North East China
Beijing and Beyond
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
Once luxury and hedonism were unthinkable in China, now the Beijing jet set gathers at their most exclusive club.
ERIC PASQUIER gained access to the Beijing China Club, where China’s most famous actress Gong Li celebrated her wedding.
He also visited the Beijing Opera, where the colourful costumes never fail to dazzle, and ventured further into the North Eastern provinces of China to witness a very different way of life.
Dark-suited businessmen huddle in a corner, doing a deal over Champagne.
A glamorous blonde orders a cocktail at the bar. You might think you were in Hong Kong, Singapore or Tokyo.
No….this scene of capitalist hedonism comes straight from the heart of communist China.
If you want to know how much China has changed look no further than the Beijing China Club. Tucked away in an alleyway, just a few steps away from Tiananmen Square, where in 1989 tanks rolled towards student protesters, China’s new business and artistic elite are free to drink and dine - in spectacular style.
The Beijing China Club is sister to the Hong Kong China Club, but very different in external style. While the HK version is housed in a towering skyscraper; Beijing’s China Club is in a historic monument, the 400-year-old Qing dynasty palace, which was once home to Yuan Shikai, President of the Republic of China.
Inside red lanterns hang above the ornate bar and restaurant, called – with satirical intent - the Great March. Membership costs $1,500 a year, and there are plenty of locals taking advantage of the new taste for entrepreneurship who can afford the fee. Above the bar hangs a picture of China’s late leader Deng Xiaoping. He made the China Club his informal personal headquarters, ruling his vast nation from this luxurious setting.
He was often to be seen in one of the many different dining rooms which serve food from different Chinese regions.
The club can serve nearly 600 diners, accommodate them in luxury hotel rooms, hire them limousines and offer business facilities. The largest hotel room is 75 square metres large and includes a servant’s room. It is decorated in finest Ming Dynasty style, with silk carpets and traditional artworks.
This is the face of the new China – but only for a small select elite, who can afford the membership fee and are accepted as part of the country’s emerging business community. Here deals are done and parties held - one of the most glamorous was the wedding of China’s most famous actress Gong Li to tobacco executive Ooi Wei Ming.
Another symbol of China’s evolution, since the dark days of the cultural revolution, are the bright costumes worn by the performers at the Beijing Opera . During the repression between 1966 and 1976 when all traditional opera pieces harking back to “old values” were banned,
The Beijing Opera was instead encouraged to perform pieces reflecting communist activities and themes dedicated to the class struggle.
Many performers who were ‘retired’ during this decade continued to practice in secret. Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 paved the way for the revival of the Beijing Opera. By 1977 it was again performing its traditional pieces. The challenge now facing the Opera is to appeal to younger audiences who were out of touch with many of the literary and historical references in the operas. Happily the new flood of tourists to the Chinese capital are keen to experience this unique art form.
Many of the Beijing Opera pieces were inspired by the mythical storytelling style, Wuxia, which means ‘martial’ and ‘knight errant’. This traditionally involves the struggle between good and evil and calls on warriors to display virtues such as honour, valour and loyalty. In Beijing Opera there are four main types of role: Sheng (a male who is young, old, or a warrior), Dan (a female role, usually a maiden or warrior), Jing (a male with an elaborately painted face and usually the hero or warrior) and Chou (a male or female clown with a distinctive white triangle on the nose). Clown characters play a satirical role. They are the only ones who speak or sing in natural voices and will make asides to the audience to make them laugh.
The vivid make-up serves to depict the characters as good or bad, beautiful or ugly, loyal or devious and to signal those with supernatural powers. There are set styles of facial make-up: silver and gold symbolize mystical beings, red represents loyalty, trustworthiness and righteousness, white represents craftiness and yellow is often the colour of brave warriors, green stands for cruelty and pride, blue shows pride and stubbornness and black stands for wisdom, courage and justice.
Fantastic costumes using traditional patterns from the Ming dynasty are often embroidered by hand. Their purpose is to dazzle and, again, the colour of the costumes is important to distinguish the various characters. For example, brown is used to show old age, yellow is used for royals, black means toughness, green represents virtuousness and red is for those of important status.
A trip to Beijing show the visitor the new city face of China, but how much has life changed in the countryside? A trip into the North East province shows that much is unchanged, that people still live by the rhythm of the season, the rice and tea planting cycle. But there is change here too, as China opens up to the outside world - the Great Wall of China is now a major tourist site, and visitor numbers are expected to double by 2020, making it the world’s most popular tourist destination.
Staying in Beijing :
Grand Hotel, Beijing -
35 East Chang An Avenue, Beijing 100006 China . Minutes from the China Club, central and luxurious.
Grand Hyatt Beijing1 East Chang An Avenue, 100738 Beijing, People's Republic of China Tel: +86 10 8518 1234 Elegant and modern.