Postcards from Chengdu 

A statue of Chairman Mao Zedong looks over Tianfu Square, in the center of Chengdu.

A statue of Chairman Mao Zedong looks over Tianfu Square, in the center of Chengdu.

Chendgu is the provincial capital of Sichuan province, which is known for its spicy food.

Chendgu is the provincial capital of Sichuan province, which is known throughout the world for its spicy food.

Chengdu is well know for its street food. Here, a vendor sells snacks at a restaurant on Jinli Pedestrian Street, a popular tourist site.

A vendor sells snacks at a restaurant on Jinli Pedestrian Street, a popular tourist area.

The entrance to a temple fair, held to celebrate Chinese New Year.  2015 is the Year of the Sheep.

The entrance to a temple fair, held to celebrate Chinese New Year. 2015 is the Year of the Sheep.

Vendors from western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region sell lamb skewers at the temple fair.

Vendors from western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region sell lamb skewers at the temple fair.

The city at night. With 14 million people, Chengdu is the largest city in Sichuan province.

With 14 million people, Chengdu is the largest city in Sichuan province.

The panda is the national animal of China, and there’s no shortage of shops in Chengdu selling stuffed toys, T-shirts and coffee mugs featuring the animal.

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A silver anniversary China wants to forget

Last week, I stayed at the Raffles Beijing Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in the Chinese capital. Built in 1917 on Chang’an Avenue, it has been a part of some of the most significant moments in modern Chinese history.

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, a banquet to celebrate the occasion was held at the hotel, and Chairman Mao Zedong danced in the lobby. Forty years later, in the spring of 1989, the hotel served as the base for many foreign journalists covering the student protests in Tiananmen Square.

The view from my access-restricted balcony at Raffles Beijing Hotel.

The view from my balcony at Raffles Beijing Hotel.

I could see the square from my sixth-floor room, but the door to the balcony, where better views could be had, was locked. A letter from hotel management said “the hotel has received notice from the Public Security Bureau that there will be activities held along Chang’an Avenue.

“Therefore enhanced security measures will be put in place by the Chinese government, which are beyond the control of Raffles Beijing Hotel. From Tuesday, May 20th to Friday, June 6, 2014 we are obligated to lock windows and balconies facing Chang’an Avenue.”

I’m not aware of any “activities” planned during that time period, but June 4 marks the 25th anniversary of the government crackdown on the student protests. Each year, authorities step up security ahead of the anniversary and references to it are blocked online on the Chinese mainland.

The letter from the hotel.

The letter from the hotel.

Sometimes what’s old deserves to stay up

A 1,300-year-old town I visited last summer in southwestern China’s Yunnan province was razed by a fire on Saturday.

According to CNN, the fire raged for more than 10 hours, destroying two-thirds of the 240 houses in the town of Dukezong. No casualties were reported.

The narrow, cobblestone streets that gave the ancient Tibetan town part of its charm made it difficult for firetrucks to maneuver. Arson has been ruled out, according to the report, but an investigation into the fire is ongoing.

The ancient town of Dukezong, as it looked in June when I visited.

The ancient town of Dukezong, as it looked in June when I visited.

The town’s well-preserved wooden houses are the latest in a long line of historically significant Chinese structures to disappear, many at the hands of man. Continue reading

North Korea’s Kim: Too sexy to be true?

The death of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il last December set off a period of mourning unlike anything I had ever seen.

The footage broadcast by the country’s state-run media showed tens of thousands of people in the capital Pyongyang, weeping and buckling over in grief. Women fainted, and even grown men sobbed uncontrollably. A New Year editorial published by the North’s leading newspapers called Kim’s death “the greatest loss our nation had suffered in its 5,000-year-long history and the bitterest grief our Party and people had experienced … The tears our service personnel and people shed with greatest sorrow were tears of the unity, unaffected and crystal-clear, and tears of their firm determination to follow the Party to the end of the earth.”

A few days after Kim’s death, I met with my Chinese teacher Cathy for our twice-a-week language lesson. Cathy is in her mid-40s and has lived in Beijing her entire life. Some days we choose a topic to discuss, and on this day we decided to talk about international news.

“What do you think about Kim Jong-il’s death?” I asked. Continue reading