Monday, 31 May 2010

Shanghai - Day 13 - Shanghai Old Street, The Bund

sunny 25 °C

Were starving and decided to go to Shanghai Old Street for some good grubs and sightseeing.

I only re-visited the Nanjing Road because it's on the way to the Bund. As far as cloth shopping is concerned, Atta was disappointed with Nanjing Rd. Nanjing Rd is known as China's best shopping street. And the operative word being 'China'. Indeed, there're many boutique cater for Chinese tourists and some of the fashion styles are somewhat appealing to my grandma, and to a lesser extent my mum. Hauihai Middle Rd is more to Atta's liking, but not her budget.

I decided to re-visit the Bund in this trip for her sake as she hadn't been here in this trip. It was a nice day with blue sky. Yes, Neither the typical mist/fog that usually blankets Shanghai or the so called pollution particulate matter were present. Visibility is high. Best day to go up to one of the observation towers (which we haven't done). It was a nice and mild day until 6:30 when the weather turned windy and old. I was decidedly under-dressed.

Shanghai is the most cosmopolitan city in China. In fact, probably in the world. NY City is very multicultural (a term not quite fashionable in USA compares to Canada where they invented the term. USA prefers melting pot while Canada is happy with a salad bowl), but not cosmopolitan. Canadian is obviously much more healthier (from eating greens). I define cosmopolitan city as a city with transient foreign workforce and businessmen passing through (the Gulf States - especially Dubai - is the only other place on earth that rivals, in fact, exceeds the kind of cosmopolitanism of Shanghai that I'm talking about). In Shanghai, many of the foreigners are expats workforce as supposed to migrants. The only migrant workforce in China are coming from other parts of China. Many expats end up spending their lives here, luring by their very cosmopolitanism - a personality trait that Shanghai stuck since the signing of the Treaty of Nanking/Nanjing (except for the brief interlude between the founding of PRC in 1949 and the Opening up in 1978). I guess it's apt that Nanjing Road is the main street of Shanghai leading to centre of the Bund.

Shanghai tourists sat on the steps/bleachers of the promenade on the Bund, all facing Pudong, enjoyed the sweeping city skyline. Isn't this a great metaphor? The old European Colonial buildings that represent the past are behind us in Puxi, while the modern skyscrapers in Pudong are spreading in front of us. Pudong used to be nothing but a patch of rice paddies had now morphed into a modern financial centre of China. Isn't that another picture perfect metaphor? Pudong symbolises in concrete (and glass and steel) term that China is transforming itself from an agricultural economy into an industrial one since 1978. Pudong is showcasing that striving.

After 6pm, the weather suddenly turned cold. I was decidedly under dressed, but I braved the cold because I wanted to wait for the illumination of Pudong to start at 7pm.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Hangzhou - Day 1

Hard Landing for my Soft Hiney 

overcast 24 °C

Boarded on South Shanghai Railway Station the CRH about 1pm bounded for Hangzhou. Unlike our trip to Suzhou, which we boarded the train on Shanghai Railway Station. The South Shanghai Railway Station is much newer than Shanghai Railway Station. From a distance, it looks a little like a flying saucer with a round structure.

The CRH we caught is also known as Harmony (和谐号), more commonly nicknamed the Bullet train because of the shape of the nose of the train. Sometimes called 'D' train because this line of trains are numbered with the initial 'D'.

The distance between Shanghai and Hangzhou (160km) is about twice that between Shanghai and Suzhou (80km), and so we expected its travelling time is about double. We were right, it's about 1 hrs and 15 mins. This CRH train is newer than the two we'd taken to Suzhou and back, but the leg room is much less. Still spacious, but we can't place a 20kg luggage in front of Atta, and still have some leg room left. We placed it between the space in front of our seats.

We'd caught 3 CRH trains up till now, but they all different in conditions, and spaciousness, although we are quite happy with all of them (just to a different degrees). This one is the newest of the three.
We caught a taxi to our hotel. Going by the chaos, traffic congestion, and the hustle bustle, it's hard to imagine that this is paradise on earth. We booked at the Friendship Hotel. This is a Chinese hotel (as supposed to international hotel like Hilton). The traffic jam is as bad here as Suzhou. In both cities, they're building a Metro system to alleviate the traffic congestion. But at the mean time, the traffic jams is worsened temporarily by the construction. In a few years time, when they finish the metro, this gridlock should clear up.

As Atta was checking in the hotel in at the front counter, I checked out the hotel's credentials and accolades on the wall. It's a 4-star hotel, and won The Best Service Hotel in Zhejiang province. It's also a green hotel. Well, I'm a little impressed, which says a lots from a stoned traveller.

The hotel tries to attract foreign guests, and hired an European lass who works in the lobby and ready to lend a hand (or ear and mouth) for non-English speakers. The front desk staff can speak some English, but don't expect them to exchange philosophical discourse with you. Another thing they can build on if they want to capture the foreign market is adding more English channels like BBC, CNBC, Bloomberg, ESPN, etc. There're over 80 local TV channels available in the hotel room, and only one (CCTV-9, just renamed to CCTV-News a few weeks ago) is in English.

They advertised that their rooms with views of the West Lake. From the window of room 1505, if I glued my face to the window pane, and looked right, I could see about half of the West Lake. When I looked squarely at the window, I got an unfolding panorama of the local hospital building in front of our very eyes, completed with detailed views of drip bottles, sick beds and nurses in pretty pink.

It was a very misty day, and West Lake was under low visibility anyway. As I sat on the bed, my butts woke up abruptly (a rude awakening). It had a bumpy hard landing. I recalled that Chinese hotel beds are typically much harder than those in the cushy international hotels. This one is hard, but not as hard as the one I stayed in Guangzhou. I guess they already softened them for foreign guests. This hard bed was made up by the choices of pillows that they provide from feather downs to memory foam. They also provide buckwheat, oolong tea, and Jasmine pillows. Tea will keep me up all night. So I opted for a couple, and had teas in the morning when we woke up from the pillows.

The hotel is only 10 minutes walk from West Lake on its main road.

We had a stroll down the West Lake to look at a near dusk scenery.

One last thing, I was quite impressed by its breakfast which caters Chinese, Japanese and Continental food. They even provided yams, which is considered a lowly street food (considered a little more down market than, say, street hot dogs in the West). It's a Staple food for the poorest rural Chinese. When the poor couldn't afford rice, yams are eaten instead. I liked yams too (but didn't try it here as there're quite filling, and there were just too many things to check out). I yam, therefore I am.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Shanghai - Day 11 - Expo Site

Nocturnal Hunting for Stamps at the African Pavilions

sunny 28 °C

We had been taken photos for hours, and decided it's time to enter the pavilions as the queues got shorter. There're late night, cheaper ticket holders who entered the Expo after 5pm. So we try to beat the 5 o'clock crowd by visiting the pavilions now.

Portuguese Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010, China
Portugual Pavilion
Entry Time: 4:10. Queueing Time: 15 mins.

This pavilion mainly exhibits her ancient link with China. It displayed a few important historical documents relating to China like the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary that produced in the 16th century.

At the exit was the cafe where the cold Portuguese tarts were sold like hot cakes. Portuguese tarts are very popular in Shanghai, you can get them in many places from KFC to street food stalls. Chinese love them; I guess because Chinese (egg custard) tarts aren't too dissimilar to Portuguese tart. I do enjoy a mean Chinese egg tart, but leans towards Portuguese tart just slightly more. But it was the cappuccino that really took the cake, and took me right back to Sydney. Cappuccino in Sydney are, of course, prepared by coffee shops operated by Southern Europeans, and beat the weak Chinese (Asian in general) and North American cappuccino hands down. It was the highlight of the Expo...sad isn't it?

Finland Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010, China
Finland Pavilion
Entry Time: 4:40. Queueing Time: 15 mins.
Exhibited various home-grown designs, and when I saw it, one name came to mind: Ikea. Sorry Finland. Feel free to send me a cheque, Ikea, for that plug. Paypal is preferred. Paypal, pay me for that plug. Cheque is preferred.

Italy Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010, China
Italy Pavilion

Entry Time: 7:30. Queueing Time: 25 mins.

Etta enjoyed it more than me. It had got something for both sexes: machines for boys, and fashions for girls. Etta commented how creative were the displayed. I yawned as I nodded. Couldn't tell if I was tired or bored. Probably a bit of both.

Italy Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010, China

African Pavilions
Etta spent the rest of the evening collecting stamps for her passport by going through the various African pavilion thick and fast. By this time, most of the smaller, less popular pavilions could be visited without a queueing. Actually even if there's no lining up at the entrance, but usually a queue for the stamps.

We went through about 11 pavilions (most African's) for the rest of the evening, and it was all a blur.

Spain Pavilion, Shanghai Expo, China
Spain Pavilion

UK Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010, China
UK Pavilion

Luxemburg Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010, China
Luxemberg Pavilion

Poland Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010, China
Poland Pavilion
It uses the idea of paper cutting for the inspiration of its pavilion.

Sweden Pavilion, Shanghai Expo, China
Sweden Pavilion

Denmark Pavilion
This spiral structure is a bicycle ramp

Latvia Pavilion, Shanghai Expo, China
Latvia Pavilion

Monday, 24 May 2010

Suzhou - Day 3

Playing Musical Chairs, Tough Titty on Soft Hiney and Solving Mystery Cases on the CRH Express

semi-overcast 26 °C

Suzhou Train Station
We caught the HSR to go back to Shanghai. We wanted to grab some chow before boarding the train. Didn't see much actions around Suzhou Railway Station except for KFC.

KFC has greater penetration in China than Macky, in fact, I've hardly came across any Double Golden Arches thus far. I guess Chinese are more into chickens than burgers. Also the chicken meats in KFC are, as far as I can see, not breasts. Like all Chinese, I prefer all other tasty parts of a chicken (or any other animals) instead of the blander breast part (Westerners actually prefer breasts (while others prefer blonds)).

I'm not a big fan of Colonel Sanders, but can't say I hate his 11 secret herbs & spices or his nicely pressed attire of the Southern Gentlemen of Leisure. I'll be damned, sounds like there ain't nothing I have against the colonel at all, y'all hear? Etta wanted some twisters but they run out, and so we settled for chicken popcorns. I also ordered a Portuguese tart (who can say no to a Portuguese tart? No Portuguese chicken here though).

KFC, Suzhou Train StationLike many fastfood restaurants KFC tried to add local flavours into their menu. A large poster advertising that they're adding rice dishes starting June (won't be here to see its debut). I remember I ordered a sugarcane juice in either HK or Singapore few decades ago (but don't ask me what I have for breakfast this morning. Can't possibly remember something so recent). We give the chicken popcorn a thumbs up. The Portuguese tart is a inter-cultural marriage between Chinese and Portuguese cooking. And my review of this mixed marriage is as best, mixed. Still, edible. Or should I say, eatable? For drinks we ordered a freshly squeezed lime on the rocks. Quite refreshing.

Perhaps, the greater KFC's market share relative to Macky's comes from KFC's successful localisation of their menus like those I pointed out above: non-breast chicken parts, addition of rice dishes, Portuguese tart, lime, and Chinese herbs and spices, etc. I'm sure Macky's had attempted similar strategy, but their market share reflects that they're being thrashed by KFC in their game of tempting the Chinese taste buds.

Western ideas and tastes aren't widely accepted at this point in time. So if Macky's think they can replicate in China what they have pulled off in HK and Singapore thinking these 2 countries are also Chinese dominated culture, then they have to think twice. China isn't HK or Singapore. At least, not when it comes to food. These two ex-colonies have been Westernised for at least 2.5 - more like 3 - generations. Middle income Chinese Singaporean speak English to each other frequently in social situation, and virtually all the time in work/business situations. Chances are, Macky's is fully aware of the situation, but just not as good as KFC when it comes to reading the Chinese taste buds, and come up with the goods.  They need to read the taste buds as closely - if not more so - than the Chinese physician reading their patients' tongues.

In fact, my experience tells me that these localisations are even more localised than one imagined. When a group of workers gather around in social situation in Shanghai. They usually speak Mandarin when they want to communicate to wider audience. As the dinner progressed, the Shanghainese all started to speak Shanghainese among themselves, leaving the people who can speak Mandarin only cold. What I'm saying is that these fastfood restaurants can not simply come up with a very successful localised menus in Shanghai and thinking it's going to work for the whole of China. Cantonese taste-buds are quite subtle and mild, while Sichuan people think their tongues have stopped working if their tongues aren't numbed by their Sichuan chili, and Shanghainese would probably think the market has run out of salt if their food isn't salty enough. Of course, I'm pointing out the broad strokes while the subtle differences in tastes are as myriad as the number of taste buds we have. China may have the world's largest market, but they're all very fragmented. Chinese are fussy eaters. It isn't going to be easy selling food to Chinese. It's like trying to sell camels to Australian. Australian sell camels to Arabs. They also sell sake to Japanese. And rice to Chinese. Maybe the Aussies are working on selling apple pies to the Yanks. Just you wait...

Selling English language, would be much easy than food because you don't have local competitors (only foreign competitors), and there's a huge shortage. Many English teachers became celebrities. Kathy Flower from UK became the most recognisable face in China in the 1980's. She hosted a English language TV program called "Follow Me".

Dashan (= 大山 = "Big Mountain" = Mark Rowswell) is the most famous Canadian (not just for his height) - if not Westerner - in China in the early 2000s. He hosts a language program on CCTV-News where he teaches Chinese to foreigners. English is the one thing you can sell to China that has a clear distinct advantage over the local competitors (not to mention a sense of mission). This isn't so different from a situation in Japan even today despite the much higher percentage of English speakers in Japan relative to China (about 11%). Teacher (老师 Laoshi) is a highly respected title in China (Confucius was one. Need I say more?).

Speaking of language and Mandarin, I must say I have more problem understanding it in Shanghai than I have in Singapore. The number of different accents are bewildering. Of course, I sometimes have problem being understood as well because of my Aussie English cum Cantonese accent (ok, my talent agent described my accents as 'Australian'). But the problem is skewed towards one direction - me understand them. The 'locals' I likely had contact with were migrants from other provinces who come to Shanghai to work in occupations like cabbies, hotel staff, waitstaff, masseuses, etc. But nothing a little patience, repetition and elbow grease - in the form of hand gestures, sign language - can't solve. Although gesticulation in a cab does pose somewhat of a challenge. For people who intend to backpack across China, you'd better learn some basic Chinese in different accents to get anywhere. Or get one of those universal translator thingy that speaks. I bought one (from loyalty points I accumulated) and have never used it. Didn't need it, so far.

When we boarded the CRH bullet train, there was a flurry of mad rush into the coaches by some local passengers. At first, I read this as impatience. All seats are allocated, so what's the hurry? I soon solved this train mystery (without any help from Agatha Christie, maybe in spirit). We entered the wrong carriage/coach. So we were still trying to locate our seats while the train had already in motion. When we did arrive at our seats, they were occupied by a couple. We told them that they were in our seats, and without putting up an expected fight, in fact, without even checking their tickets, they vacated the seats promptly. This mystery of civil behaviour calls for urgent investigation. I had no choice in this matter!

It was soon dawned on me that besides 1st Class ticket (aka Soft Seat Coach), and 2nd Class ticket (aka Hard Seats Coach), there's a 3rd Class tickets, better known as 'No Seats' Coach. I suspect CRH sells a small percentage of tickets in this class to make up for the usual losses for things like last minute cancellations or changes, passengers who couldn't make it, or most likely scenario: less than 100% bookings. I don't know the percentage nor do I think this is public info. I could be wrong. But judging from the number of people who squatted or stood in an area between carriages, they're under 5%. Of course, the percentage should be or is dynamic, and inversely proportional to peak hours. Say, 5% at off-peak hours, and 0% at peak hour.

The couple that got kicked out by us were apparently bought 'No Seats' tickets. Since the train has already left the station, the 'Standing Only' couple simply didn't account for a couple of silly, and take-it-easy Aussie buggers like us. This Aussie laid-back culture should be quite an eye-opener for them where everything works on first-in-best-dressed basis. The mystery about the initial rush into the train was due to the 'No Seats' ticket holders playing musical chairs with the vacant seats. I don't believe this 'Standing Only' coach is available to longer distance train ride (don't know what defines 'long distance'). Anyway, that's that for the double mysteries of "The Case of Some Passengers Rushing onto the CRH Express", and "The Case of way too Cooperative Passengers on the CRH Express". Cases closed.

We were disappointed yesterday because we couldn't book the Soft Seat Coach for this return trip from Suzhou. This couple of laid-back, pampered Aussies will have to put up with some tough titty on our soft hineys. The Hard Seats we found ourselves in turned out to be quite comfy, and spacious too. In fact, this 'Hard Seats' are a lot softer than the seats on new Sydney suburban trains, which were quite hard because of the steel mesh that are designed to prevent sabotage by a thousand cuts. Random, and senseless vandalism doesn't seem to exist in China or Asia in general. This CRH train is newer than the one we arrived in Suzhou. The seats are slightly narrower than the 1st Class as there're 5 seats in a row instead of the 4 in 1st Class coach. Even in the 2nd Class coach, only 4 seats in a row in the first and last few rows in the carriage to make the aisle bigger near the doorway to reduce traffic bottlenecks. Good design. The leg room in the 2nd Class are practically the same. We placed our large, 22kg luggage in front of Etta's seat, and she still had adequate leg room (not a comment on the length of her legs. She can reach the gas peddle in our sport car. She may have problem in Lexus. But we will never have the luck to find out, however).

Again, the time from Suzhou to Shanghai is practically identical to the reverse trip in 35 mins. It was a much more satisfying trip than we envisaged for a 2rd Class coach. 1st class experience. Thumbs up to CRH.

A helpful tip: Click on the label 'Train' for other train related  posts.


Venice of the Orient/East (according to some)

sunny 27 °C

Today, we left Suzhou for Zhouzhuang, which was about 30 kms from Suzhou or 1.5 hrs drive. I actually only heard about Zhouzhuang a week ago. Suzhou is famous for 2 things: classical Chinese gardens, and water towns. So why did we opted Zhouzhuang for the convenience of Suzhou's water town? I heard from the travel grapevine that this Zhouzhuang is the most well-known of all water-towns (of which there're many around here). It's been called the Venice of the East/Orient. I've been to Venice, and if the title is well-deserved, I'll give it a go.

These 2 places share many similarities, of course, to call for the comparisons: narrow canals, stone bridges arch over them, narrow alleys, history, rowing boats, etc. Zhouzhuang called itself No. 1 Watertown. It's so called not because it's the best (some might say, it is), but because it's the first one to get recognition. So the story goes, a struggling Chinese water-colourist name Chen Yifei painted many of his works based on his home town Zhouzhuang. One of his works was the Twin Bridges in Zhouzhuang was exhibited in New York Gallery. This work was purchased by Armand Hammer, and later presented to Deng Xiaopeng as a gift. He died before his greatest achievement is accomplished, that made him a legend (Take Andy Warhol). The fame of the town was sealed. Mary told us that she doesn't think this water town is the most scenic. It's simply the most well known.

I don't know if you can meaningfully compare the two travel destinations, but I'll attempt to list the pros and cons of visiting Zhouzhuang (aka Zhouzhuangzhen) and Venice, and highlight their differences, according to my experiences:
  • The large Chinese crowd. There're large tourist crowd at Venice too, with more subdued European mob. If you can't enjoy the colourful and rowdy Chinese tourists that Chinese call 热闹 ('heat & noise'), it can be minimised by going there on weekdays. We were there on Monday, where the crowd is considerably smaller than what we saw in Suzhou on yesterday (Sunday). By the time we left there about 2pm, but place was practically deserted. Since this place can be covered in less than 3 hours, you can come here, say, 2 pm, and spend the morning somewhere else.
  • The place is less well maintained than Venice (which, even if it's sinking. It's a well-maintained sinking ship). Actually it's maintained quite ok, just can't compare to the more polished Venice. This isn't necessary a minus, one might argue, it gives the place history and character.
  • It's much smaller than Venice because Zhouzhuangzhen is a 镇 ('zhen') - a small town in Chinese, while Venice is a city (used to be city-state). Again, this isn't necessary a bad thing.
  • Chinese prices.
  • The riverbanks are covered by willows that not only makes it more picturesque, but provides nice shades. Venice on the other are covered by millions of pigeons that drop their loads freely on your head. I got one hit on my shoulder. You're simply against the odds.
  • You can buy local Chinese souvenirs, as well as Russian dolls, and Venetian masks (all of these are made in China these days, not Venice).
In short, if you're looking or something that full of rustic charms on a shoestring budget, Zhouzhuang is for you.

Entrance to Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Entrance to Zhouzhuang

wansan pork hock - a well known local dish, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
wansan pork hock - a well known local dish
There're many such watertowns in the Jiangnan ( 江南) area. Jiangnan - literally means south of the river - is a very scenic place south of the lower reaches of Yantze Delta. Suzhou, Hangzhou, for example, are within this area. As is Zhouzhuang, and many water towns or water villages. When all these water town/villages are taken together, they're likely to be much bigger Venice. But unfortunately, they're all floating around in bits an pieces. No individual one is as big as Venice.

Canal in Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
You can't experience the water town without taking a cruise
on this men (mostly women) powered boats on its narrow canals

Arch bridge over Canal in Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Arch bridge over Canal. This type of ancient arch bridge is a unique Chinese invention.
In the West, ancient arch bridge supports a level walkway. This gives rise to a bridge with
only quarter circle arch. This Chinese arch bridge has a semi-circle, giving rise
to greater heights for boats.

Jiangnan is more or less coincides with the Wu area (for more background on Suzhou, read article "Suzhou - Day 1"). Jiangnan is such a picturesque area that Emperor Qianlong (乾隆帝) of the Qing Dynasty who used the excuse of 'observing and understand the people' to frequently sneaked out the Imperial Place, disguised himself as commoner and went down to Jiangnan from Beijing (乾隆下江南). Typically, Chinese Emperors were imprisoned in their opulent palaces, and were never to set foot outside except for battlefields.

We know better, these Jiangnan trips were more about pleasure than business. His grannie Emperor Kangxi did the same (followed the grand father's footsteps all the way, eh? Like grand daddy like grand sonny). In fact they both took 6 trips respectively. Again, followed the footsteps to the letter (I mean number).

I suspected they came down using the Grand canal. This canal was built to connect Beijing to Suzhou as it was the cultural, and more importantly economic centre of China. The canal facilitated the Beijing imperial court for the transportation of goods, and more importantly, the collection of taxes from Suzhou.

Tourists lining up to enter the Kunqu opera theatre
The Kunqu Opera (崑劇) is listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity since 2001. It's considered the mother of all Chinese operas, including the more well known Beijing Opera. This shouldn't come as a surprise as I mentioned in the Suzhou article that Jiangnan is really the cultural centre of ancient China.

Kunqu Opera Poster, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Kunqu Opera Poster

The Kunqu Opera is originated in Kunshan (Kunqu = "Kun music", and Kunshan = Kun Mountain"), and Zhouzhang is a city at the Kunshan county level. Hence, this explains its presence in Zhouzhang.

We made a brief visit to the theatre.

Kunqu Opera theatre stage, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Kunqu Opera theatre stage, and audience seating

Theatrical boots and costumes for the Kunqi Opera.

Theatrical boots for the Kunqu Opera, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China

Theatrical costumes for the Kunqu Opera, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China

Theatrical boots for the Kunqu Opera, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China

Tiger head shoes, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Tiger head shoes
Every kid in ancient China would dream to own a pair of these

Water courier, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Water courier to facilitate the passing of things between the opposite banks of the canals

Boat Rover, Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Don't know if this is a tradition, but nearly all boat rovers here are women.
Perhaps the men have all gone to work in the Big Smoke

Bean curd "flower", Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, China
Bean curd "flower" (豆腐花), one of my fave sweets deserts

Busy traffic on Zhouzhuang canal, Jiangsu, China
Busy traffic, Zhouzhuang style

As this is a popular venue, it's best to go there on weekday to avoid crowds. The crowds were ok (for China) when we were there. It took us only half a day to see everything as it's a small town, which gives it its rustic charm.

Mary was right; this isn't the best water-town in China, it's just the most well known. Still, it's well worth the trip.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Suzhou - Day 2

Classic Symptoms of Classic Gardening Out. Shrink Warp Tableware. The Leaning Tower of China

overcast 22 °C

Bus stop, Suzhou, China
Bus stop, Suzhou, China
We hired a tour guide (Mary) and driver (Mr.Wu!) thru the hotel. Cost 2000 Yuans for 2 days for both of us. We want a relaxing tour that tailored to our itineraries.

You can't really consider to have seen classical Chinese gardens until you've seen those in Suzhou.

We often talk about the cultural juxtaposition between the East and West. The classical gardens of China and the West is a good example.

The biggest difference between Chinese gardens and Western gardens are structurally obvious. What's more interesting to note are the fundamental differences in the designs that those 2 styles of gardens capture or reflect their polar opposite philosophical attitudes towards Nature.

The Chinese gardens are all about emulating Nature as closely as possible. They use different shapes of rocks to symbolise mountains and peaks, ponds to signify lakes, water flowing over rocks to represent waterfalls, bonsai for trees (I suspect this was how the idea of bonsai was born. Bonsai are basically plants that resemble tiny trees), etc. There're no straight lines in Chinese gardens as there're no straight lines in Nature. Bridges are arched and zigzag, and garden paths meander. In short, Chinese garden is a microcosm of Nature. Such intimate embrace of Nature is very much followed the principles of Taoism where one is to live in harmony with Nature. And become part of it. It's really the Chinese ancient philosophy of Environmentalism.

Western classical garden designs are polar opposite. It's about conquering Nature, making them yield to the will of Man, and making them resemble as little to Nature as possible. They reflect the plans in the dwellings, with rectangular shapes and spaces. They're designed with rulers and squares, resulting in neat, orderly geometrical patterns. Trees are transformed into hedges so they look like walls. Pools are rectangular. Even the jets of water are hydraulically controlled to form pleasing geometric arches. I suspect the spirit of the Industrial Revolution has a lot to do with it. It's about Human controlling their Destiny, and sculpting Nature in the image of their other creations like office towers, apartments, etc. They don't live in Nature, they live in Civilisation. It's like saying, we're God, Ruler of the Earth, and Nature is our subject, and it should reflect our desires, and plans. We improve on Nature.

Today the West is in Post-Industrial Age while China is industrialising, and so you see that Chinese developers have the same attitudes as the West in the 19th Century towards Nature while the West embraces the same ancient Taoist attitude that embodied in the Chinese gardens. And today, Western garden designs tend to emphasise on the natural similitude to Nature. Ironic, isn't it? At the same time, perfectly understandable[1].

These days in China, everything that are old are considered an impediment to the path of progress would be bulldozed over to make way for the new supertall skyscrapers. The kinda thing that USA aspired to in the 1930s when they erected soaring towers like the Empire State Building. Chinese traditional buildings are low and earth hugging, obeying the Taoist principle. They tend to go horizontally rather than vertically. Pagodas are structures imported from the West - ancient India (piggybacked on Buddhism). And pagodas are religious structures, in India or in China.

Suzhou Classical Garden, Suzhou, China
Classical Garden

In the morning, we covered 3 highly recommended gardens of Suzhou: Master of Nets, Lingering, and Humbled Administration. The last 2 are UNESCO listed. The sky was overcast and there was a chill in the air. In other types of landscapes (e.g. beaches) this would be depressing, but here it added to the quiet, meditative qualities of these gardens (although the packed Chinese crowd subtracts it. Come here in low season should see lower crowd).

Pipa player in Chinese classical costume, China
Pipa player in Ming costume
Window in the shape of a vase in a Suzhou Chinese classical Garden, China
Window in the shape of a vase

Erhu player in classical costume in a Suzhou Chinese classical Garden
Erhu player in Ming costume
While it's crowded during busy season, the secret of Chinese classical garden is that there're so many twists and turns and niches that you could always find yourself a quite corner - a secret garden as it were - that you're totally alone and could claim it yours. Your little piece of heaven

For lunch, Mary took us to a local restaurant. We ordered a veggie and beggar chicken dish. I heard about beggar's chicken many times before (sometimes in wuxia movies) and they're available in HK restaurants only with advanced booking. This dish was ready in 5 mins. It looked like cured chicken, and tasted it too. It actually tasted leg hammy, or pork spammy.

Dish disinfecting machines are popular in China (Etta's dad owns one in his Guangzhou's home). This machine is used after the washing.

After you disinfected your tableware, if you just simply leave them in the open, you defeat the purpose as it gathers dust, at least. What to do? Simply shrink wrap them after disinfection. They look as if they are just coming out of a factory. I've seen This practise in restaurants of Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou (flash forward), even in some down-market restaurants. Especially them. Their kitchens may not be clinically clean, but at least their tableware is. What you don't see won't ruin your appetite. Ignorance is bliss.

shrink wrap tableware

Looking at the printed info on the shrink wrap, it looks like they're disinfected by some factory (or approved by some hygiene standard that the government set out ), and not done willy nilly. In a country that has a less than flattering record of food safety, this practise becomes a selling point for restaurants.

Gone were the days of the HK dining table ritual (which still practise in HK and southern China) whereby diners disinfect their tableware's themselves by placing it into a large bowl of piping hot tea. Of course, nobody would stop you if you simply drink the tea, instead of using it as dish washing liquid. We all have different tastes. Each to his/her own.

With 3 gardens in 1 morning, we were gardened out. We went to Tiger Hill (虎丘) for something different ever so lightly after lunch about 3pm. Mary said that if we don't visit Tiger Hill, we can't consider we had visited Suzhou. Well, who am I to argue with a tour guide?

Yunyan Temple Pagoda, Suzhou, China
Yunyan Temple Pagoda, Suzhou, China
Tiger Hill has a variety of sights: river, rowing boats, temples, gardens, sword ponds, deep dales, and the climax of a leaning 47m Yunyan Temple Pagoda (云岩寺塔, aka Huqui Tower), not to be outdone by 56m Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it's more than a century older. But its tilting isn't as noticeable as the Pisa's one. Both co-incidentally have seven stories. But unlike Leaning Tower of Pisa, there's no staircase to go up the Tiger Hill Pagoda. Not that I got to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa as only a batch of 50 people are allowed to go up at a time, and there are a long queue; not to mention the stiff fee. Also, because we joined a packaged tour, the schedule is very tight.

Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China

Boats, Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China
Boats for hire

There're more estates with classical Chinese gardens in Tiger Hill. You wouldn't think you can get away with seeing more gardens in Suzhou, do you? For people who don't ever get sick of looking at gardens, well Suzhou would their candy stores.

Bridal sedan chair, Suzhou, China
Bridal sedan chair used during traditional wedding ceremony (for hire)

Garden in Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China
Classical Garden in Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China

Garden in Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China
Classical Garden in Tiger Hill, Suzhou, China 

We spent about 2.5 hrs there before the darkness made photography difficult.