All I knew about Foshan, China was the grisly YouTube video showing a two-year-old girl named Wang Yue, being run over by a van, and later a truck. Eighteen people walked by without helping, until an old woman dragged her limp body to the side of the road. I was one of 1.5 million viewers to watch this video, and with all the outrage, criticism, and moral searching, never dreamt that I would go to Foshan.

While living in Hong Kong, I volunteered to co-curate two wearable art exhibitions for the 8th International Shibori Symposium. Pieces from one of the exhibitions were included in a traveling exhibition to the Foshan Municipal Art Museum. Remembering the YouTube video, I wasn’t too keen on going to Foshan, but my colleagues challenged me to see beyond the video, and persuaded me to go along for the adventure.

The Foshan Municipal Art Museum is located inside an old, pagoda-roofed building, which is situated in a park. Directly across the courtyard is a martial arts museum filled with photographs of Ip Man, the mentor to Bruce Lee. Also in the park are Wong Fei Hong’s school turned into a memorial museum, (complete with video clips and photographs of all the Wong Fei Hong films), a renovated temple sporting the famous Shiwan ceramic roof decorations, and a Cantonese opera stage.

I found out that Cantonese opera originated in Foshan, and then remembered that I had read in Jonathan Spence’s book, “God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuguan,” that the Qing dynasty actor, Lie Wenmao had led some of the Cantonese opera actors, wearing their opera costumes, and using their martial arts skills to fight the Manchus in the Taiping Rebellion. After much bloodshed, their revolt was crushed by the Qing army, and consequently, Cantonese opera was banned for a number of years. Some historians have posited that the Taiping Rebellion was the precursor to Mao’s Long March.

John J. Reilly in his review of “God’s Chinese Son,” wrote: “In outline, at least, the history of the Taiping resembles the history of the Third Reich in its melodramatic simplicity. A prophet of humble birth had a vision. After a time of confusion and war, he formed a little cult. At first obscure, the cult suddenly became a crusading army, the Kingdom of Heaven on the march. In a few years they seized the second city of the empire and continued to expand militarily even as they established the divine order on earth. The millennium turned out to be a nightmare, however, a totalitarian state racked by bloody purges. As his competent ministers died or fled, the prophet increasingly lost touch with reality. When he died, isolated in his palace during the final siege of his capital by the resurgent forces of the old order, the Kingdom of Heaven collapsed. In China and in Europe, the drama took just over half a generation to enact.”

Nan Feng Kiln.  Photo credit: Lydia Tanji.
Nan Feng Kiln. Photo credit: Lydia Tanji.

The day after the opening reception at the Foshan Municipal Art Museum, our hosts took us to the Cantonese Opera Museum, which is also housed in a beautifully renovated old building. To my amazement, I recognized eight photographs of Cantonese opera productions in San Francisco, taken by the May’s Studio in the 1920s. My dear friend, Wylie Wong, originally from Seattle, had saved 700 Mays’ Studio photographs from a dumpster in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Since 1978, he has worked hard to show them in exhibitions and donated many of the photographs to the Museum of Performing Arts in San Francisco.

Our Foshan hosts then took us to see the Nan Feng Kiln, the oldest dragon kiln in China. The kiln is a scaly, sprawling structure that creeps up a hill, topped by a tall brick smoke stack, and festooned with decorative flags. There are actually two kilns, side by side, with a Disneyland-like staircase and pagoda in between them.

An old village is being renovated next to the kiln, and the Shiwan Ceramics Museum which traces back to the Neolithic period (10,000-2000 B.C.) the history of pottery in Shiwan, a village just south of Foshan. It features small replicas of various odd-shaped kilns and beautiful examples of the different types of ceramics. Shiwan ceramics are distinctive for the realism depicted in human and animal figurines, which incorporates many colored glazes.

There are numerous warehouses selling ceramics of all shapes and sizes: some beautiful and some grotesque and kitschy. A few minutes walk away is a lake with a towering ceramic sculpture of a goddess in the middle, and old industrial buildings being renovated into art galleries, restaurants, and shops. A huge collection of old porcelain toilet bowls are cemented to the side of a building with water cascading erratically over the bowls. It exemplifies the mix of old and new art and culture in Foshan, and is an interesting contrast to the kitschy malls and hotels that have sprung up around the city.

Foshan is also known as a center of Cantonese cuisine. In our opening reception banquet, we devoured a wonderful dish of barley, hidden beneath layers of sautéed oysters and abalone, and ringed with baby choi sum. Another favorite was a steamer basket filled with buns called manggong (Blind Man) cakes. Originally it was created by a blind man and the name stuck for over one hundred years. The ingredients are rice flour, with sugar, peanuts, sesame, pork, and oil, resulting in a savory, sweet, and chewy delight. Foshan cuisine is known for many other delicacies, but in our two meals there, we were barely able to scratch the surface. However, I am glad to have missed the fried silk worms, goose webs, and other exotic meats.

All in all, I must admit that the people of Foshan whom we met were all very considerate, and not at all what I’d expected. The only downside for me was the rude discovery that outside our hotel, western toilets are not the norm. Aside from that, the many tree-lined streets, the combination of ancient and modern architecture, and the range of art and culture made Foshan an extremely enjoyable and worthwhile destination.

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