It’s nearly 20 years ago that Kenny Everett, a British comedian, radio DJ and TV entertainer, passed away from AIDS. To many, he embodied the height of tackiness throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s , not least with one of his famous characters – Cupid Stunt (think about it!), who was a starlet with balloons for boobs and who kept criss-crossing ‘her’ legs while assuring us that everything was ‘all in the best possible taste’.
If, perhaps in some parallel universe, Kenny had wished to personify a museum, he surely couldn’t have done better than to have chosen one in Tianjin, a city situated some 120 kilometres southeast of Beijing.
China House (a.k.a. Porcelain House – 瓷房子) is a ‘contemporary’ museum of pottery and antiques. It is located in a historical colonial building – No. 72, Chifeng Dao, in Heping District; and even without taking a single step inside, you can see how vulgar it is going to be from the outside.
I guess we are all voyeurs at heart, and just as we couldn’t help but switch on the TV every week to watch Cupid Stunt displaying ‘her’ red satin knickers every time ‘she’ crossed her legs, so the urge to actually go in to this monstrous museum became overwhelming and I finally succumbed on my fourth visit to this lovely city.
The old five-storey French-style house, which covers some 3,000 square metres was originally the home of a central finance minister in the late Qing dynasty (how he must be turning in his grave), and was later converted into a bank in 1949, after the founding of ‘New China’. But later the building was left deserted, until porcelain collector Zhang Lianzhi bought it for 1 million yuan ($160,000). He then spent the following four years turning it in to the monstrosity it is today.
It is said that over 5000 ancient vases, 4000 plates and 400 million porcelain fragments have gone into the outside ‘decoration’ of the house. Not for nothing is it known as ‘the most eye-catching building in Tianjin’, and of course, it is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, having finally opened its doors to the great unwashed on September 2nd, 2007.
The courtyard wall is covered with around 3,000 porcelain vases, while the wall in front of the house is named the ‘peace wall’, consisting of 635 vases made during the Republic China and the late Qing Dynasty.
In some ways the place reminds me of some of the famous Gaudi buildings that grace Barcelona – guaranteed to shock on first glance but which grow on you after a very short while – except that this abomination doesn’t grow on you – well, that’s to say it hasn’t grown on me one iota, though to read some of the comments on the likes of TripAdviser you’d end up thinking this guy was some kind of a genius. It all goes to show there is no accounting for taste.
Everywhere the House is decorated with some 400 million pieces of ancient porcelain, 16 thousand pieces of ancient chinaware, 300 white-marble carvings, 20 tons of crystal and agate and millions of pieces of ancient Chinese ceramic chips. Some of the fragments and vases go back to the Tang (AD 618-907) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
In fact, about 80 percent of the porcelain used comes from broken or damaged antiques, but Zhang mixed all the different fragments together and pasted them onto the walls in such a way as to conceal the damaged bits, so most of them look intact.
Zhang ensured that elements of Chinese ' culture' could be seen at every turn; and he seems to have taken a liking to creating loads of dragons entwining the exterior wall. Each dragon is more than 200 meters long and is pieced together from thousands of porcelain pieces. They are said to symbolize the power of ancient China, being one of the most dominant features of Chinese architecture.
In fact, looking down on the courtyard there are piles of stone pillars and junk littering up the front yard and one shudders to think what this guy has next planned on his to-do list.
Everyone is snapping away on their mobile phones, with idiotic people striking poses as if there was no tomorrow. What drives them to behave in such a way – heaven alone knows! (Ah well, if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em… as they say.)
Inside the house it is very dark, making it difficult to see some of the more imaginative uses one can put a broken teacup to. Thank heavens that in contrast to the outside, the inside porcelain is only used to decorate parts of the ceiling, rails and doors.
There’s also loads of antique furniture, arranged like in a junk yard sale. With the very dim lighting it’s difficult to see if its good stuff or really is just junk. My inclination was to the latter, though a group of loud-mouthed Americans wearing grotesquely chequered trousers covering their ample bottoms ooh’d and aah’d as if they had come across the meaning of life.
“This is simply awesome,” wrote one overawed visitor; while another opined “The building is very unique,” which I guess demonstrates their level of education and credibility.
Compared with some of the tat, there are a few nice things to see, however, such as porcelain mosaics of various different animals, scenery, and Chinese characters. This eagle is rather a handsome bird, I felt…
… while this snub-nosed tiger is somewhat endearing, if perhaps a little anatomically challenged.
As for the cockerel – well you have to smile when you see it don’t you.
Some of the ceiling designs, too, I have to grudgingly admit to finding quite nicely done…
Zhang Lianzhi, meanwhile, just like Kenny Everett, insists it is all done in the best possible taste. "The design is based on my understanding of antique porcelain and traditional Chinese culture,” he once explained in an interview. “The experience is like a child building his dream house with toy bricks. With such a large amount of porcelain pieces, all I needed was my imagination to create and explore."
Many would argue that used in this way, the antique artefacts have become worthless, though Zhang counters that antiques are not something that can only be conserved in storage houses, saying he is giving his collection a new lease of life by presenting them to the public. "I want to share my enthusiasm about the collection with many more people. For the past twenty years, I myself have found great fun in studying the stories and history behind the ceramics. It would be a pity and waste if these fabulous works of art were appreciated by myself only." Hmm, if you say so, Mr Zhang; if you say so.
Of course, you might well be asking yourself how this guy could afford to put together such a museum. It turns out that not only was he born into a wealthy businessman’s family in Tianjin, but he also has a profitable Cantonese-style restaurant chain. He has been collecting antique porcelain for well over 20 years. And maybe he just ran out of space in which to store it all!
Mind you, one of his latest acquisitions is a fully functional Land Rover covered with approximately 10,000 pieces of antique ceramics. It’s estimated to be worth around 1 million yuan ($160,000). And although its owner is reluctant to put a price tag on China House, ‘experts’ (whoever they may be) have evaluated the museum to be worth at least 2 billion RMB ($315 million).
The US blogsite Huffington Post has listed China House as one of the world's 15 most stunning museums; and rumours abound that even Bill Gates wanted to buy it but was refused.
Which all goes to show, I suppose, that there is one born every minute!