Sometimes you know you are beaten before you even start. You know what it’s like. You turn up at a place, having already pictured in your mind what you are going to see, and what is actually there bears no resemblance to anything you could have imagined.
I experienced a very definite case of this recently when I went to visit the Cultural Palace of Nationalities (民族文化宫), located in Beijing's Xicheng District. It was built in September 1959 and is one of the Ten Great Buildings.
The Ten Great Buildings (十大建筑) – for those who don’t know – are ten public buildings that were built in Beijing in 1959, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. They were part of an architecture and urbanism initiative of the Great Leap Forward; and most of the buildings were largely completed in only ten months, by the deadline of 1 October 1959. In addition to their construction, there was also an expansion of Tiananmen Square, and a campaign of art commissions to decorate the majority of the buildings by the time of their completion.
The structures were designed by members of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, who combined three basic styles: modernism in the international style, Socialist realism as typified by Stalinist architecture, and a form of historicism based on traditional Chinese architecture.
The best known of these, of course, are the Great Hall of the People, located on the western side of Tiananmen Square; the National Museum on the eastern side; Beijing Railway Station; the Workers Stadium; and the Military Museum.
But do you know anyone who has actually BEEN to the Cultural Palace of Nationalities? It’s a medium rise building incorporating traditional Chinese design elements, and has apparently won a number of awards as an example of modern Chinese-style design.
It turns out that this “Palace” was registered as the first of 55 museums in the city and – according to the web sites – consists of a museum, gallery, library, art institute, and theatre. The central 13-storey tower houses 18 exhibition halls and a library. The two wings are devoted to entertainment and recreation, housing an auditorium, a club and a dinner-dance hall.
The mission of the Culture Palace was to serve and educate the various minority cultures of the country, promoting minority cultures. Apparently it has a large collection of arts and crafts, costumes, musical instruments, and religious articles showing off the culture of the 56 Chinese ethnic groups.
It also apparently has a four-lane bowling alley which was donated by a Japanese businessman, in early 1985.
It apparently features performances of drama, concerts, ballets, and musicals throughout the year. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Royal Ballet from Britain and other excellent performance troupes from around the world have all – apparently – performed here.
So why can’t I find anyone who knows about it? How come this ‘favourite building of Beijing residents’ – according to many web sites – is so completely unknown? Maybe it’s time I changed my circle of friends???
I decide to broaden my education and set off in search of the place.
I’m glad I have had the foresight to actually look up its address – 49 Fuxingmennei Avenue, in Xicheng District – since there’s not a single sign in English to tell you what it is. A bored looking PLA guard stands on his ownsome lonesome, behind a fence; but round the corner is an X-ray machine guarding an entrance into the grounds. I waltz up to the two guards each drinking from a flask of tea and they barely give me a second glance as I enter the grounds.
A very unused fountain sits forlornly in front of the building into which I make my way, wondering if there is an entrance fee or whether I need to show ID – which is often the case when the fee is waived. I look around for a ticket office, or an entry guard or … anything. But the place is almost entirely deserted.
In front of me is a small staircase of green marble with potted orchids on either side. I decide to take a peek inside.
Inside there are two people – a visitor and a guard who is dosing off to sleep. The room is filled with some quite nice pictures, very few of which appear to have much to do with ethnic nationalities of China. Hardly earth shatteringly great pictures, but pleasant nonetheless.
There is a smattering of stork pictures (can you have a smattering of pictures – or even storks for that matter?) …
and some darker, more sombre works; but not a great deal to highlight the ethnic diversity of the country.
Ah. I speak too soon. I have found a couple of “ethnic” pictures, hiding away in a forgotten corner of the gallery.
Entry to other floors in the central tower is totally blocked. There may well be galleries upstairs, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to get to see them.
I move into one of the side wings where there is a gallery full of calligraphy – again, nothing that bowls you over…
unless you count this cute-looking work of art…
Oh. You don’t?
Let’s explore on the other side of the building.
There’s a large poster referring to a display of two large-scale paintings by Wang Linxu, one of China's top artists, that perhaps were shown here before winging their way to the China Lounge at the UN Headquarters in New York which has just finished renovation under the sponsorship of the Chinese government.
Wang, now 55, is the founder of the transcendental imagery school in Chinese traditional painting, a contemporary take on Chinese ink-and-wash painting that "does not focus on what people see but focuses on what people feel”.
His 20x8 ft Interactive World features a world map which has been made abstract with sea waves, mineral veins and mountains and is said to express Wang’s love for the planet. Yeah. Right! The artist also included elements of pollution and war, in accordance with the UN's advocacy for environmental protection, world peace and development.
But alas. If ever there was a display here (and I guess we must presume there was) there is only the sight of a firmly padlocked door now. And the only thing we can appreciate is the poster. Hmmm
I make my way round the upper gallery of the central foyer and come across an exhibition of paintings that have something to do with the upcoming Expo Milan, though the Chinese signs leave me none the wiser. Perhaps they will be exhibited there and another padlock will soon be gracing the door of this particular gallery. If so, I would advise them not to bother. Almost without exception, the works on display are mediocre in the extreme and it takes me less that five minutes to walk my way around them all.
I find my way downstairs again and see a door open to another gallery… but alas it is devoid of anything, save for a couple of ‘interesting’ chandeliers.
In fact, the fittings inside this building are probably the most interesting things to see, so boring is the remainder on display.
I make my way out the front entrance once again, no longer wondering why no one is the slightest bit interested in this place. Palace of Nationalities? Oh please! Don’t make me laugh!