Super, Natural Beijing

July 2, 2008

On Beijing’s worst days, the city fades to brownish grey and the air smells distantly of fire. This afternoon, however, light rain has pulled the dust from the sky, allowing the British Columbia Canada Pavilion, a 10-minute walk south of the Forbidden City, to be seen across Tiananmen Square.

The exterior of the pavilion features an intricate 5,000-kilogram sculpture carved from B.C. jade by Vancouver artist George Pratt. Water cascades down panels of glass, and 13 massive arches—made of metal and red cedar—stand over the entrance.

Designed to build on the success of the B.C. Canada House log cabin at the 2006 Turin Olympics, the pavilion is a three-dimensional brochure in the glossiest sense: promoting the beauty, industries, and history of the province but only hinting at what it means to actually live here. As an exhibit within Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall, the $14.7-million pavilion, which will stay open until the Paralympics end in September, costs roughly four Canadian dollars to see. In Beijing that’s the price of a good meal.

Ivy Zhuang, a real-estate agent from the southern city of Shenzhen, is emblematic of the crowds who will learn of Canada and its 2010 Olympic host city through this rather selective display of super, natural B.C. Zhuang has brought along her nephew Duncan and his university classmate Jerry, having seen an advertisement in the newspaper. Though she has never been to Canada, she hopes the pavilion will motivate the boys to travel here after they’ve finished their undergraduate degrees.

As they walk through the pavilion—past the HBC store and a display devoted to 2010 mascots Sumi, Quatchi, and Miga—they express respect for Canada’s imagined environment; Duncan and Jerry say that environmental protection is something China needs to learn from Canada.

The designers, it seems, were hoping for just this reaction. The exhibit is divided into sections based on the elements of traditional Chinese philosophy: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Fire, meant to represent the passion of B.C. residents, is the only section that doesn’t focus on the province’s abundant resources. With respectful nods to First Nations traditions—among them a neat video exploring the connection between First Nations and Chinese drumming—the culture on display is more of the museum variety than a reflection of everyday Canadian life.

Actually, that depends how you feel about Dashan. Literally “big mountain” in Chinese, Dashan is Mark Rowswell, an Ontario native who for many years has been arguably the most famous foreigner—let alone Canadian—in China. Known for flawless Mandarin, cheesy commercials, and even cheesier TV programs, Rowswell represents the typical Canadian about as well as Martin Yan, the television chef, represents the typical Chinese. The pavilion is offering visitors a chance to win dinner and a personal tour of the exhibit with Rowswell. His face is the first one visitors see when they reach the Fire section.

Mostly, though, recently hired pavilion hosts shepherd people through the exhibit. Expected to greet and inform visitors, the hosts are students from universities in Canada and China. Some speak French, most speak Mandarin and English, and all are professionally friendly.

“Before I came to the pavilion,” says Eileen Zhang, a host from Beijing, “I had 10 days’ service training—how to welcome people, how to shake hands with them, and how to show professional knowledge to visitors about culture, geography, and history.” Friends who have gone abroad told Zhang that Canada is a nice place to study and live, which is what attracted her to the hosting position. “I haven’t been to Canada yet,” she says, “but I plan to go.”

The exhibit feeds into the Exhibition Hall lobby, where select visitors can access the second floor—an area decorated with wood and jade designated for delegations, presentations, and performances. A clock displays the days and hours left until the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics—one of hundreds of countdown clocks and signs all across Beijing. Forms are handed out for the “Dinner with Dashan” competition.

“After visiting this exhibit, I like Canada even more,” Ivy Zhuang says after filling out the form. “I understand why this is a place that Chinese people, especially those from Hong Kong, like to go.”

Exhibition Hall is closing for the day. Outside the pavilion’s modern cedar arches, the rain has stopped and Beijing carries on in its eternal way. Crowds drift through Tiananmen Square, many heading around the corner to Qianmen, the historic front gate to the old Imperial City and a symbolic entryway to the heart of China

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