By Yi Huang

One of my earliest memories as a toddler was being whisked away on an airplane and reunited with my parents in a foreign country.  All that I understood of my future home was there would be a yard and lots of orange juice - that was enough to convince my 5-year-old self.  I was too young to remember much of my old home, which was only exacerbated with the 25-year span until my next visit.  In that time, I had grown up, graduated college, moved out to the east coast and started my new life as an architect in New York City.  This past month, I finally had the opportunity to return to China.

As both tourist and pseudo-native, I was caught in a grey area where I understood just enough to get by, but looked the part of a fluent speaking native.  To start off the journey, I began in the culturally rich capital of Beijing.

As my first destination, The Forbidden City lived up to it’s reputation as a vast and grandiose palace of highly decorative and ornate structures.  Built during the Ming Dynasty (1400s), it served as the seat of administrative power and residence to the emperors for a whopping 500 years!  Composed of a wide range of state and private buildings, it dwarfs many of the palaces of the western world.  Of particular interest to architects are the intricate interlocking timber details that form the roof and eave details of Chinese Palatial Architecture. All of these roof members are held together without any type of mechanical fasteners.  Another interesting detail is the roof charms, or "walking beasts" that adorn the roof hips – acting as a visual hierarchy of importance.  The greater the number of figures, the more important the structure - the Hall of Supreme Harmony has the most at 10.


Highly decorated timber eaves and construction details

Roof charms at the Hall of Supreme Harmony

Up next, a short trip outside the city limits led me to the more mountainous countryside where I scaled (took the gondola) the Great Wall of China.  A little known fact is that the wall is not one continuous fortification, but rather a series of walls built during different dynasties and of different materials.  The most well-known sections of the walls were built during the Ming Dynasty and is mostly what remains today.  It is truly an engineering feat of great skill and ambition to construct a structure at such altitude and conditions.  Note the tremendously non-code compliant steps needed to just climb within the walls – apparently successful at keeping out the Mongol invasions but not the common house cat.

Great wall of China, Mutianyu Section

A foreign invader

After Beijing, I flew to Guilin, my birthplace.  Described to me as a place of natural beauty, I was astonished to find that my quaint hometown had a "paltry" population of 4.7 million people.

The city of Guilin among the dramatic Limestone Karst hills

The nearby Li Jiang River

Much of my time here was spent reuniting with family members and friends – some of whom only remembered me as a toddler.  It was fascinating for me to see such a rich and bustling city operating within such a naturally beautiful environment.  Unfortunately, there was not much that I recalled from my childhood here.

A concrete staircase that I would play on as a child

Vibrant night market of nearby Yangshuo

Lastly the trip ended with a stop in Shanghai, a sprawling metropolis of ever taller high-rises and bold construction.  The modern section of Shanghai stood in stark contrast to the charm of old Shanghai, where sweeping roof eaves filled the alleys and street vendors set up shop carrying all sorts of delicacies and wares.

Shanghai’s sprawling metropolis


Old Shanghai Streets