

After the others had headed off, I went back to the park on my own, where I rounded off the day with a lovely encounter. I spotted a painting lesson going on under the trees, with lots of kids at easels.

It amused me to paint the painting and, of course, I was eventually spotted by the art teacher. She spoke no English, but we did lots of smiling and exchanged websites. Then we took this photo together:

What a lovely sociable day!

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Chinese Calligraphy Lesson

I had a fabulous couple of days with the children at the Beijing International Bilingual Academy. While Julia worked with the younger kids, I spent my time with the slightly older ones, running illustration workshops. It was pretty hard work, because every moment when we weren't either working or eating lunch, we were signing books for the children. Not that either of us would ever complain about that - it's GREAT to sign books and see the children so excited to be taking them home.

I did have one gap in my timetable though, after lunch on day one, I had a free 40 minutes. I probably should have crashed out for a while, but instead I had a free calligraphy lesson. Well: far too good an opportunity to miss.

It was the result of a chance remark to Stoyana, the truly lovely librarian who organised our visit to the school. As we headed upstairs together, on the way to my first workshop, I saw some beautiful Chinese calligraphy on the wall. 'I'd love to have a go at that one day...' I idly remarked. 'Well, you can do it today if you like,' said Stoyana. Within a few hours, I was at a desk, feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland, the only big person in a classroom of little people.

The teacher spoke no English at all and, since my Mandarin is limited to 'hello', 'thank you' and 'do you have beer?', I worked out what to do by following the example of the children around me. Mostly the teacher demonstrated, with the use of a visualiser, drawing one character at a time for the children to copy. I found it extremely relaxing, carefully imitating his hand-strokes, taking each stroke in the right order and feeling the rhythm and weight of the marks. It was very similar to drawing in watercolour, being sensitive to the light and shade of the brush pressure, though it was tricky getting just the right amount of ink on the brush: too much and it easily bled into the tissue-fine paper.

The children all seemed to be impressed with my efforts. Nobody laughed, which was good, not even the teacher. You can see my first efforts, working down the right hand column, where the ink has bled, before I got the hang of how much I needed on the brush, but it gradually gets cleaner as I work towards the left side:

I so enjoyed it that I have bought myself some brushes and Chinese ink, so I can continue to play at home. Thank you Stoyana, for such an unexpected treat!