Canton Eyes Guangzhou China – Culture Musings, Architecture Oddities, Urban Design

8Sep/105

I’m a Hollywood star!

up in the air 1

Foreigners living in China can easily land one-day gigs acting for commercials and other productions.  Earlier this year, I put on an ill fitting tuxedo, was made-up, and "welcomed" people to an expensive high rise apartment at their extravagant opening day party.  For this, I was paid the average factory worker's monthly wage.  Knowing that makes me feel guilty, but not guilty enough to reject the money.  Actually it's not much money if I exchange it to dollars. And that is the normal rate for doing that kind of work, as dictated by scarcity of supply and strength of demand.

Last month, I spent a morning along the sea wall in Zhuhai pretending to be a foreign good-Samaritan who helps a stricken fisherman, while all the Chinese bystanders stand around him doing nothing.  I walked up and knelt down to place an unknown medical device on his chest.  Then he sat up and vigorously thanked me, and I said "you're welcome" in Chinese.  A German guy was hired to wear a white lab coat and hold the device while speaking medical jargon into the camera.  The device seemed to be just a little plastic disk with a blinking red light and a switch.

people playing bystanders surround a man playing a fisherman in Zhuhai

The whole concept was curious.   Why do the "white" guys get to save the day and play doctor in the Chinese commercial?  Neither of us are health care professionals, or even real actors. My impression is that the people who produce these commercials assume that using foreigners provides them some amount of credibility and "prestige". I later felt some regret that some people may interpret my appearance as an endorsement, as if my relatively pale skin color represents knowledge and experience.   Perhaps the device is real and useful.  But, I suspect my appearance was being used to deceive people.

You can see that doing commercials in China makes me a bit guilty.  But I've just got news that I'm an actual Hollywood star!  No more China commercials for me, I've hit the big time.

There is George Clooney from the 2009 film "Up in the Air" (Chinese names: 在云端,型男飛行日誌 ).  Where am I?  In the carpet!

In my last job as an architect back in the states, I was responsible for design when that same apartment building was renovated a few years ago.  I chose that rich orange color for the carpet and doors, among other things.  What do you think of the colors?

Now, if I can just figure out a way to build my new career on this...

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28Jul/101

3 provinces in 3 hours: the CRH

A second-class ticket costs 490 yuan.  A first-class ticket is 300 yuan more, and for the extra money you are privilege to a wider seat plus free juice and snacks.  Whichever you chose, the experience of riding the new high speed rail in southern China is remarkable.  As the train speeds through the countryside at 350 kpm, you can watch geography and architecture changing in a matter of minutes.  The line crosses 3 provinces, over 6 degrees of latitude, going from temperate central Wuhan to subtropical southern Guangzhou, all in 3 hours.  (Not all trains make the journey in 3 hours.  Most take 4 hours and stop at the intermediate stations along the way.  I took train #G1003 from Wuhan at 3pm sharp, which is an express train)

Leaving Wuhan, the terrain is defined by the small rolling hills covered in short brush.  This is Hubei province.  The flat bed of the railway is carved out out of the landscape, leaving your eyes to follow the embankments up and down like waves.  When you're above the waves, you can see far into the distance.  There are few tall trees between the fields, where many different crops are being grown, creating a patchwork of varied shades of green.  Buildings are spread across each farm, and most of them are simple two story buildings with sloped tile roofs:

Very suddenly, it seems, the scenery turns a bright, verdant green as you enter the fertile land of Hunan province.  It's notable for wide, flat valleys with large mountains off in the distance.  Buildings are similar to before, but seem more clustered together in villages.  Between the fields, which seem to grow just rice, there are many tall trees.  (at the end of this video, the train passes through one of the outdoor intermediate stations, at full speed):

A couple hours in, the buildings are taller, made of concrete, with flat roofs.  The ride starts to seem a lot like a subway as the train tunnels through the mountains in the north of Guangdong province.  At times, the train emerges from one tunnel, speeds through a valley for a few seconds, and back into another tunnel.  In the valley, you may get a blurry glance of an old house not far from the tracks.  For perhaps dozens of generations, that house was quietly isolated in it's own little valley in rural China.  Now it's neighbor is the fastest rail line in the world.  Then you emerge into another valley within view of a small village.  It's entirely possible that people from those two places spoke different dialects in the recent past, so isolated by a great mountain.  Now you travel between them in 10 seconds:

When I showed these videos to some students, they could immediately tell which province each was taken in.  I was pretty impressed.

Anyone taken the Wu-Guang high speed train yet?  What were your impressions of the experience?

2Jul/100

Guangdong Provincial Museum

irregular openings colored red on the grey exterior intrigue the viewer to come closer

I made my first trip to the new Guangdong Provincial Museum on Tuesday, June 29. It won't be my last visit. It's in the middle of the new planned CBD, Zhujiang New Town, next to the Opera House, with a nice view of the river, and the new TV tower across.  This prominent location of the museum for China's most populous province shows both the importance of the museum and the prominent place ZJNT is destined to have in the province. The architect was Rocco Design Architects from Hong Kong.

The official metaphor for the building is a Chinese lacquer box. From afar, it's most notable exterior feature is irregular rectangular cutouts. The inside of the cuts are a bright Chinese red and the building cladding is a dull dark gray, creating an intriguing look that demands the viewer to investigate. The form is such a monolith, with so little information about what's inside, that you have to be forgiven for not noticing that the building is oriented away from the street and towards the central axis. From there is a sweeping grass ramp that rises up to the structure's pedestal. For now, that means most people are entering from the rear.  Make sure you walk down to the axis to see how the building connects with its site.

As I walked up to the pedestal under the building, my first impression was amazement at the tremendous cantilever hovering above.  It seems very simple but a lot of work went into creating that illusion. It's made possible by a huge truss that takes up the entire 6th floor.  Structurally, the building's walls and floors are actually hanging from the roof.  Not to be missed, there is an exhibit on the second floor about the building's design, where you can view a video illustrating the process of building that truss next to the building and sliding it into place on tracks.

Now that you're inside, remember those irregular cutouts? Turns out that they are small window alcoves between the exhibits that make nice places to look out at the views of the city.  When I visited, visitors were very enthusiastic to look out these at the newly unveiled views.  They also bring natural light into the spaces between exhibits.

From inside, the exterior concept is mostly not evident.  Instead, the organizing principle is a center atrium.  Around the atrium are a few layers of punched and folded aluminum panel suspended between roof and floor, resulting in different levels of transparency in places.  The panel breaks up the space of the atrium, allowing you to see through the building but never get overwhelmed by its scale.

The building's design is certainly ambitious, but unfortunately it's plagued by some sloppy finish work.  The wood floor was scratched badly throughout the building, though the building had been open for about a month when I visited.  And there were too many random little boxes built out of the floor or wall, evidence of poor integration of structure with mechanical systems.  Another problem is that there is a lot of wasted space, especially high up around the atrium, large areas that aren't part of circulation and don't have something like a nice view that could make them usable public space.

Ultimately though, any museum will succeed or fail on the quality of the exhibits.  By that account, the museum is very good.  Some of the highlights:  a beautiful collection of traditional wood carving, thorough exhibits of the province's history during the Republic of China period, and an exhaustive display of preserved specimens of Guangdong's varied plant life.  The presentation is superb, and almost all displays include English translations.

To get there, take metro line 3 to Zhujiang New Town station, exit B1.  From there, it's about a 10 minute walk south towards the river and around the opera house.  Admission is free, but you must show some ID to get your free ticket.