Qianlong Garden Complex, part of the Chinese exhibits on display this summer at the Milwaukee Art Museum. | Photo courtesy Palace Museum
Updated: October 27, 2011 12:32AM
MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Can’t travel 6,000-plus miles to China this summer?
Settle for the next best thing: a quick trip to nearby Milwaukee.
In this Wisconsin city well known for its German roots, Mayor Tom Barrett has declared it the “Summer of China.” He’s even signed an official proclamation to prove it.
The Milwaukee Art Museum has five — count ’em: five — exhibits encompassing 3,000 years of Chinese art and culture.
And China’s national pastime, table tennis, is the sport of the summer. (Sorry, Brewers.) Free ping pong tables have been set up throughout the city, which hosted some of the world’s top players earlier this month during the U.S. Table Tennis Open.
Milwaukee doesn’t have a Chinatown like Chicago. But visitors can easily cobble together their own Chinese shopping and dining experience by hitting a few worthwhile spots — especially the bargain-filled Artasia Gallery — all within walking distance of one another downtown.
Speaking of walking, you don’t even need your Japanese car to visit Milwaukee’s China. Take one of the frequent trains or buses from Chicago and see the sights on foot. Burning calories = more crab rangoon.
The Chinese exhibits, ping pong tables and other Asian activities will be going on all summer, but this weekend may be the best time to drop by. Milwaukee is putting on its first ever Chinese Culture Fest on Saturday and Sunday.
One of the festival’s highlights is sure to be Sunday’s dragon boat race, when paddlers in colorful vessels slice through the water to the beat of the boats’ drums. The action takes place at Discovery World’s south lagoon. It’s not the Yangtze River, but it sure is close to home.
Art and culture
Of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s five summer exhibits devoted to Chinese art and culture, the headliner has to be “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City.”
The 90 paintings, decorative works, architectural elements and religious artifacts on display were plucked straight from the Qianlong Emperor’s garden. The powerful emperor’s opulent retreat was built in the 18th century deep within the Forbidden City, a compound for China’s imperial rulers. The garden’s belongings sat virtually untouched in China until restoration work began only a decade ago. When the exhibit ends on Sept. 11, the treasures are headed home — and will likely never leave the country again.
The museum’s other Chinese exhibits include ancient tomb artifacts, modern ink paintings and European vases decorated with Chinese motifs. Also on display is one of Beijing artist Zhan Wang’s large, stainless steel sculptures of a “scholar’s rock,” a feature found in classical Chinese gardens; mam.org.
Back in 1971, when the relationship between China and the United States was nastier than a “Real Housewives” reunion, China extended an unexpected invite to U.S. table tennis players to compete at an exhibition in Beijing. The move opened the door to trade and negotiations between the two nations.
Milwaukee is celebrating the 40th anniversary of “ping pong diplomacy” by setting up free ping pong tables at various locations downtown. Play a pick-up game at the Harley-Davidson Museum, Lakefront Brewery, InterContinental Hotel — even General Mitchell International Airport.
Want more? Head over to Spin, 233 E. Chicago. The hip restaurant/bar/ping pong playground — opened last year and co-owned by actress Susan Sarandon — has 17 tables that can be rented by the hour ($16-$24); spinmilwaukee.com.
What began as a humble kiosk in a mall is now the massive Artasia Gallery, 181 N. Broadway, a store filled with finds the owners pick up on their frequent buying trips to Asia. Most of the items come from China: tea sets, silks, gongs, opium beds, vintage Communist Party posters, copies of Chairman Mao’s “little red book” and Chinese puppets over a century old.
Artasia boasts one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese folk, or ancestral, statues. Many families were forced to hide their statues — considered “religious artifacts” — to keep them from being confiscated by the military during the cultural revolution. Statues in Artasia’s collection, numbering close to 1,400, sell for $95 to $5,500; artasiagallery.com.
Head over to 1125 N. Old World Third Street to stock up on bamboo leaves, fortune cookies, sticky rice and other groceries at Asian Mart, an anomalous little shop in a landmark zone made up of European-style buildings. Owned by a friendly Filipino couple for the past 38 years, the modest store has shelves stocked with all kinds of products, from bamboo steamers and chopsticks to joss sticks and Chinese teas labeled “Kidney Fortifier” and “Female Joy.”
Jing’s Chinese Restaurant has all of the usuals — fried rice, egg foo young, chop suey. But if you’re craving more authentic and unusual Chinese specialties, ask for the “Chinese menu” at this inviting spot hidden in the Marshall Building at 207 E. Buffalo St.
Jing and her husband, who graduated from culinary school in their native China, serve up Shanghai duck in a savory brown sauce, mung bean noodles with pork meatballs, and a whole filet of sole glazed in a sweet tomato sauce.
If what you want isn’t on either menu, don’t be afraid to ask. That’s how I scored a steamer full of six delicious Shanghai soup dumplings; jingsmilwaukee.com.
Organized by the Milwaukee Chinese Community Center, this family-friendly festival on Saturday and Sunday is packed with hands-on opportunities. Make your own paper lantern. Dress in a traditional wedding gown and catch a lift in a red carriage. Learn how to write your name in Chinese calligraphy. Take part in a tea ceremony.
Entertainment includes Chinese acrobatics, folk music, dance and martial arts. Food vendors will be dishing up Chinese delicacies, and you can go on a shopping spree with dollars, not yuan, at the Oriental market.
The fest will be held on the grounds of the Milwaukee Art Museum except for Sunday’s dragon boat race at Discovery World; chineseculturefest.org.
Information for this article was gathered on a research trip partly sponsored by the Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau.