Monday, 15 February 2016

The Nanputuo Tour: a Buddhist Temple jam packed with Chinese tourists

Nanputuo Temple is a large and internationally significant Buddhist temple in Xiamen, South East China. It is both very old and, at the same time, disconcertingly modern; it originated over 1000 years ago with a monk holing up in a cave, has grown over the years and today  features a great deal of more recent construction. My guide was a temple volunteer who offered visitors free tours. She gave the tour in Mandarin, which was racing away far quicker than I could ever hope to hold onto, so I was fortunate to have translation. My last proper visit to a Buddhist temple was a weeklong stay at a Tibetan retreat incongrously located in Pocklington, a village outside of York. That was some twenty years ago and ended badly. It marked the end of my flirtation with Buddhism and also precipitated a split with my girlfriend who I went with and who was having a spiritual experience there. Was karma finally bringing me back round to them today or was I going to be just another tourist looking at the exotic statues and intricate pavilions?  

Because it was the spring festival week, a national holiday throughout China, the tourists were out in force. It was shoulder to should stuff through much of the tour as Xiamen is a top internal tourist destination and Nanputuo one of the city's principal attractions. Here two tourists have stopped to listen to the guide explain the history of a pavilion and take a good look at the tall pale foreigner at the same time. 

She led us around in a clockwise direction. She explained that you should always visit the temple in this way as to go anti-clockwise was against the natural order. I rather liked the fact that the form of the tour was, at least in part, shaped by Buddhist beliefs. Another one of these was that we were not to walk on any of the portals, we had to step over them instead. The contents of her tour were mostly a mix of stories about the history of the site, some Buddhist beliefs and the lives of the monks and masters. A few times I asked her questions and she notionally answered them but in her own way and quickly brought us back to the script she had prepared. She was going to give the tour she wanted to give and not an open-ended enquiry into the life, culture and politics of the site that I might have wished for.

My partner, Sophie, was translating the tour for me and there was a big difference in the way the guide regarded her to how she addressed me. It often happens that when I take tours in China and I am accompanied by a translator, the guide speaks directly to me and the translator then repeats the information in English. Here, the guide concentrated her attention on Sophie and I was mostly a witness to this exchange, which got paused from time to time so that I could get the highlights. 

When we came to the original Nanputuo cave where a monk once lived, our guide showed us how to pray and how to bow. These involved a very specific series of hand gestures, each of which had a significance, and which together made an elegant chain of movements bringing you to the ground and back up. Here I came to feel that perhaps the main purpose the guide put on the tour was that it might serve as a vehicle to rekindle the faith in visitors. She didn't seem so concerned about me as I was foreigner which, strangely, I was quite relived by. I was free to make of the whole thing whatever I wished.

This was one of the more interesting places we stopped at. The guide explained that during the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s, the temple was closed but believers would walk up the mountain to a concrete barrier that had been put up behind which was this giant rock carving. Beside the barrier visitors would say a silent prayer and then move on, a way of discretely practicing their faith during a period when it was prohibited. Nowadays the temple is not suppressed, on the contrary it is flourishing, although I did notice a large police presence. When I asked the guide why they were here she told us their presence was due to the site being of national significance and being so popular with visitors.

We finished up in the newer and much quieter study centre and charity foundation wing of the temple. Here, Buddhist monks made there way around the fragrant gardens lined with osmanthus bushes. They walked in an unhurried manner that was in complete contrast to the tourist scrum taking place a few hundred meters away. Looking at them, I thought, if I were going to choose a place to be a monk I'd probably chose here rather than up some remote frozen mountain, their life looked rather good. 

With a smile, our guide bid us farewell and disappeared back into the swell of people and clouds of incense hovering around the front gate. She made no appeal for a donation, the tour existed as something in its own right and this leant her tour greater weight as the words and practice really were in line with one another. She did not make too hard an effort to translate the site's world to us, which is what most tours do, she simply offered us an hour-long sample of it while slotting us through the crowds point to point. I've noticed that Samye Ling Monastery in Scotland offers tours that similarly extend the idea of a tour into including Buddhist practices such as meditation, so it is quite possible there is a pattern here. If I compare these with most tours of Christian churches that I have been on, the church tends to take a more touristic point of view and accepts that people might well be more interested in the stained glass windows than God.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Hampton Court Costume Drama Tour

Hampton Court is a former royal palace situated beside The Thames in deepest suburban  south-west London. I know its main courtyard from a job I did here back in 2004 appearing as an extra in The Libertine, a middling Earl of Rochester bio-pic starring Johnny Depp. I remember that shoot as a Winter's day spent hovering around a vegetable cart that I was purportedly the owner of, dressed up in period costume with shoes one size too small and trying to spend as much time as possible on the crew bus in order to stay warm. This time round the weather was crisp but not frozen, the period costumes were worn not by me but by my tour guides, my shoes fit me like a glove and I was thankfully rid of that vegetable cart.

Included in the general admittance ticket to the palace were a number of activities and tours for the avid heritage tourist. My arrival coincided with the start of the twice daily tour of the Tudor court, led by a courtier who would introduce us to that world. A group of about thirty of us, gathered in the courtyard where a lady claiming to be part of the queen's retinue welcomed us and said she would show us, "her guests", around court. She led us towards a door which, as she reached it, slammed shut. She pretended she did not expect this, paused in thought for a moment, then said something must be amiss. It certainly was.

We were led into a smaller courtyard where the other performer guides made their appearances. The tour was a three-hander and the theme was palace intrigue in the form of the queen's suspected infidelity. The performers stuck to their characters and talked to us as if we, the audience, were also stuck in the Tudor period and were their guests making a tour of the palace. The tour, then, shifted in tone from Tudor tourism to a trial for treason. 

The acting was neither wholly convincing nor was it embarrassing: it simply did the job adequately. Anything too earnest would have jolted the tour into an unwelcome artistic zone so I am guessing the pedestrian tone of it was, quite probably, deliberate. What's more, the twice daily repetition of this show must have drained it of any excess vigour and helped it settle into the quality tourist distraction that it was.

There was a modicum of audience participation. During the scene where the queen's retinue were interrogated, questions were handed out for us to pose to the queen's servants. This did not change the fact that it was a highly controlled tour where genuine interaction would have been seen as a nuisance or even a liability. The questions existed to keep us awake in this historically themed entertainment that offers the impression of having learnt something when basically you have been inside a bumper length soap opera reconfigured as a guided tour.

What the tour did manage to do rather well was to use a variety of spaces around the palace to good effect, showing off its diversity of ambiances. The tour presented us with a series of good photo opportunities not only of the building but of actors in period costumes too. This was a sure-fire hit with the sort of foreign tourists who come to Britain and want to see the country through a historical lens. They come to Hampron Court Palace to see up close what they had previously only been able to watch on the screen. There were no Johnny Depps today to complete the admittedly anachronistic experience, but there were actors recreating the past in this easily digestible package.

Personally, I found the whole thing mildly oppressive. English heritage with its endless palaces and stately homes often has this effect upon me. It is impressive and has been designed to put you (the peasant) in your place and the nobility in theirs. Such architecture and heritage could be very exciting and even liberating if it were not for the fact that Britain still has a very real monarchy and class system. As such, these spaces are all too typically used to celebrate the continuity of that power structure. I tend to regard them and the ways their histories are interpreted as providing an educational role instructing the monarch's subjects on the proper division of power. They urgently require liberating from this narrative and while excellent examples such as counter-tourism exist, and not so great but not unwelcome contemporary art programmes of the likes of the National Trust's also take place, I see no great appetite on the part of the owners or custodians of these heritage sites to use them in a seriously open-ended way that permits questioning the basis of their existence. Their owners instinctively realise that they play an important ideological role and they will not relinquish control of them voluntarily to the riff-raff. It seems to me the alternatives are to ignore them altogether, to subvert them ever so gently or to retell and reuse them covertly.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

A Tour of the Hampton Court Maze: a deceptively ease diversion


The last time I entered Hampton Court Maze I was a child. This time round, all grown up, it was reassuring smaller. What it does still have from the maze of my memories, however, are the 1970's looking metal fences that hold the bushes to order. I cannot imagine these were part of the original palatial design, they have a distinctly municipal feel to them, put in place to stop the hoi polloi trampling down the finely manicured yew hedges.

The point of a maze is, ostensively, to find the exit. The search is an artificial problem, however, since a maze like this is entered voluntarily in the full knowledge that you'll spend the next half-hour wandering round in circles. Here, navigation is stripped of its practical consequences and becomes a leisure activity. I think part of the fun comes from the maze teasing us: we see the same corners again and again and often the same people too, walking back and forth, yet the exit which should, in so contained a space, quickly reveal itself remains elusive.

The thing is, it was not so elusive. In what seemed like no more than ten minutes, this exit gate appeared. I looked at it harder and there was a sign behind it which seemed to suggest this was only the exit for people who were baffled by the maze and couldn't find the real exit. Seeing as it was so easily found, I assumed a fiendishly obscure exit was evading me so I went in search of this inter-dimensional portal.

This sign within the maze seemed to promise a maze within the maze. Now that would have been exciting. As it was, it provided one more point of reference to guide my way, like Theseus's ball of thread in the minotaur's labyrinth. I did not wish to be pursued by a monster but I was hoping for a more complicated maze. I longed for one that offered no clues like this that could give my journey a history, I imagined a maze with a uniform appearance that provoked confusion. I desired a maze like a hall of mirrors: unsettling and uncanny. You attempt to exit, hemmed in by doppelgรคngers but only slip further and further into oblivion. This maze was not that; it was, almost literally, a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park.

The maze did still have one last trick to play: in the centre space was a group of Indian students milling around taking pictures of themselves in front of some display boards. They made this space theirs so I did not linger but it did make me think that the social side of mazes is quite interesting. You can share this state of gentle lostness with both acquaintances and strangers, and that surely increases its pleasure. Whether it is deciding which of the two of you has the better sense of direction or simply seeing people looking more lost than you, it offers many distractions. I later read that there is a permanent sound installation in the maze called Trace. This is meant to populate the maze with voices and sounds coming out of discretely placed speakers. I heard nothing of it when I was walking through, so cannot say whether it still exists, is a little too discreet or else, I need to get a hearing aid. In general, I feel this is not a space for a permanent art installation: a significant number of its patrons would not want to encounter any sort of art here so anything that is made would have to be so discrete and polite that it would be almost pointless. 

I went looking for the exit of exits and saw this sign but still held out for the slow exit. I started walking quickly keeping the hedge always on my right so as be sure to come to it. This brought me back to the starting gate and then, 10 minutes later, back round to this exit again, at which point I said enough is enough and took the anti-climatic "Fast exit -➤".

I concluded my tour by walking around the outside of the maze and while doing so came across this publicity photograph. I realised there was no obscure exit. The point was simply to reach the Indian students in the centre, then find your way back. I, however, always like to go forwards and find new ways to connect places, so was approaching the maze with the wrong expectations. When I realised this, Hampton Court Maze felt very trivial. Still, looked at from above the question of design comes back into view and this must have been an interesting challenge. I used to make three dimensional hand-held mazes out of lego which had an opening and exit and which you would have to pass a ballbearing through. These took several hours both to make and complete but are nothing in comparison to say, Kazuo Nomura's 2-dimensional maze, which he spent 7 years drawing and which must be near impossible to complete. Constructing this as a life-sized maze that people could enter would be wild: you'd have to include places to eat, sleep and so on. There would be people who'd work in the maze and perhaps never left, there might even be children born in the maze who had never seen the outside. To construct this in reality, a more sensible approach than starting from scratch would be to take an existing city and transform it from one that attempts to ease navigation into one that obstructs and prevents it. This would work best if you started off with an already confusing city like Manilla: you'd be working on an already existing level of confusion. Block off roads and put up walls all around the city. Such a maze/city would surely have guides and, I'd have to hope, tours as well!