The second half of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s art tour of China featured stops at stunning historical sites, including the Summer Palace, where colorful dragon boats ferry tourists around a pagoda-dotted lake.
MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART SAN DIEGO VISITS CHINA – Part II
BEIJING—I was thrilled be part of the first trip to China with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s (MCASD) Collectors Circle. The trip introduced members to the burgeoning art scenes in Beijing and Shanghai.
Having already written extensively about the Shanghai art scene, I reported on the Beijing leg of the tour for New York Social Diary. I have already filed a report on Part I of the ten-day trip. Part II was equally spectacular.
DAY 3: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 20
LAN CLUB DINNER
Dinner the third night was at the Lan Club Beijing, an exclusive lounge and restaurant about which I’d been hearing ecstatic reviews.
Established in 2006, Lan Beijing is the flagship of entrepreneur Zhang Lan’s South Beauty restaurant empire. Lan is often compared to Wolfgang Puck for his innovative restaurant ideas. The “club” is actually an upscale Chinese restaurant specializing in Sichuan cuisine.
Philippe Starck Design
The renowned contemporary French designer Philippe Starck spent two years transforming the vast raw space into an opulent restaurant and bar for a reported $2 million. Instead of erecting permanent walls, he cleverly hung enormous canvases to create a series of private tented rooms.
The posh Lan Club is located on the top floor of an office complex of Twin Towers Plaza in the Chaoyang District, close to the Wangfujing shopping area in central Beijing.
As we entered the Lan Club, we gasped at its enormous size. The loft-like space would be the envy of any New York club.
A large oil canvas painted by 20 foreign artists was cut into pieces to form the walls and divisions between 35 private dining rooms.
Hundreds of copies of Baroque paintings in unique frames hang from the ceiling and the walls.
Art treasures and antiques such as handcrafted Baccarat crystal chandeliers are part of the décor.
A Chinese Banquet
Commodious enough to serve 1,200 people at once, Lan encompasses an oyster bar, a luxury cigar room, a red wine chamber, a classic English bar, a French bistro, and a restaurant serving contemporary Cantonese cuisine and special dishes from elsewhere in China.
At Lan, one of house specialties is meat on the bone carved tableside.
We enjoyed huge platters of incredibly tender meat.
The traditional dish called Beggar’s Chicken is another specialty. Wrapped in lotus leaves, packed in a mud or clay crust, and baked for hours, the chicken emerges moist and tender.
We loved the banquet, with its never-ending series of dishes. A good host in China is expected to order more than the guests can possibly eat so no one goes home wanting more.
Don’t we look sated and happy?
MCASD’s development director Jeanna Yoo and Jeanne Lawrence.
The other table fared as well.
DAY 4: THURSDAY, OCTOBER 21
THE FORBIDDEN CITY
The Forbidden City served as the imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the Qing (1644-1912). The complex covers more than 1,477 square miles.
A sublime example of palatial Chinese architecture and the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, it was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1987.
Tip: When visiting The Forbidden City, enter the Gate of Divine Might (the northern, “back” entrance pictured here) to avoid the crowds at the Meridian Gate (the southern, “front” entrance).
All squares and rectangles, the Forbidden City was the home of emperors and their households from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) to the Qing (1644–1912). It took more than a million laborers to build it.
We were able to get a VIP private tour of the recently opened Chong Hua Gong (“Palace of Double Brilliance”). The childhood quarters of the l8th century emperor Qianlong, it was later used to host tea parties for princes and courtiers.
Alas, photographs of the interior are forbidden, so you will have to imagine the antiques and memorabilia that fill the palace.
Enterprising artists attracted attention as they drew tourists’ portraits.
Unbeknownst to us, the subject of this artist’s work was board member Sami Ladeki.
Sami could hardly refuse buying the plate painted with his image for a souvenir.
I wish the U.S. would adapt the Chinese custom of rating the restrooms! Look for one with the top (four-star) rating.
The grounds of the Forbidden City can easily accommodate thousands of tourists.
Bright caps aren’t a local fashion trend. They’re just one of the eye-catching accessories some tour leaders give out to keep track of their group.
The Collector’s Circle posed inside the Forbidden City palace walls.
You can always spot the French. They’re the best dressed in any crowd.
A sign that the Chinese have more disposable income these days is that they are traveling as tourists in their own county (to cities like Beijing) and internationally.
Taking a group photo in Tiananmen Square is a must. The MCASD Collectors Circle posed with the Forbidden City’s main entrance on Chang’An Road as our backdrop.
Tourists love the Panda hat. Melissa Garfield Bartell bargained for some to take home as gifts, plus one to wear then and there.
It’s reassuring to discover that we’re not the only ones who can’t find our way around this vast city.
PEKING DUCK AT MADE IN CHINA RESTAURANT
You can’t come to Beijing without eating Peking duck any more than you can pass up a hot dog from Nathan’s Famous at Coney Island.
In the very inventive Chinese culinary tradition, Peking duck stands out as one of the most sophisticated dishes. To prepare it, the duck is washed, air is pumped under the skin to separate it from the fat, and then it’s hung to dry and glazed with maltose syrup. Finally, it’s roasted over a fire until the meat is tender and the skin crispy.
The crispy skin is dipped in sugar and garlic sauce and eaten separately. The meat is served with homemade steamed pancakes, green spring onions, fresh cucumber sticks, and hoisin, a sweet bean sauce. You spread the sauce on the thick pancake, then wrap the pancake around some duck meat and eat it like a sandwich.
From places that have been around for a century to others that are new and modern, many local restaurants serve Peking duck.
We had lunch at Made in China in the Grand Hyatt, which is one of the top choices for Peking duck among foreigners. Since the restaurant is small and doesn’t take reservations, it’s difficult to get a table; luckily, someone in our group made it happen!
Kneading the dough for dumplings.
It takes years of practice to turn out perfectly shaped dumplings.
Peking duck presentation is very theatrical: The chef carves it before you in three stages.
SHOPPING: SPIN GALLERY
After lunch, a few of us shopped at Spin, which offers elegant ceramic tableware in clean, timeless designs at reasonable prices. The displays and lighting make Spin (here and in Shanghai) resemble a museum as much as a shop.
Each of us bought pieces to be gift-wrapped and mailed to the U.S. A Texas friend I once took to Spin had a 20-piece dinner set shipped home and, amazingly, every piece arrived intact. So I knew my purchase was safe!
Spin ceramics are designed by a group of Shanghainese ceramicists and created in several Jingdezhen workshops.
Jingdezhen has been China’s ancient porcelain capital since the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Spin introduces new items and styles every three months.
You can’t go wrong with a teacup and saucer set.
Spin offers an entire line of functional items, from dishes to teapots, as well as vases and decorative pieces.
Strong balsawood boxes ensure that the items Spin mails anywhere in the world arrive intact.
DAY 5: FRIDAY, OCTOBER 22
This morning we traveled northwest of the city to the landmark Summer Palace, a royal retreat and playground during imperial days. (The Chinese, who love poetic names, dubbed it “The Gardens of Nurtured Harmony.”)
The magnificent palace and other structures are located on Longevity Hill, which Emperor Qianlong named to honor his mother on her 60th birthday in 1752.
Largely destroyed during the 1860 Anglo-French war and damaged again during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, it was rebuilt in 1886 and 1902. In 1998, UNESCO added the Summer Palace to its World Heritage List.
At the Summer Palace, visitors board dragon boats to ride on Kunming Lake, which Emperor Qianlong created from two reservoirs.
Famous for its beauty, Kunming Lake is a popular location for wedding photos.
The Summer Palace grounds were filled with hordes of young schoolchildren lined up with their teachers and dressed alike in uniforms, matching baseball caps, and Disney backpacks.
We were among the tourists ferried around the lake in dragon boats.
The beautiful lake is dotted with pagodas, though they were barely visible in the thick fog on the day we visited.
The 2,388-foot Long Gallery (sometimes called the Long Corridor) was built by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty so his mother Cici could enjoy the outdoor gardens in any weather.
Be sure to look up if you visit: A highlight of the Long Gallery is the 14,000 Su-style colored paintings on every beam and pavilion.
Hundreds of painted stories depict historical figures, landscapes, flowers, and birds, representing the breadth of Chinese art in miniature.
The Summer Palace, once the playground of emperors, is now a place for locals to picnic, boat, and ice-skate on Kunming Lake.
More proof that Disneyfication is global.
No, we didn’t buy one of these tee shirts.
Former MCASD board chairman Peter Farrell with wife Olivia Farrell.
Collectors Circle members Iris and Matthew Strauss.
Inside the palace walls, a bronze statue of a Chinese dragon.
LUNCH AT THE AMAN HOTEL AT SUMMER PALACE
From the Summer Palace grounds, we ducked through a private door into the new Aman Hotel, adjacent to the palace’s east gate.
The hotel, an hour from Beijing, is an ideal place to stay and enjoy a rest day or to wander in the atmosphere of an ancient world.
The Aman Hotel pays homage to the architecture of the Summer Palace.
The Aman Hotel lobby.
An Imperial Suite bedroom.
The tranquil swimming pool.
Lunch was served in one of the Aman’s private dining rooms.
A variety of small plates were placed on the table.
The selections included mushrooms wrapped with tofu skins, blanched walnuts, beef with large green peppers, a shrimp dish, and a spicy chicken dish, topped off with ice cream (a group tradition) and green tea.
Director Hugh Davies hijacked one of the Aman’s old-fashioned bicycle carts and took Sharon Ladeki for a spin.
Fortunately, Hugh and Sharon arrived back in time to catch our bus.
TOUR OF YANG BIN’S STUDIO
In the afternoon, we visited the private art collection of businessman and art world heavyweight Yang Bin and his wife Yan Qing.
The couple displays their collection in an off-site gallery that is part of a complex in a gated community. As they have such a large collection, the works are stored on the kind of racks a museum uses.
They have been collecting contemporary Chinese art for ten years. However, since Chinese art has become so expensive, as of 2006 they’ve been collecting European art as well.
The curator gave us an overview and introduced us to Yang Bin and his wife Yan Qing, whose collection is a capsule history of Chinese art.
Iris Strauss and Yang Bin.
Collector Yang Bin and MCASD Director Hugh Davies.
DAY 6-7: SATURDAY & SUNDAY, OCTOBER 23 & 24
Early Saturday, the MCASD tour left for Shanghai and the Park Hyatt. In only two days, they found time to visit Xintiandi and dine at private club One Xintiandi, take Patrick Cranley’s Historic Shanghai Tour, lunch at The Chinoise Story, enjoy a meal at Ye Shanghai, attend a farewell dinner at M on the Bund, and tour a number of art galleries. The ladies also managed to squeeze in a shopfest at designer Han Feng’s Studio, where they loaded up with fashion.
The group concurred that this kind of trip—one dubbed it “Beijing 101”—is exhausting but stimulating and educational. “When you see art in this context, you learn about a culture, not like a tourist but like a private collector,” said Valerie Cooper.
DAY 8: MONDAY, OCTOBER 25: FAREWELL DINNER AT PEARL LAM’S SHANGHAI HOME
The group spent its last evening in China at the home of art collector and gallerist Pearl Lam. Cocktails were served in the private gallery above her sensational, whimsical penthouse, where artist Zhang Huan’s ash paintings were on display. Then we enjoyed an elegant meal in her spacious home, where she can easily seat 60 for dinner.
I felt fortunate to be able to share the learning experience and the wonderful camaraderie the MCASD trip offered. For anyone with an interest in Chinese art—or simply an interest in having a stimulating, first-class, fun-filled, memorable, and unique trip (and isn’t that everyone?)—this is it!
The farewell dinner was in Shanghai at the fabulous penthouse of collector and gallerist Pearl Lam.
Peter Farrell with wife Olivia Farrell.
Melissa Garfield Bartell, Iris Strauss, Karen Cohn, and Sharon Ladeki.
Sami Ladeki and Donald Cohn.
Architect Patrice Butler and Gallery Manager Megan Leckie.
Gallery Director Harriet Onslow with Irwin Jacobs.
Chief Curator Kathryn Kanjo with another guest.
Joan Jacobs with a fellow guest.
Our Tour Imperial host and guide Jamie Greenbaum.
After drinks in the gallery, our hostess Pearl Lam served us a wonderful multi-course dinner.
Joan Jacobs, Jeanne Lawrence, Hugh Davies, Pearl Lam, and Irwin Jacobs.
Donald and Karen Cohn.
Hugh Davies and Pearl Lam.
A monk, Luke Yang, and Sydney Picasso.
The dinner table was artistically decorated with hand-crafted ceramics.
An army of waiters worked together in precision.
“Dying Slave,” by Chinese sculptor Sui Jianguo, is one of my favorite sculptures in Pearl Lam’s home.
Photos by Jeanne Lawrence. Aman Hotel interior photos courtesy Aman Resorts.
*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.