Euro 2016 and why the Chinese are hooked

Features Editor

It was not quite what I was expecting. Instead of being packed out with trendy locals, Beijing’s Sanlitun bars were filled with flashes of red and blue. And the Beijingers were chanting – cheering on Portugal and commiserating with France. A usual Sunday night social had been sabotaged by the Euro 2016 final taking place 8000kms away.

In all honesty, I really shouldn’t have been so surprised. In 2007-2008 I was in China’s capital making documentaries in the build up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was a time when the whole of China threw its arms around sport in a BIG way. The resulting Games were seen as one of the best ever – Usain Bolt wowed us by breaking the 100m and 200m world records in the iconic Birds Nest Stadium. Michael Phelps claimed a phenomenal 8 gold medals at the Water Cube, China’s National Aquatics Centre. A staggering 40 world records and over 130 Olympic records were smashed and it was all witnessed by millions of people around the globe. Even I managed to get swept away in the 2008 summer of sport. But now it seems that the Chinese have set their sights on football.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Paintings from the 7 th century Tang dynasty show women playing a game that looks suspiciously like soccer and China has had a thriving domestic football scene since the 1990s when the National Football Jia-A League, China’s first professional football league, was launched. Jia-A has since been replaced by the Chinese Super League (CSL), with the best 16 teams from across China competing in a season running from roughly from February/March to November/December.

So far, so good. The problem is that China doesn’t do so well on an international level. The men’s team is 81 st in the FIFA world rankings, having only qualified for one World Cup and having never won the Asian Cup.

(If you’re wondering about the ladies team – they’re currently riding high at 12th . Take a look inside their U17 training with inspiring coach Gao Hong )But China men’s dismal international footballing record might be about to change as aspirations reach an all time high.

Earlier this year, the Chinese Football Association revealed an ambitious strategy to become a world footballing superpower by 2050. And it has backing right from the top – President Xi himself is a self-proclaimed football fan who says he would love China to win the world cup. 20,000 football training centres and 70,000 pitches will be set up, giving 30 million students the chance to try the sport.

But until that generation comes through, there is another solution. Money. Like football clubs all around the world, China’s top teams are owned by the super rich. The appeal of working in this lucrative market has lured across some of the top coaches (Sven Goran Erikson has been in China since 2013). And some $366m was spent during the last transfer window, signing up some of the best players in the world. Striker Jackson Martinez moved from Athletico Madrid to Guangzhou Evergrande and former Chelsea Midfielder Ramires joined Jiangsu Suning.

This is a player so internationally famous, he’s known simply by his first name (his full name is Ramires Santos Do Nascimento). And now he’s playing in China. So why are the Chinese hooked on Euro 2016?

Because the best of the bunch could soon be playing in one of China’s top teams. And could China become a footballing superpower by 2050?

You’d better believe it.

Valentines Day and China’s Other Unique Festivals

News and Travel Editor

Today is Valentines Day, you either love it or hate it but it seems the Chinese certainly love it given the fact that the Chinese Valentines Day, known as the Double Seventh Festival, predates the Western version by about 1000 years. The Double Seventh Festival is thought to have originated during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), whereas Valentines Day was made famous by Chaucer in the 14th Century.

This is Zhang Chunwen, Beijing’s Clown Delivery Man. He’s been in the job several years now travelling all around the city and will deliver flowers to anyone from your partner to your favourite teacher. Although, not everyone looks too pleased with this unusual method…

Although Valentine’s Day is traditionally celebrated on the 14th February in the West, the Chinese have their own version, known as Double Seventh Festival, or the Qixi Festival. The festival falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Why on this particular date I hear you ask? The answer lies with the legend of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu. One day, Niu Lang, a cow herder met Zhi Nu, a fairy from heaven and, although some would say she was out of his league, they naturally fell in love. The story of their love soon got back to heaven, with the king and queen demanding her return. When Niu Lang tried to follow her, the queen created a wide river between them but was so moved by their tears that she allowed them to visit each other one day a year, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. The date for your diaries on this year is the 28th August, as if you wanted to celebrate Valentine’s Day 2 times a year!

As well as the Qixi Festival, the Chinese have a few more quirky festivals up their sleeve, celebrated throughout the year. Some of our favourites are below.

The Festival of Hungry Ghosts

Admit it, this one sounds awesome. According to traditional Chinese belief, the seventh month of the lunar calendar is when spirits of the ancestors roam the earth – Could this also be why Niu Lang and Zhi Nu meet in the seventh lunar month?! *jaw drops in fascination*. Many Chinese people will appease these ghosts by burning fake money or leaving food out for the ghosts to use in the afterlife. If you find yourself wandering the streets during this month, make sure you don’t sweep up any offerings left out, unless you want some serious misfortune befalling you…

Monihei Carnival

This festival is best summed up by the image below.

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Image courtesy of http://www.yunnantravelguide.com/Line/show.asp?id=726.

 

Interested? Thought so. Monihei Festival celebrates the discovery of a local herbal medicine in Yunnan Province which is rubbed all over your body. During the festival, mud is used to the same effect as a representation of the medicine as people run around trying to get each other as filthy as possible.

Cheung Chau Bun Festival

Held at Pak Tai Temple in Hong Kong, the Cheng Chau Bun Festival coincides with the Buddha’s birthday and every year, 3 60ft towers are constructed from bamboo around the temple are are covered in buns. The most entertaining part of the festival is the ‘bun snatching race’, where men and women race up the tower grabbing as many buns as possible. The more you grab, the more luck you will have to share with the rest of your family.

Dragon Boat Festival

Zigui County is the centre for this amazing spectacle. The festival commemorates the life of poet and adviser Qu Yuan. Legend has it that Qu Yuan lived around 2500 years ago during China’s Warring States period and committed suicide by drowning in a river, when his leader was defeated. Watch our exclusive video below.

 

The Great Wall: How China has Become Hollywood’s New Destination

News and Travel Editor

The Great Wall is one of the most hyped films of the year, drawing a stellar international cast and will be released in the US and UK on Friday 17th February. It’s sure to pull in the audiences far and wide, but is it on your must-see-films list for 2017?

The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon (Bourne, The Martian), Pedro Pascal (Narcos, Game of Thrones), Jing Tian (Pacific Rim, Kong: Skull Island) and Andy Lau (As Tears Go By, A Moment of Romance), is China’s biggest Hollywood export to date. It’s already been released in China and will hit the big screens in the US & UK on the 17th of February. The film tells the story of mercenaries William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) after they are captured by an elite army guarding the Great Wall, known as the Nameless Order. Garin and Tovar become entangled in the Order’s task of defeating the Taotie, beasts that rise from the Jade Mountain every 60 years to destroy humanity.

The film plays with the myth that The Great Wall was not intended for keeping out the Mongol invaders from the north, but was in fact needed to protect China from supernatural forces, in this case from the ravenous Taotie. In reality, the Wall did successfully repel invaders of all kinds for hundreds of years. But there are many legends surrounding the Great Wall, so who knows? Maybe that’s what we’re meant to think and the Taotie continue to attempt to destroy humanity every 60 years. I think I prefer the Mongols…

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The Chinese Empire by Thomas Allom; With the descriptions of manners, customs, architecture and industry of the Chinese people from the most remote times to the present day.

The Great Wall is one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year and, predictably, was a massive hit at the Chinese box office. The film took $66 million in its opening weekend in December, making it 2016’s 4th biggest opening weekend in China. Only WarcraftCaptain America: Civil War, and Stephen Chow’s phenomenally successful The Mermaid. It’s also the first Hollywood blockbuster to be set entirely in China. China’s recent increase in box office takings comes against the backdrop of Jackie Chan receiving an Honorary Award at the Oscars. The future certainly looks bright for the film industry in China.

The Great Wall might have been the first Hollywood film to be completely set in China, but can you recognise any of the locations below from other international blockbusters?

We all know that Tom Cruise is famous for outlandish and dangerous stunts, climbing the Burj Khalifa in Dubai during Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but did you know Shanghai was also a location for one of these outrageous stunts? The Bank of China tower in Shanghai is now famous for the jaw-dropping role it played in Mission: Impossible III, when Tom Cruise used the building for a bungee jump!

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Image by hans-johnson. CC Attribution 2.0.

Looper, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis, was also a tremendous hit in China. If you’re a major fan of the film like me, you’ll have spotted a futuristic Shanghai with the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower in the foreground.

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Image by Joshua Bermudez. CC Attribution 2.0.

Although not a Hollywood film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a huge hit in Western cinemas, taking $85 million in foreign box offices and was nominated for 10 oscars, winning 4. One of the most famous scenes in the film is set in Shunan’s Bamboo Forest, one of the largest bamboo forests in China, covering 120sq km.

 

Finally, Transformers: Age of Extinction was riddled with stunning Chinese scenery, including breath-taking aerials of Beijing where you can catch a glimpse of the Bird’s Nest Stadium and of course, the Great Wall. We also witness some of China’s more scenic wonders including the Natural Three Bridges, one of the most spectacular geological sites at Wulong Karst, before heading to Hong Kong for one of the final epic battle scenes.

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Are you looking forward to seeing The Great Wall or do you have any other must-see up and coming movies from China that we should talk about? Do you have any favourites set in China that we haven’t talked about in this blog? Let us know in the comments!

Exploring the Hutongs of Beijing

Features Editor

If you ever visit Beijing you must make time for the hutong.  The word dates back to the time when Khublai Khan made Beijing his capital.  At that time the word meant “well”, then it evolved to mean “narrow lane” in Mandarin but today, in English at least, it stands for those areas of one storey houses, giant trees and narrow alleyways where visitors can get a glimpse of life in “Old Beijing.” (And a craft beer and a vegan lunch, of which more later).

People who visited Beijing in the 1920s said it was like a garden: from a high point, perhaps on the walls that still surrounded the city, all you could see were trees.  You can get a sense of that even today if you climb Jingshan hill, immediately behind the Forbidden City.  Look south and the imperial yellow roofs of the hundreds of buildings of the former Palace gleam.  Look north and west and you are surrounded by trees.  Now imagine that stretching to the edges of the city…and lift your eyes to the mountains beyond.

The reason for all those trees was largely to do with the way the hutong areas were laid out.  In Old Beijing, extended families lived in rectangular courtyard homes, known as “Siheyuan”.  Four oblong buildings, one storey high and roofed with elegant grey tiles, were arranged on four sides of a central courtyard.  In the middle of that courtyard would be a tree, which gave shade and – if it was a pomegranate – also signified good luck, prosperity and many children for the family.  The rectangle of the siheyuan was always laid out strictly north-south; and which family members lived in which of the four buildings flanking the central courtyard was determined by tradition and feng shui.

As the siheyuan were built side by side, the courtyards created a grid system of narrow alleyways, the majority running east-west, but a few running south-north.  From above all you would have seen would have been those trees…

Over the generations, with space in the capital at a premium, most of the central courtyards have been filled in with other buildings and large numbers of people, mostly not related, now live within the rectangle of each former siheyuan.  Luckily most of the trees seem to have survived.  To the visitor, catching a glimpse of shaded, ramshackle buildings through a half open door, it all looks very romantic. But I hear the old courtyard houses are chilly places to live in winter, and baking hot in summer; and of course they have few mod cons compared to the apartments most Beijingers live in today.  In the last 50 years, and increasingly from the 1990s, the hutong have been demolished to make way for new development.  In the years just before the 2008 Olympics, this redevelopment reached such a crescendo that many people in the city feared the hutong would disappear for ever.  Luckily the city authorities realised in the time that these areas of traditional housing and living were as essential a part of Beijing’s long history and culture as the more impressive historical buildings and as a consequence worthy of protection. Now, a a considerable number have been earmarked for protection. And a steady process of renovation and modernisation – which some call gentrification – is under way.

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For a visitor to the city, a wander through the hutong – whether renovated or not – can be a relaxing antidote to the sometimes overwhelming size and scale of Beijing. Tiananmen Square, the  Forbidden City, the skyscrapers of Chaoyang, the many 6 lane highways are all built on a giant scale.  Everything in the hutong is, in contrast, on a very human scale.  You can walk at your own pace –  peep through red-painted doors with their lion’s head door-knockers into secret courtyards, where flowers in blue and white pots and grapes and gourds hanging from trellises can be seen.  You can linger to watch a group of men playing cards or buy freshly-made steamed bread from tiny shops.  There’s always something interesting to see.  And the amazing thing is that, despite being in the heart of a city of 20 million, it’s magically quiet in the residential hutong and there are no crowds.  You can’t really get lost, either, as the grid system is easy to navigate and logical; and in my experience if you turn down what locals know is a dead end, someone will immediately set you right with friendly smiles and gestures.

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Hutong have also proved the perfect place for bars, cafes and shops selling high quality craftsmen-made goods (and tourist trinkets of course.) The narrow streets are tailor-made for pedestrians – and renovated siheyuan make stylish, traditional-looking restaurants.   Craft breweries, vegan cafes, bars where you can sample dozens of different kinds of baijiu; live music, free wifi, squashy sofas, good cappuccinos – all are available in the more commercial hutong. Nanluguoxiang is perhaps the busiest of these renovated hutong.

You can also take a pedicab tour as Mary-Ann did in the busy hutong near Houhai, or behind the Bell and Drum Towers and get some historical background to the hutong and the siheyuan.

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But if like me you love an aimless wander where you never know what’s round the next corner – try heading off to one of these hutong, some of my favourites:

Daxilan – South of Qianmen, once famous as the raffish quarter where musicians and artists lived.  Visit the flashy shops on the renovated north-south main street if you must, but then duck into the buzzing side alleys to the west for lively small restaurants and ancient wine shops – a feast for the eyes even if you don’t want to eat

Zhongjianzixiang  – Walk north up Wangfujing – and then just keep walking as it turns into a narrower street and eventually, after a couple of rights and lefts, into a hutong. After an enjoyable walk, you will reach the delightful and often overlooked Confucius Temple,  near Lama Temple Metro station. On the way, it’s a fascinating hutong, once famous for making horse scissors, and now lively with elderly people playing Go and Mahjong; shop- keepers selling fresh vegetables; abundant roof gardens and small children trying to ride scooters twice their size. Check out stylish clothing and interiors store Once upon a time just west of the Confucius Temple.

North-east of Zhangzizhong subway station – Take the oldest map of Beijing, and take one from today, and the layout of the streets in this quarter is almost exactly the same. Time travel to the era of Khublai Khan’s capital, Dadu, when the hutong first came into existence.

Wudaoling, west of the Lama Temple – This is an up-and-coming commercial hutong where Mary-Ann finished her hutong exploration.  As well as the hotpot restaurant she visited, there’s good organic vegan food at The Vegan Table; or delicious Vietnamese-inspired fusion at Susu. There are all kinds of shops as well as the porcelain store she explored, including clothing, vintage, leather goods and you can even hire a bike here.  Take any left turn to plunge deeper into residential areas.

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Gulou – Around the Drum and Bell Towers is good for bars and for all kinds of live music, whether your taste runs to jazz or to traditional Chinese music (Meet jazz musician Terry Hsieh who performs at Jianghu Bar regularly).  Caochang hutong starts on Gulou street and wiggles its way to the Drum Tower through a calm and flower-bedecked network of quiet alleyways.  There’s even the Peace café at No 37, where you can sit on the shaded deck and watch the world go by.

Do you have a favourite?

The Fireworks Man: The Alternative Way to Celebrate Chinese New Year

News and Travel Editor

What do you think of when someone mentions Chinese New Year? Some people think of the colour red, the Chinese Dragon, red money envelopes, or even dash to travel home – Did you know 2.98 billion trips are expected this year?! And who can forget the spectacular firework displays happening across the Spring Festival period.

For 14 generations, Xue Jianguo and his family have been creating firework displays with a spectacular twist (You definitely shouldn’t try this at home).

The tradition arose when local villagers couldn’t afford firework shows for their New Year celebrations. Logically, the next best thing was to throw molten iron into the air to create cascading sparks – it’s a good job he’s wearing that straw hat! However beautiful this may be, Jianguo admits the job is quite dangerous.

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So, where is the best place around the world to celebrate Chinese New Year and watch the fireworks? We have our top four, what are yours?

4) London
This is the world’s largest Chinese New Year celebration outside Asia. The best areas to head to are Trafalgar Square, Shaftesbury Avenue and, of course, Chinatown.

3) New York
If you’re not in China and you want grand and flashy, New York is the place to be. There are three separate parades across several days of celebrations: the Firecracker Ceremony, the Lunar New Year Parade and the Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade and Festival. New York is perfect for blending old and new Chinese New Year traditions.

2) Beijing
Celebrating in Beijing this year? If so, Temple Fairs are a must! They’re full of traditional performances, arts & crafts and local street food. We love Ditan Park Temple Fair – it is after all one of the biggest and most popular. If you have time, head to a park to watch athletic competitions and demonstrations.

1) Hong Kong
Probably the most colourful out of all our destinations. Expect incredible fireworks, festive markets and parades. The Victorian Harbour is the best spot for the fireworks, but make sure you find time to watch the night parade along Tsim Sha Tsuji. Naturally, Hong Kong Disney also make an appearance. 

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Image by Michael Elleray. Licensed under CC 2.0.

How are you celebrating Chinese New Year? Where do you think is the best place to watch the fireworks this year? Send us your pictures and comments and we’ll feature them on our Twitter and Facebook pages at @ChinaIcons!

Stocking Up for Chinese New Year

News and Travel Editor

It’s coming up to the most important event in the Chinese calendar – Chinese New Year! We’re about to enter the Year of the Rooster once more, and if you were born in 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993 or 2005 then this is your year! Everyone has already started with their preparations.

Our very own Coco is going to give you some top tips on all the essentials for your Chinese New Year celebrations. We’re also going to delve deeper into some of these fascinating traditions revealed by Coco in our video below.

Coming up to Chinese New Year, the colour red is an absolute must. Red symbolises luck, happiness and joy. It’s also common in Chinese weddings and other celebrations. This has been the case since the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), when only the Emperor’s close relatives could have red walls, and the peasants had to put up with blue walls – how annoying!

Coco seems like a big fan of this one: Red envelopes are usually given to the younger generation after the New Year’s Feast (lucky for some…). It’s very important that the money shouldn’t appear with a ‘4’ in it (such as 44 or 444), as the pronunciation is very similar to ‘death’. You also shouldn’t open the envelope in front of the person who gave it to you which is considered impolite (probably so there’s no arguments over who received what and why!).

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Last, but certainly not least, a few days before the Chinese New Year celebrations, people will often clean their whole house to get rid of the old and welcome the new. We’ve given you plenty of notice so no excuses now!

Have you already started your preparations? Do you have any fun traditions you think the rest of us should take up?

Check in next week for a spectacular insight into the ‘Fireworks Man’, a man and his family, who for 14 generations, have created their own fireworks with a jaw-dropping twist. We’ll also be giving you the lowdown on the best places in China to celebrate the New Year and to watch the world famous fireworks.

Harbin Ice Festival 2017: In Pictures

News and Travel Editor

The world famous Harbin Ice Festival is well underway in China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang. We have been treated to some spectacular sights in the past and this year is no exception. Check out some of the stunning shots captured at this year’s festival so far.

This is the 33rd Harbin Ice Festival since its inception in 1963. At the start of every festival, an ice sculpture competition is held, showcasing some brilliant creations. Although the Harbin Ice Sculpture Competition is over for this year, the festival itself won’t finish until February 25th, so there’s still plenty of time to take in the sights across the 200 acre park.

Here are our favourite images so far of this year’s festival.

Fireworks erupt at the opening ceremony on January 5th.

Did you know that many of the blocks used for the sculptures were taken from Harbin’s Songhua River?

Did you double take just then? That’s right, some of the sculptures are actually designed into slides for the public. Just make sure you’re wrapped up warm for this one…

Many of the sculptures are inspired by Chinese folk tales and global landmarks. with the Egyptian Sphynx making regular appearances.

The Harbin Snow Festival has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The festival attracted over 1 million visitors last year.

18 couples have so far braved the cold in Harbin to get married, but that’s not the most daring this to happen at the festival this year…

Swimming competitions take place in a pool cut out of the frozen Songhua River. Just looking at this makes me feel cold.

Next week, our very own Coco will be giving you some top tips on stocking up for your Chinese New Year celebrations as you get ready to welcome in the Year of the Rooster. We’ll also take a look at some of the myths and legends surrounding Chinese New Year, including what NOT to do if you’re given a red money envelope…

Living the Dream in China: A New Year’s Resolution

News and Travel Editor

Happy 2017!  As we fast approach the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Rooster, it’s the perfect time to reflect back on the past year, as well as think of a couple of those dreaded New Year Resolutions…

Fear not! Here at China Icons, we can think of one that’s a bit more exciting than heading to the gym everyday for a week before giving up until next year. If your resolutions include travelling or even relocating, there’s never been a better time to make China a part of your itinerary.

Whether you want to go to China to teach, be an entrepreneur, study at a Chinese university, or simply travel, China has it all. It’s a country where the ancient and the modern coalesce  The most popular destinations for many travellers include Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, where old traditions and fast-paced modern life intertwine perfectly. This is probably why it’s estimated that 600,000 foreigners currently live in China, as well as having 328,000 foreign students in 2012.

We have the perfect insight into travellers who have followed their dream in China, with many opting to permanently settle there. Many  of our China Icons videos explore the stories of these people, from Pol, a Turkish Games Designer, to Lee, a Television Presenter and Writer. We want to share the very best with you and to hopefully give you some inspiration on how you can follow your dream in China.

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A Games Designer in China

Turkish Games Designer, Pol, based himself in Guangzhou at the heart of the gaming development community. Go behind the scenes with Pol and find out more about what you can get up to in Guangzhou when the sun goes down.

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Lee’s Life in Beijing

Lee is a British Television Presenter and Writer and moved to Beijing when he was 26 years old. Lee explains how he started his own TV series analysing film reviews.

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Marion’s Life in Tibet

Now we head away from the big cities with Marion, who moved to Tibet from France and trained herself to become a mountain climber and even had the chance to take on the awe-inspiring Mt. Everest. Marion explains what attracted her to Tibet’s fascinating landscape and culture.

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Stunning embroidery of China’s Miao People

Fiona is an Australian ER Doctor, but moved to China to become a food writer and photo blogger. Watch below to find out more about Fiona’s journey to visit the Miao People and their amazing traditions.

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War Horse Theatre Director Alex Sims

War Horse has become a worldwide phenomenon and British Theatre Director, Alex Sims, has taken it to China. Go behind the scenes of the National Theatre of China and one of the biggest theatre productions in the world.

 

Do you fancy your hand in any of these professions? Are you travelling to China this year and have these videos persuaded you to maybe stay a little longer? Let us know in the comments below!

Check in next week for an insight into this year’s, world famous, Harbin Ice Festival and take a look at some of the stunning sculptures making an appearance this year.

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