Archives for category: architecture

Recently my family and I had an amazing adventure on the other side of the world. We flew from Glasgow to Malaysia in the heart of Southeast Asia where the weather is always hot and steamy, even in December. From the capital city of Kuala Lumpur we took a four-hour train ride (with f-f-freezing cold air conditioning) up the coast to the island of Penang.

The main city on the island is called George Town, and it has a long history as a trading port. Today the city is a modern metropolis with high-rise office blocks and fancy hotels, but there are still some beautiful historic buildings that give a sense of the old way of life in Penang.

One of these is the famous Blue Mansion on Leith Street. It was built in the late 1880s by a very successful Chinese businessman and diplomat, Cheong Fatt Tze. Born into relative poverty in southern China in 1840, Cheong fled civil war and settled in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he started as a shopkeeper before building an impressive business trading rubber, tea and coffee. He had three ships which travelled between Penang and Sumatra with trade goods, and soon he was rich enough to buy a bank.

Wealthy businessman Cheong Fatt Tze in the 1890s.

Cheong Fatt Tze was so well known and admired in Penang that the Chinese government appointed him as Chinese Consul, responsible for the wellbeing of all Chinese residents of Malaysia and Singapore. For this highly prestigious position, Cheong decided he would need an impressive residence as his base.

The Blue Mansion was built according to the principles of Feng Shui, a Chinese philosophy linking architectural design with the elements of nature to ensure a lucky and harmonious life. For example, the house has five courtyards open to the sky, allowing rain to enter, as water is a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The house is also built on a gradient which allows drainage and represents the upward steps toward progress and self-improvement.

The first courtyard features an ornate Chinese screen, imported cast iron columns and railings and a granite floor.

Because Cheong was an international trader, he chose the highest quality materials for his mansion from around the world. These included Victorian encaustic floor tiles from Stoke-on-Trent and decorative cast iron from William Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry in Glasgow.

A view from upstairs shows the ornate cast iron columns, railings and brackets, as well as the decorative floor tiles, all imported from the UK in the 1880s.

Being a Glasgow resident myself, I couldn’t resist finding a Macfarlane imprint on one of the columns!

The floor tiles are typical of the time and the same patterns can be found in Victorian houses around the UK.

The exterior of the house is finished with a lime wash (mixing powdered lime – not the fruit – with sand and water) which is spread on the surface like plaster. Natural lime wash dries white, but because this colour represents death in Chinese culture, Cheong’s mansion has the addition of indigo dye which creates a beautiful blue colour.

At the eaves, Chinese craftsmen have added an amazing floral decoration in the Chien Nien style with pheasants, parrots, crabs and fish. These are made with red, yellow, white and green ceramic bowls which have been broken to create curved mosaic pieces. All very labour intensive!

The curved porcelain pieces make perfect feathers and flower petals.

Cheong Fatt Tze had eight wives and six sons. His favourite wife (number 7) lived in the Blue Mansion, and Cheong used part of the building as his office as Chinese Consul in Penang. He died in 1916 and his will stated that the mansion must be shared by his descendants and could not be demolished or divided up. Over the years it fell into disrepair, and was eventually inhabited only by drifters and rats.

In 1989 a group of Penang conservationists who saw the historic importance of the Blue Mansion bought the property and spent many years and a great deal of money (supported by UNESCO and other heritage agencies) restoring the building. It is now open to the public and has a museum installation on the first floor with guided tours three times daily. (We went on one and the guide is very entertaining!)

The mansion also houses a luxurious 16-room hotel and a restaurant called Indigo. It’s an impressive building with so many surprising details, not least of which is the fascinating story of Cheong himself. I think if we ever go back to Malaysia it will be my hotel of choice!

GlendaruelA little while back I received a wonderful package of letters from Kilmodan Primary School, a two-classroom schoolhouse in a tiny rural community in Argyll, Scotland. There are only thirteen pupils in the school, and the surrounding countryside is very beautiful. The river above winds through Glendaruel quite close to the school, and the harbour below is Colintraive where some of the pupils live.

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

The eight P1-4 pupils and their teacher Ms Hawkins had been reading my two puffin books, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero in class, and they each wrote a lovely invitation to Lewis the puffin to come and visit their school tearoom in September. Along with the letters, they enclosed photos of their impressive classroom display of puffin drawings and a fantastic seabird scene. Sadly, Lewis was on tour with the circus in Canada in September, so he couldn’t manage a visit. Instead, he sent each of the children a postcard from Toronto and told them all about his adventures. Since then, Ms Hawkins has been tweeting about Lewis and Harris on her school Twitter account, and she gave me an idea…

puffin holiday planLewis and Harris are back together now, as the circus is taking a little break. On Sunday the two brothers decided to fly off to Ayrshire to visit Blairquhan Castle, as it was a lovely sunny autumn day. They found a picture of the castle in a book and thought it would be great fun to go exploring there.

arrival castleWhen they arrived, it looked just as impressive as the picture! The enormous wooden door stood open in welcome, so Lewis and Harris hopped up the steps and went inside. They were very impressed by the big, beautiful rooms and all the paintings on the walls. One painting showed a rather large family playing out in the countryside:

big paintingAnother painting was of a little girl holding a pet rabbit. Lewis and Harris got up near the painting to get a closer look. They thought the rabbit looked a bit worried.

puffins and rabbitNext they visited the library. They had never seen so many books in one place! The little spaces in between felt just like a puffin’s burrow in the cliff.

libraryNext they wandered into the dining room, where they found a strange bird. It was a pheasant, but for some reason it refused to talk to them. Eventually they gave up and left him alone. What a rude fellow, they thought.

puffins and grouseLewis and Harris ventured up some very grand stairs and found a big four-poster bed with tartan drapery. Next to the bed was a lamp with another animal – this time a handsome stag made of metal. The puffins flew up to the bedside table to take a closer look.

stag lampIt was clear this one was not going to talk, but they thought he made a lovely lamp. Blairquhan Castle was a great place to visit, but it was getting late and Lewis and Harris needed to get home. On their way out they stopped in the grand ballroom and spotted a very special ice cream cart. What a funny thing to find in a castle!

ice cream cartThey asked the man what he was doing there, and he explained that this was an open day for people who wanted to have their wedding at the castle. He offered a free taste of his special wedding ice cream, and Lewis and Harris couldn’t say no!

ice cream choicesLewis liked the look of Rhubarb and Ginger, and Harris went for Yummy Watermelon. They were delicious! Ice cream was a perfect end to a great day out, and it gave them lots of energy for the long flight home. I wonder where Lewis and Harris will go next?

subway entranceOn our second day in Toronto, my son and I hopped on the Yonge Street subway line to head down to the Harbourfront area. The subway system has been expanded since I lived in Toronto, and now reaches further in all directions. A good deal simpler than the London Underground system, the Toronto subway has two main lines: the yellow one goes North-South in a big U, and the green one goes East-West along Bloor Street.

Toronto Subway map showing the three lines. Map ©TTC.

The Bloor/Danforth line has been extended north at the eastern end. It ended at Kennedy when I lived there. So I see a new blue line and also a little purple one that wasn’t there before! These go out into the suburbs. Downtown Toronto is the area served by that lower part of the U.

The subway trains have also changed a great deal since I was last in Toronto. Now they are sleek and open with no divisions between carriages. They were revamped in 2010 and now look similar to New York subway trains.

The new Toronto subway trains were launched in 2010. Photo ©TTC/Mike DeToma.

The new Toronto subway trains were launched in 2010. Photo ©TTC/Mike DeToma.

The platforms are clean and modern, and signposting is pretty clear. You can get a transfer to travel on a bus or streetcar once you come out of the subway, but remember to get it at the station where you start! Look for the red transfer machines.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Inside, the trains look great but the seats are a bit hard. Plenty of room for standing though, and you can walk down the full length of the train.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

There are regular announcements at each station and a set of arrows on the overhead display shows which side to exit on. There is also a clever illuminated map of the subway network with a green light indicating the train’s current location. Red lights show the route you are on and where you will go next.

So, all this to say we took a subway train down to Union Station, where we took a short walkway south to the Harbourfront. I hardly recognised the place, as so many new hotels and highrise condominiums had been built in the past 20 years! We were meeting a friend at the Queen’s Quay building, but I had some trouble finding it in a forest of glass and concrete towers.

queens quay condoThe Queen’s Quay Terminal building was originally a warehouse on the waterfront, but was converted to luxury condominiums in 1983. Back then it was virtually the only one of its kind, with lovely terrace restaurants on the quayside and a landscaped walkway behind. A nearby powerhouse was converted into an art gallery in those early days of cultural transformation.

Now there are a huge number of attractions, including a dog and cat centre, the Purina PawsWay, where pets are welcome to take in exhibits (such as the Animal Hall of Fame) and events like obedience training and obstacle races. Not being pet owners, we didn’t venture in.

Giant bronze pets welcome you at the PawsWay at Harbourfront. Photo ©Purina PawsWay.

Giant bronze pets welcome you at the PawsWay at Harbourfront. Photo ©Purina PawsWay.

Instead we had a lovely walk along the waterfront and a great meal with our friend on a sunny terrace. The next stop was the CN Tower, but when we arrived it was so crowded that we would have had to wait two hours to go up, so we decided against it. My son had forgotten his glasses anyway, so Toronto from the air would have been a blur!

We decided to stroll up Yonge Street, the longest street in Canada at 58 km. We had only travelled a few blocks when we came past the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, a handsome Edwardian double theatre built in 1913 by Marcus Loew and designed by Thomas W. Lamb.

Photo ©Elgin Winter Garden Theatre.

Photo ©Elgin Winter Garden Theatre.

Originally designed for vaudeville, the lower Elgin Theatre was a sumptuous gilt and red velvet hall where silent films were introduced, and later it was adapted as a mainstream movie house.

The Elgin Theatre has been in continuous use since 1913. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The Elgin Theatre has been in continuous use since 1913.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The separate Winter Garden Theatre is located seven stories above the Elgin, and is a whimsical creation with its hanging beech branches and twinkling lanterns.

The unique Winter Garden Theatre has tree-like columns and hanging leaves. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The unique Winter Garden Theatre has tree-like columns and hanging leaves.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

This theatre was aimed at a more discriminating audience but it also featured vaudeville shows. When these declined in popularity the Winter Garden Theatre closed, and lay unused for 65 years. In the 1980s both theatres were restored by the Ontario Heritage Foundation. In the upper theatre, volunteers spent many months rolling the painted walls and boxes with raw bread dough to remove the soot. This was the only way to clean them as they were painted with simple water-based paints.

The boxes and stage surround are painted with trellis and roses. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The boxes and stage surround are painted with trellis and roses.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

We had intended only to pop in and look at the lobby with its lovely stained glass doors, but we ended up going on a 90-minute tour! A very lucky discovery, and much more interesting than the CN Tower, as it turned out.

The entrance to the Elgin, with beautiful stained glass doors. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

There is so much more to see in Toronto that we must try to get back very soon. I’m going to make a list and be a bit more organised next time!

Toronto skylineMy son and I spent a couple of days in Toronto recently. It was a first visit for him, and I hadn’t been there in over twenty years. So much has changed in that time that I hardly recognised the place!

We arrived by bus, and that brought us into the city along University Avenue, where a striking new sculpture caught my eye. It’s a shiny, silver, twisted tree root covered in silver birds, and it stands in front of the Shangri-La Hotel. The sculptor is Zhang Huan, a Chinese artist who does impressive large-scale sculptures with a dream-like quality. This one is called ‘Rising.’

Detail of 'Rising' by Zhang Huan. Photo ©Craig White.

Detail of ‘Rising’ by Zhang Huan. Photo ©Craig White.

Our first stop in Toronto was the Royal Ontario Museum, where by chance we found some more sculptures from China in the William Charles White Gallery. These were ancient gold Buddhas and life-size statues of Buddhist scholars and teachers.

Painted wooden statues from Shanxi province in China. Photo @Royal Ontario Museum.

Mounted on two walls of the gallery were enormous murals taken from a Buddhist monastery from the Yuan Dynasty (over 700 years old). They were very impressive, and remarkably well preserved. It’s hard to imagine how they managed to move such large and delicate wall paintings into the gallery.

Yuan Dynasty mural. Photo ©Royal Ontario Museum.

Yuan Dynasty mural. Photo ©Royal Ontario Museum.

After all this ancient history it was time to get back out into the 21st-century city! We walked through Queen’s Park past the Ontario Legislature (where we had just missed all the Canada Day celebrations) and found Dundas Square where a street performer was juggling flaming torches on top of a very tall unicycle! We stayed to watch but kept well back, just in case!

Dundas Square opposite the Eaton Centre in Toronto.

Dundas Square opposite the Eaton Centre in Toronto.

When I lived in Toronto, Dundas Square didn’t exist. It’s similar in feel to Times Square in New York, though on a smaller scale. The bright billboards look best at night, and we were there to have dinner at the local Hard Rock Café. I thought my teenage son would enjoy a truly North American experience, but later I found out there are lots of them in the UK! We sat next to a wall mounted with backlit boxes displaying Stevie Nicks’ boots, a hat worn by Tom Petty, and a guitar played by a member of Kiss, among other things. The boxes went right up to the ceiling and we were craning our necks trying to read all the labels. Perhaps the restaurant should issue telescopes to all their customers!

Toronto is a great place to take photographs, and I found an excellent page on the Tourism Toronto website called Top Picks for Pics. We got to a few of these places but sadly only had two days in the city which wasn’t enough time!

Tomorrow I’ll tell you all about our visit to Toronto’s Harbourfront and a brilliant tour we took of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres on Yonge Street.

Inside the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Inside the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Spring is a good time to visit China. The searing heat of the summer has not yet arrived, and the parks and markets are full of life. China is a place of striking contrasts. Beijing and Shanghai are huge, modern cities, but there are also peaceful open spaces and amazing historic buildings.

The Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China.

No trip to China is complete without a visit to the Great Wall (which they say is visible from space!) and of course Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Beijing is the capital of China and has a population of over 20 million people.

The school run in Beijing.

The school run in Beijing.

The traffic is very busy and never stops, so it’s tricky to be a pedestrian. Lots of children go to school on the back of a scooter!

Selling shoes in a street market.

Selling shoes in a street market.

There are lots of open-air markets where you can buy all sorts of things. The most impressive displays are in the food markets where a huge variety of fruit and vegetables are sold. With 20 million people to feed, it’s not surprising!

Fruit and vegetable stall in a Beijing market.

Fruit and vegetable stall in a Beijing market.

The city is full of life at night, with lots of people out shopping or going to restaurants.

Lanterns light up the streets in Beijing.

Lanterns light up the streets in Beijing.

In Shanghai there are boat trips at night on the Huangpu River to see the Pudong district which is beautifully lit.

The Shanghai skyline looks dramatic at night.

The Shanghai skyline looks dramatic at night.

Shanghai at night looks pretty impressive! The big purple tower is called the Oriental Pearl Tower and is a television transmission tower.

The view from the tour boat.

The view from the tour boat.

There are some amazing buildings in the historic district of Shanghai as well. They are made of wood, and provide a huge contrast to all the modern glass and steel.

Traditional buildings on stilts.

Traditional buildings on stilts.

To escape the big city there are lovely open spaces to enjoy. Parks are very popular and people meet to play music and do a little impromptu dancing.

A musical gathering in the park.

A musical gathering in the park.

This park has a boardwalk along a pretty lake. It’s clearly a place for taking special photos and just enjoying a stroll in the fresh air.

I think this is a fashion shoot rather than a real wedding.

I think this is a fashion shoot rather than a real wedding.

There were some surprising boats moored on this lake. Would you like a dragon boat? What a perfect houseboat!

It would be scary seeing this coming in the dark!

It would be scary seeing this coming in the dark!

This one is very elegant. I'd love to hop aboard!

This one is very elegant. I’d love to hop aboard!

If you want to escape the city altogether then a trip to the Yellow Mountains of Huangshan is in order. The scenery is incredible, even if you arrive in fog and rain. A cable car takes you close to the top, where there are pathways and viewpoints.

Climbing in the Yellow Mountains of Huangshan.

Climbing in the Yellow Mountains of Huangshan.

These trees and cliffs look just like the classic Chinese paintings we sometimes see on calendars and posters. They seem very mysterious in the fog!

Beautiful in any weather!

Beautiful in any weather!

The paths are steep and quite close to the cliff-edge at times. The barriers are strong but not all that high…

Best to watch your step, especially when wet...

Best to watch your step, especially when wet…

It’s a great place to visit if you are a nature photographer. Close to two million tourists visit these mountains every year.

A magical forest on the mountain.

A magical forest on the mountain.

What an inspiring place for storytellers! This must be the source of many ancient myths and legends. I hope I’ve inspired you to visit China some day.