Make no mistake, China has sprouted all manner of buildings in the past decade, from temporary earthquake shelter to iconic Bird’s Nest. By dictate of Pareto Principle, twenty percent of them are breathtaking, and another twenty eyesores. But we’re interested in giving you a look at quotidian Chinese architecture, the kind you see when you’re nowhere special. It’s not necessarily pretty, but it says a lot about public life here.
Much more prevalent, however, is this sort of town-level government building. The rockery in front is a hallmark, simultaneously evoking China’s classic past and imparting a sense of space and grandeur. All negated, unfortunately, by the dingy tile covering the actual building. Such tile mars structures across the Middle Kingdom, to such a degree that one pines for an explanation, only to be fobbed off with “it’s easier to clean”. Indeed. Sidney Rittenberg himself has yet to see anyone hosing down the side of a building, tiled or no. Guess we’ll know the reason for the tile when we finally discover why the rice comes last.
Pretty quaint cop-shop to get hauled into, eh? Actually, a traditional Chinese courtyard makes a perfect police station, already walled in against prying eyes, and acoustically muffled against big ears. The poor insulation and generally primitive privies of the siheyuan make it rough on the police who work there day-to-day, especially in the winter. One thing that keeps the expats here – unless you’re registering a change of address, you are almost guaranteed not to have to see the inside of such places. You’re more likely to see tiles getting scrubbed than to witness a violent crime, let alone suffer one.
Did we mention the tile? This 8-bit rendered cube has clones all over China, ostensibly serving the same quasi-governmental role alluded to on the entrance pillars. The superfluous second-story doors are certainly something to ponder, as is the superfluous bristling gate. Surely the sheer rhomboidal excess of the place should drive away all but the most rabid Atari 2600 fans.
For the very best in ancient Chinese architecture, look to a recently recreated temple. Like the “antiques” on Tourist Street, it’s all a little too clean and whole to be authentic, but everything’s there, and faithfully copied, from the mountain gate to the grand hall. Besides, like the big fancy Episcopalian churches back home, this place isn’t so much for worship as for driving collections.
Now this, folks, this is a place of worship. Such humble neighborhood temples are where the commoners go to ask for blessings. No gates, no tickets, and no monks writing your name down for a 500-kuai donation. Incidentally, most everything about this structure is older than the temple above it, from the glazed brick to the twin dragons fighting over the pearl – salvaged from a temple older still.
Unless you read Mandarin, you’ll need more than a little luck guessing what this place is. Hint: you can wash away your sins here. No, it’s not another temple; it’s a bathhouse. Tier-1 cities in China are chock-a-block with bathhouses more akin to grand hotels, boasting grottoes, buffets, and 3-inch carpeting. Go up into the reaches of Dongbei, though, and you’ll find that hot water piped in fast and furious is a luxury in its own right, never mind the abandoned chicken farm exterior.
During the drab days of planned economy, the gong xiao she, “supply and sales society”, was the epicenter of commercial activity, whether you wanted streamers for your Flying Pigeon spokes or the latest edition of Mao’s Little Red Book. Today, a Chinese consumer is never more than a healthy bus ride from at least a fair imitation of a mega-mall, leaving these ubiquitous relics of a simpler time to be repurposed, over and over.
Gadzooks, it’s like putting anchovy frosting on a chocolate cake! Considering the blow-down shanties that so many country kids have to learn in, a Chinese child would be proud to attend such an august looking school: tree-lined, plenty of windows, and battlement-styled mini-balconies to sing the alma mater song from. But those blasted tiles! Could we at least paint them something other than air-pollution-beige? An academic green, perhaps?
Or perhaps the cheery, fortune-bringing power of China’s favorite color combo, red and yellow? Restaurants that lack the resources for giant neon animals must at least invest in an out-sized plasterboard façade, lest the public assume they’re not even trying to be pretentious. Sure, there will still be chopstick wrappers stuck to the floor, but people will be too dazzled by the external brightness to mind the internal mess. Oh, the Santa Clauses on the doors? He’s the western Buddha – eternally jolly, showering gifts on the nice.
OK, so we’ve stumbled away from the “public building”, in theory. In practice, however, no institution serves the people like the xiaomaibu, the Chinese convenience store. No franchise prices, no frills, just a plethora of the essentials: cold beer, cigs, instant noodles, cured meats in variety to shame an Italian, crisps in variety to shame an American. Triple-A batteries, dish soap, nail clippers, tooth brushes, we could go on and on and on, but we’ll end here with the sweetest plum; if they’re in shouting distance, they’ll deliver. Try calling your neighborhood 7-11 and asking for delivery. Whatsamatter, never been cursed out in Urdu?
How about the classic pre-Republic retail space? Raised at least two steps above the horse and dromedary filth of the street, such shops were dark, cramped, and fire-prone. Today, they’re ideal – for those in the antique business.
Finally, the most elegant, practical solution for shopping, the transparent-domed airplane hangar. Bringing the outdoor market inside keeps prices down and the common folk empowered. This Muslim meat hangar no doubt poses an intense olfactory experience, but any carnivore who’s not a hypocrite should be forced to take a stroll through one. A pass through a flower hangar, on the other hand, will leave you on clouds for hours afterwards.