Dragon Boats & Installation Art

Last week we had Thursday and Friday off work for the Dragon Boat Festival; When I asked my colleagues what the traditional customs were for this holiday, I was surprised that no-one mentioned dragon boat racing! They mainly talked about family dinners, spending time with their children and eating zongzi’ – sticky rice dumplings filled with meat or beans and wrapped into a triangle shape with bamboo leaves, which are held in place with brightly coloured string. We’ve not tried these yet, but as Matt’s work has given us a large box of them, I’m sure he will write a food-blog when we do!


The Dragon Boat Festival occurs annually on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese lunar calendar and commemorates the life and death of Qu Yuan, a famous scholar and poet who lived in the Zhou dynasty (300BC) and drowned himself after falling out of favour with the Emperor. Legend says that the local villagers admired Qu Yuan, and raced out to the river in dragon boats to try to save him. When this failed, they threw lumps of rice in the river to stop the fish eating his body – nice! I should mention, no-one told us any of this… I had to research it online. This contradicted our experience of China so far, as we’ve grown used to almost everything having a meaning that people readily explain to us (peoples’ names, the shapes of buildings and so on) but this same principle wasn’t applied to the Dragon Boat Festival –

Matt and I didn’t see much evidence of festivities in the City, so we decided to commemorate Qu Yuan in our own way… by having brunch with new friends (thanks to Rita and Ada for providing us with great company and conversation!), and visiting the Olafur Eliasson exhibition ‘Nothingness is not nothing at all’ at Shanghai’s Long Museum on the West Bund.

This concrete structure was outside the museum entrance… not sure what it was?!

Eliasson’s work explores the constructs of time, space, colour and light using optical devices such as lenses, mirrors and glass spheres, with the intent to distort your visual perception and make you think twice about what you see. Matt described it as a cross between an art gallery and a science museum, which I agreed with, and the interactive element to the art made for a fun way to spend a couple of hours (it helped that the vast concrete gallery was air conditioned and provided an escape from the oppressive 30 degree humid smog outside!)

I took a few photos while we were there…

My favourite piece was ‘Happiness’ (still shot below); you walk down a pitch-black corridor, elbow through a gaggle of i-phones and D-SLRs, and look through a horizontal cut-away in the wall at eye level. The space beyond the opening is deep navy blue with fluorescent water on the lower surface, lit by ultraviolet light. From above, huge soap-bubbles float down and bounce on the liquid floor before settling or colliding with the other spheres; You can get a better idea from Eliasson’s website.

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Happiness, 2011
Happiness, 2011

The below I have called: Matt yellow (2016) and Matt multiplied (2016)


This was another favourite:

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Bridge from the future, 2014

The final three are (from L to R) dark rooms containing:

  1.  a camera obscura depicting a scene from outside the museum;
  2. an interactive piece whereby a fine haze of water dissects the room (we watched one person after another pose for a picture in the drizzle; some were pro’s!)
  3. a bright spotlight behind a number of circles hung from the ceiling by wire, which created silhouettes on the opposite wall


If you’re interested, Olafur Eliasson recorded a TED talk in 2009 called ‘Playing with Space and Light’. It’s a little bit pretentious, although I can appreciate his central point which (I think) is that we should be more involved in the world around us as opposed to viewing it as a static picture. His art certainly provides an excellent backdrop for people watching: my all-time favourite hobby.

Happy Dragon Boat day!


Spoiler alert

I love watching films. They’re one of my favourite ways to spend a couple of hours. One of the main problems I have with long haul flights is that I don’t see them as a chance to sleep; I see them as a biannual opportunity to watch 6 films back to back.

As a result one of the elements of UK life I was more concerned about missing was satellite TV, the internet and regular DVD sales at closing down high street entertainment stores.

One major bonus about where we live in China is that nearby there are a couple of DVD and music shops. These are a little different to the DVD shops you get in the UK because, well, let’s just say the anti-piracy ads you get at the start of DVDs may not have translated all that well.

Sufficed to say I’ve not been found wanting for movies to pass the evening with.

Anyway, I bought a film the other day: 10 Cloverfield Lane. I’d seen a trailer for it wherein a girl looked to have been kept in a basement by a guy who claimed that he was keeping her in there for her protection as there’d been a terrible attack outside. The trailer set up an intriguing premise about whether this was true or not, and whether she was being kept prisoner.

I suggested we watch it but Emma, who doesn’t especially like any films or TV featuring captivity, asked what it was about. I read off the back of the DVD pack (spoiler alert):

“Following an argument with her fiancee Ben, Michelle leaves New Orleans and drives through rural Louisiana. Late at night, she turns on the radio only to hear that there were continuous blackouts in major cities. Distracted by a call from Ben, Michelle gets into an accident and is rendered unconscious. She wakes up in a concrete room chained to a wall, and is approached by a man named Howard, who explains that an unknown attack has taken place and that he brought her to his bunker after finding her on the side of the road. Michelle meets Emmett, another survivor who witnessed the attack and fled to Howard’s bunker. During dinner, an unconvinced Michelle steals Howard’s keys and tries to escape, but discovers Leslie, a woman suffering from severe skin lesions, begging to get into the bunker. When Leslie dies, Michelle realises Howard was right and stays.”

Emma: “Isn’t that the entire plot of them film?”

Me: “….. Yes, actually I think it is. Even the twist. Bollocks”

In creating the fake DVD case, they’d obviously just taken the plot description from some local equivalent of Wikipedia. I know it’s partly my own fault for not buying the genuine article, but I’ve not actually seen any genuine DVD shops yet! In any event, I thought that rather than watching a film that I no longer needed to bother watching, it might be fun to

The local cinema attendance figures have been slowly on the wane since they started revealing the endings to films in their trailers.

imagine what the backs of some of the other films in that store might have said. Spoilers will follow.

  • “Bruce Willis is a ghost who used to be a child Psychologist. He keeps encountering a little boy who can see dead people. Occasionally he gets cold but no-one knows why and then are several strange happenings happen. Later, his wife tries to talk to him but she can’t, because he is dead.”
  • “Ellen Ripley is working on a spaceship. One day while exploring a planet, one of her friends gets attacked by an alien which plants an egg in his stomach. Later, the egg turns into a monster and bursts out of him. It chases and kills everyone on board, except Ripley, Ash, who is a robot so can’t die, and a cat. Ripley escapes onto a smaller ship but so does the alien. Fortunately she survives by ejecting it into space.”

My good friend Alex Hume suggested:

  • “It’s a film about a rag-tag bunch of criminals who attempt a heist on a boat. The plot is narrated by a limping Kevin Spacey, who is really leading villain Kaiser Soze, but he makes a story up to a policeman in his office using his belongings for inspiration, so you don’t find that out until the end.”

Please feel free to add some in the comments section (try not to blow the plots of recent movies!!)

Wet Wet Water Town

After spending the first couple of weeks in Shanghai getting ourselves up-and-running, last Saturday was our first opportunity to leave the city and explore ‘Zhouzhuang’ (周庄水乡); one of China’s ancient water towns.

We and two friends from work had been invited to visit Zhouzhuang by Emily, a Chinese colleague whose father had been born in the town. The weather was delightfully ironic for a watertown visit – relentless torrential downpour – but we gratefully accepted the blue plastic macs that Emily had brought for us and carried on 🙂

Entering the town through a wooden gateway, stone-cobbled streets weave you past small open-fronted shops which sell hand-made souvenirs made from traditional methods such as bamboo-weaving and silk-spinning. These ladies making small silk shoes were my favourite, and put a less commercial lens on ‘Made in China’

Canals and waterways divide the old buildings and are criss-crossed by stone bridges. Arriving at lunchtime, we dripped and sloshed our way into one of the restaurants and let Emily order for us. One of the traditional foods in this area is slow-cooked pork knuckle in a sweet sauce, which we all devoured. Apparently this is typically served as a wedding food in the area (there were at least a dozen stalls selling these, so you could often pick up the pungency of braising pork while walking through the town) Less popular were the river snails… but Matt and Austin gave it a good go; washed down with some local beers of course!

Zhouzhuang has about 1,000 households living in old dwellings that were built in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties and the early Republic of China. Emily had kindly arranged a guide to show us around some of the old houses and explain the cultural significance of the architecture. Stepping over a wooden doorframe about 10 inches high told us that the house was owned by a rich person, or an important government figure (less rich or important people had lower doorframes). The rooms led one to another, with stone floors and wooden walls, and were furnished with beautifully carved angular hardwood furniture from the respective dynasties. In the ‘women’s room’ (there were separate spaces for men and women, with marble screens to divide them), some of the chairs had backs and others were backless; our guide explained that the backless chairs were for unmarried women, as the husband represented the backbone! Despite the throngs of tourists with brightly coloured macs and brollys, the houses were themselves tranquil and calm, with beautiful courtyards which backed onto the waterway system.


My favourite part of the day was the boat ride, again arranged in advance by Emily. We climbed aboard and were steered through the canals, under bridges and past beautiful old crumbling buildings.


Matt and I had the obligatory “we were here” photo in our attractive macs beside the twin Shide and Yong’an stone bridges (‘The Twin Bridges’), which were built between 1573 and 1619 in the Ming dynasty. Each bridge has one square and one round opening that look like ancient keys, so they are also known as the Key Bridges.

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Glossy blue tourist uniforms.

Then we headed back to the car. And the rain stopped!