From limos to junk, quirky museums tell Beijing’s history

  • Red Flag car models collected by Luo Wenyou are displayed at his private museum in Huairou district of Beijing.( AP)

  • In this Sunday, March 27, 2016, photo, Luo Wenyou poses by his Red Flag car which he used in the 1998 vintage car rally to drive from the northeastern city of Dalian to Beijing, at his private museum in Huairou district of Beijing. As China grows richer, wealthy citizens, banks and private businesses have invested in Chinese art and started museums to display their wealth or patriotism. Others, such as Luo, opened their collections after their pastimes evolved into callings.( AP Photo/ Andy Wong)

  • Red Flag car models are displayed with other vintage cars collected by Luo Wenyou at his private museum in Huairou district of Beijing.

  • Luo Wenyou poses in front of one of his vintage car collection, a Red Flag limousine, on display at his private museum in Huairou district of Beijing.

Stuffed into a tiny room off an alleyway are items that Wang Jinming readily acknowledges were put out with the garbage: Paper string, a needle holder, a metal pancake maker developed for thrusting into a fire.

“These objects all look quite old and shabby, ” he said. “But they record real history.”

Wang’s Beijing Old Items Exhibition in the heart of old Beijing is one of dozens of private museums that dot the capital’s backstreets and its suburbs. Their collectings feature the grand and mundane from items salvaged from the garbage to a limousine in which Mao Zedong once rode.

Entering these private museums is to peel off a largely forgotten layer of Beijing’s recent history.

While state-run museums attempt mainly to legitimize the ruling Communist Party through its own highly selective interpretation of history, the capital’s private museums are born from their founders’ hobbies and preoccupations, along with a sense of duty to keep alive a little bit of history others might dismiss as trivial.

“If you hurl it on the street, people would say ‘What’s this? ‘ and perhaps think it’s useless and throw it away, ” said Wang, gesturing all over the room packed with hundreds of household items and street objects dating from the 1900 s to the 1970 s. “But we think it’s culture.”

Wang pleasures in telling visitors to guess what the objects are in their hands. They might include a popsicle holder used by street vendors or a bucket-shaped iron heated by charcoal. All form part of the collection that Wang and two co-founders began in the 1980 s after asking foreign visitors why they were so interested in buying old everyday items.

“They said, ‘To collect.’ Now if you go to someone’s home “youre supposed to” can’t find such things, ” Wang said.

Picking up a doughnut-shaped metal bell, Wang was said that before Beijing had many hospitals, itinerant doctors used to roam the streets. “When you heard this sound, the doctor was walking in the street, available, ringing the buzzer, ” he said.

Liu Chen, 27, first visited the museum after reading about it on social media and has returned several times with friends.

“It’s not like big state-owned museums. You don’t need to buy a ticket to enter some sort of grand dormitory and saunter through different chambers, ” he said. “Here many of the old objects displayed might have been the kind of things used by Mr. Wang himself when he was a kid, so you can feel his enthusiasm, which is the key thing that distinguishes it from other museums.”

As China grows richer, wealthy citizens, banks and private businesses have invested in Chinese art and started museums to display their wealth or patriotism. Others, such as Luo Wenyou, opened their collections after their pastimes evolved into callings.

In 1998, when he already owned about 70 old autoes, Luo took part in an 800 -kilometer( 500 -mile) rally from the northeast city of Dalian to Beijing, his iconic Red Flag sedan the only Chinese automobile in the event.

Having learned about vintage car associations and museums outside China, and inspired by screams of “long live Red Flag” as he pulled up to Tiananmen Square, Luo chose he was honor-bound to preserve the legacy of China’s early motoring history.

“I had a karting track, a transportation company and a garage. After the rally I sold them off inexpensively in order to be allowed to instantly start a vintage car association and later procured the museum, to fill the gap, ” said Luo. “I felt this was my personal duty.” His museum set up in 2009 and he now boasts more than 200 vintage Chinese and foreign cars.

Some of Luo’s vehicles have narratives from China’s recent history. They include a car Mao refused to ride in until the brand’s Romanized name on the hood was replaced with Chinese characters and a automobile found in an overgrown patch of grass that had been assigned to former President Liu Shaoqi. The latter vehicle still had transgressed windows from when Liu was being sought by Red Guards during the course of its Cultural Revolution after falling out of favor with Mao.

Luo lives at the site with his wife so he can open up outside normal hours for visitors traveling from afar. “Even if just person or persons comes we will open, even though the entrance fee won’t encompassed the energy, ” he said.

Private collects like Luo’s offer a welcome alternative to nation museums that seek to draw the visitor into a narrative about the greatness of China and the necessity of the Communist Party’s leadership, said Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

“You don’t really find publicly supported pockets of weirdness, ” Tinari said.

Ma Weidu opened China’s first private museum in 1996, filling it with antiques bought inexpensively in the late 1970 s and 80 s from Beijing residents eager for cash to buy refrigerators, TVs and rinsing machines.

“I could buy 10 median pieces of art for 65 yuan ($ 10 ), ” said Ma.

In those early days, his most valuable acquisition was a bowl built in an imperial kiln during the reign of the Qing dynasty ruler Qianlong about 250 years ago, Ma said. Bought for simply 6 yuan( less than$ 1) at the time, it could be worth as much as 600,000 yuan ($ 92,000) if sold today, he said.

Ma’s Guanfu Museum now has three branches across China with two more opening this year. Ma himself has become a TV personality, hosting programs teaching antique hunters how to discern between real treasures and fakes.

Ever keen to attract more visitors, Ma, a cat lover, recently named 20 felines as deputy curators.

“A lot of people who come to the museum … are more interested in cats than culture, ” said Ma. “But some may come here because of the cats and in doing so learn something about antiques.”

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