Brian's Blogs

Beijing's Museum of Tap Water

Reverse psychology is a wonderful thing. It's a well known fact that if you want a child not to do something, the very last thing you should say is "don't do it".

An American called Catherine Price has written a book entitled "101 Places Not To Visit Before You Die". In it you can read about such must-avoid places as The Seattle ‘Gum Wall', the Montana ‘Testicle Festival' and Beijing's ‘Museum of Tap Water'. The sales pitch appears to be that Price has taken it upon herself to go to truly awful tourist destinations ... so you don't have to.

The grounds of the museum feature a number of buildings in a parkland setting, all overlooked by high-rise apartment blocks.

The book tells you that in 2001 it was decided that 150 new museums should be opened in Beijing in time for the 2008 Olympics. ‘Hence a museum devoted to the fascinating history of ... tap water, in addition to museums devoted to honeybees, red sandalwood, and goldfish. The irony of the whole museum,' Price adds smugly, ‘is that Beijing's water is not safe to drink from the tap.'

I had to go there. I guess I'm just a big kid at heart. But once I had arrived I had to wonder if Ms Price had ever visited the establishment herself, or had simply read up little fragments on the internet and written her scathing comments accordingly.

For a start, the Museum of Tap Water is not its actual name in English (it's called the Water Supply Museum, though on the ticket it is called Waterworks Museum). The Museum of Tap Water is a literal translation from the Chinese. But I guess something called a Water Supply Museum doesn't have that same humorous ring to it, does it?

The history of Beijing's piped water supply began in 1908, with the founding of the Jingshi Tap Water Co. A year earlier a fire had broken out at the Empress Dowager Cixi's palace and because of a lack of water, the fire got out of control and destroyed many valuable items. Cixi ordered the construction of a water plant to create a more effective way to fight the fires that were plaguing Beijing in those days. A handful of businessmen set up a water purification and pumping station which used a steam engine to circulate the water around the perimeter of the imperial city's walls.

The grounds of the museum, containing the original engine room, are made up of landscaped gardens while the museum itself, reflecting the influence of western architecture with its principal arch and round stone columns, was originally the steam engine room. It was built of red bricks which were fired in kilns in Germany, and stands as a testament to the country's early efforts at modernization and collaboration with the West.

There are also the remains of a water collection pool, where water was sent after disinfection; and this is overlooked by the original intake pavilion built in 1908, still in good condition. One of its main features is a circular pillared temple built as a shrine to the Buddhist goddess Guanyin. Inside the pavilion was a disinfection tank with a white marble Guan yin Bodhisattva standing on a lotus flower. There is also a carved tortoise and snake sitting on either side of the Bodhisattva, though you have to peak through a gap in the padlocked doors to catch a glimpse of them.

Inside the actual museum, there are interesting displays of how this place purified the water and then distributed it around Beijing. There are also displays of correspondence and official seals relating to the start-up, as well as items marking key moments in the history of the capital's piped water system, including architectural models tracing its development.

There's even a display showing buckets of water standing next to a public water tap, stationed at the end of a hutong, or alleyway. By 1910, outdoors taps had been installed all around Beijing, supplying clean chlorinated water. Residents could buy tickets and draw water straight from the taps, or have the water delivered to their homes in wooden buckets on carts.

In summary I would have to say that Beijing's Water Supply Museum is certainly one of the more unusual tourist attractions gracing the city, but I would certainly take issue with Ms Catherine Price. It will definitely be on my list of places I recommend to visitors that they visit before they leave Beijing.

Web Analytics