Monday, February 7, 2011

MiaoHui at the East Side Culture Club

Traditionally MiaoHui (庙会 or Temple Fairs) are an essential part of Chinese New Year. In Beijing, the most famous are ones at Di Tan (地坛, i.e., the Temple of Earth), at Tian Tan (天坛, i.e., the Temple of Heaven) and the Chang Dian Miaohui (厂甸庙会, which used to be at 琉璃厂, but was moved to 陶然亭 in 2009). Chang Dian is the oldest remaining Beijing traditional Miaohui. Here’s a list of Miaohuis in and around Beijing.

璃厂, LiuLi Chang, i.e., Glaze Factory, was the location of an old Ming dynasty factory for producing (what else?) ceramic tiles. But the cultured aspect of LiuLi Chang was endowed by the various cultured locals and visitors who came to the city for the Mandarin exam. In the Qing dynasty, a Normal School was established here. This school eventually became the Beijing Normal University High School. These days, those who are looking for wares for painting or writing (e.g., brushes, ink sticks and stones, paper, …) come here.

It was overcast on Saturday and so we decide to head to the East Side Culture Club (东城区文馆). We took the number 62 bus to 雍和宫 (YongHe Lama Temple). The size of the crowd there and at Di Tan (Temple of Earth) made me glad that we were not going to either of the two temples. From the Lama Temple, it was a pleasant 1.5 km walk through the hutongs next to 国子监 (the old imperial college) and 孔庙 (temple of Confucius).

On the first floor of the Culture Club, the main room was decked with hanging red stripes of paper with riddles written on them. A traditional part of New Year’s Miaohui, 灯谜, or lantern riddles, were so-called because the riddles used to be written on paper lanterns. Chinese riddles are typically a short phrase with a hint (for instance, the answer should be a four-word idiom; the answer should be the name of an actor and so on …). I walked around the room twice before coming up with the answers to the following two riddles 总把龄字写成令 (三字口语; i.e., the answer should be a three-word saying) and 痴情心病去 (二字社会称谓; two-word social title).

My wife helped me with a third involving a reference to the Three Kingdoms. And after the two of us answered one more, the staff told us to give others a chance. So we checked out the other rooms on the first floor. The room in the back was a children’s activity room, with a few inflated bumper rooms. In the front room, there was one person doing 说书 (traditional Chinese storytelling). There were also a few tables offering for sale various traditional Chinese trinkets, like figurines made from flour.

On the second floor, one of the main rooms was set up for people to play Chinese chess and Chinese checkers. The other room was devoted to arcade and fair games like the ones from American fairs.

The Kite Club and the Philatelic Club were on the third floor. We listened to the players at the Accordian Club before going to the 3:10 PM Shadow Puppet show.

Old man summons a gold axe for the girl (“Accio gold axe” for Harry Potter fans)

The Shadow Puppet show was about a peasant girl who lost her axe while crossing a bridge. An old man appeared and offered to get her axe for her. But she wouldn’t let the old man go under the bridge because it would be dangerous for the old man. The old man then offered her a silver axe and a gold axe in turn, but the girl refused both since neither was her own axe. So finally the old man summoned a frog to bring her fallen axe back to her. After the girl returned to the village, she told her landlord what happened. The landlord decided to return to the bridge the next day and try to get the silver and the gold axes from the old man. Sure enough, after the landlord tossed his axe under the bridge, the old man appeared and offered silver and gold axes. The landlord claimed both were his. The old man laughed and left, as the landlord slipped under the bridge to his death.

After we left the East Side Culture Club, we to a nearby 白魁老号, an old Beijing Muslim restaurant (now a chain), where we ordered their 葱爆羊肉 (to call it “lamb fried with scallions” would not do it justice) and some traditional Beijing sweets, including, IMHO, the best 糖火烧 in Beijing. (糖火烧, literally “sugar fire burn,” is an old Qing dynasty sweet made from sesame paste and flour. The ones at 白魁老号 are not only larger than others, but they are moist on the inside and a little crusty on the outside. Some of my US friends have had the chance to taste the smaller 糖火烧 from 稻香村.)

At the end of the day, in the quiet of the hutong, we saw one of the public toilet staff reading in the barely remaining daylight before she ended her shift.



Miscellany and Afterthoughts. The answers to the two lantern riddles were 老掉牙 and 知青.

 My wife and the 80 year old man who wrote most of the lantern riddles at the Club

On regular weekends there are other cultural activities at the East Side Culture Club. My wife and I like to go to the 相声俱乐部 on Saturdays. Beijing-style 相声 are two-man stand-up comedy acts that are very similar to Abbott and Costello.

A more literal translation of 东城区文化馆 would be East City District (东城区 or, in pinyin, DongCheng District) Culture Center (文化馆). But I wanted to work an ‘80s reference into the blog title.

After all, “I’m a man without conviction…”

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