China towns

China towns
The Bund lit up for the evening, the green copper spire of the Peace Hotel in the mid distance, Photo Credit: Corbis

From the bristling energy of modern Shanghai to the laidback charms of ancient Suzhou, China is a timeless journey

Manidipa Mandal
June 18 , 2014
13 Min Read

Damn! Dam, I mean, or rather the embankment along the Huangpu — which turns out to be the place for tourists to go in Shanghai. Lucky me, I already am on the Bund when they start to arrive with sunrise, enjoying the hospitality of that grand old dame, the restored Cathay Hotel, originally erected by mercantile tycoon Sir Victor Sassoon (he of Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks), now the Fairmont Peace Hotel.

And a majestic, well-travelled lady she is, with her China and Japan and French and Italian and her India suites. Quite the cultural revolution from the living she had been eking out as a bureaucratic concubine in the last century. Opposite her Gothic gates is a vertical cabbage patch where the flashes of amateur photographers bloom. Ornamental cabbages seem to be the seasonal flavour, or at least seasonal flora, in Shanghai. We see them wreathed around tall lampposts, too, suspended improbably in midair — or perhaps not so improbably, because food is art in Chinese traditions, as the chrysanthemum-cut mandarin fish and tomato bunnies at our final banquet will remind us.

The Bund is China’s Wall Street, complete with its own big bull. Building heights on the waterfront are capped by decree, with the Peace, Shanghai’s first high-rise, still the tallest — though dwarfed by the shiny new skyscrapers across the river. Other Shanghai Deco buildings that incorporate a chinoiserie aesthetic along with the typical Egyptian and geometric abstractions also line up on the western bank, the old Puxi area.

As we rush headlong in the everyday towards the 2020s, though, like peak-hour passengers at the People’s Square metro station, it seems we are increasingly looking to languish in a 1920s lounge for our leisure. Back at the hotel, the Jazz Bar, featuring the Old Man’s Band (average age 77) and the young whippersnapper Theo Croker’s quartet, remains a hugely popular after-dinner venue, punters happy to be packed in like smoked sardines at the dim-lit tables under heavy wooden beams, seemingly unchanged since the Swinging Twenties. Upstairs, the Dragon and Phoenix restaurant, with its overstated ‘exotic’ lanterns and dragons, jade walls and lacquer-red trim, is the very stereotype of a cultural icon from the last century.

Outside, the sun is rising over Pudong (commercial outpost of new Shanghai) in the east, behind the bottle opener-shaped Shanghai World Financial Center, the world’s second-tallest tower. Originally designed with a circular wind-eye at the top, it was re-imagined to avoid the horror of the Rising Sun dawning over the city daily.

Instead, a red star is falling in the still-dark sky. A goldfish follows, and then a purple dragon unfurls as Shanghai wakes up. Daybreak resolves the mystery — early risers flying kites on the Bund. The municipal sweeper in her neon vest moves down the cabbage-lined steps with her broom of repurposed twigs tied in red ribbon. Her peers soon trundle up with new cabbages to plant. More leisured ladies arrive to hop, skip and jump rope, older ones sticking to the more staid exercise of perambulating across the mile or so of Bund...backwards! This is an aid to memory, I’m told, and dexterity. As light sweeps the last shadows off the steps, the kite-flying gents are joined by wannabe cranes — this promenade is also a popular spot for tai chi — and couples engaged in a ballroom pas de deux.

It is hardly gone seven. Half-past, and they will vanish like the dew, back to regular modern lives at the office, dressed in suits and designer shoes. Right now, it is a good time for me to take myself down to Fuxing Park, in the heart of the old French Concession, where there is still more ball-dancing and tai chi-turning. Outside the park, the neighbourhood’s architecture is a fascinating hodgepodge of Neoclassical and Gothic and traditional Chinese. The Catholic centre of the city, the red-brick St Ignatius Cathedral raises its twin grey hoods here. Avenue Joffre, a former tram route, flanks a few old shikumen (‘stone gate’) residences, abutting each other in an alley capped with an entrance arch.

Off Line 10 on the Shanghai Metro, the pedestrian precincts of the City Gods’ Temple wreathe around Yu Garden. Here locals and visitors come to shop for many things — shoes (fake Uggs and ‘silk’ slippers) and ships (carved from wood veneer) and sealing wax (with stamps carved to order in 30 minutes — beware, er, ‘creative’ translations to Chinese unless you have a vernacular guide, lest you find yourself signing off as a pig!). Speaking of which, a cluster of porcine, feline, ursine, strigine and several other species of animal-headed bags catches my eye. I don’t buy, because hard bargaining is expected — another reason you’ll want a reliable guide, and I’ve mislaid mine in the crush.

All around, locals walk up to glass-fronted counters for a fix of snack-on-a-stick, just like kebabs but featuring squid, quail and sundry mystery meats. The longest queue is by the zig-zag bridge over the goldfish tank. It snakes up to Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant’s steamer-stacked ‘Outer Sell’ counter, dispensing the famous crab-roe xiaolongbao. Of course, Shanghai’s giant soup buns, with a straw stuck in, are all around. I blister my tongue on one in my haste.

Back at the hotel spa, the Willow Stream Wisdom’s poppy seed, blue lotus and Sichuan pepper scrub seems an apt match for the piquant experience, imbued with a wilful act of political oversight, of an Indian tourist in China bathing in the water of Tibet — even if the opium dream unavoidably recalls questions of Aksai Chin and Arunachal.

But such uneasy alliances are commonplace in consumerism-burnished Shanghai. Ask the cobbled alleys of Tianzi Fang — lane 210 off the tall-mall stretch of Taikang Lu, near expat-friendly Xintiandi, all part of the old French Concession—where the artsy and the intellectual converge, bonding over talk of liberation and latte, served in a mason jar, a hipster touch that out-attitudes any hissing, halogen-bright Starbucks. After crossing an ammoniacal stream of oddly familiar pungency — overflowing down an industrial iron staircase and originating in a public washroom (eerily familiar to users of Indian squatting toilets) — I arrive at a first-floor artist’s studio. Showings are by appointment only. One floor up, the eco-chic Bambu brand has its base, turning panda fodder into ergonomic and innovative kitchenware.

Next morning, driving out to the suburbs, we can’t stop staring. Everything is so high and huge! As with the Terracotta Army of their ancient empire, the modern Chinese continue to associate scale with success and prestige. Roads are piled four deep, swinging out to fly over and under each other in stacks as neat as steamer baskets. They are stuffed with Shanghai’s colour-coded cabs, as varied as a pack of M&Ms, by day; at night, the colours come from round dots of polychromatic safety lights that overshadow many an Indian municipality’s Diwali light-up. Residential buildings look like any Bandra block — multiplied by 10 or 12. “The future is here, and it looks like Gurgaon,” someone quips.

In Kunshan, on Yangcheng Lake, we check into a government-owned and -built hotel on its shores. Because Confucius say, government hotels have the best locations.

We have arrived near the end of the hairy crab season, a lake-bred delicacy so prized that no boats but the fishermen’s rustic crafts, with their trained cormorants, are allowed on the placid, pale-blue lake. Small crab-eating eateries pop up seasonally to cater to greedy domestic tourists, and shut down again as the entire population of the temporary township migrates inland to over-winter. But the Fairmont Yangcheng Lake stands firm while small players up sticks. Managed by a Canadian hotel chain, it must remain ever-ready for visiting mandarins — one block is reserved exclusively for bureaucrats. Scores of them are suddenly announced for dinner...followed swiftly by half as many cancellations. The hotel staff huddle and head into brisk prep, smiling and shrugging at all the last-minute chopping and changing.

Well might they smile, because in exchange they get a horizon-spanning acreage and unmatched vista over the lake in a ‘smaller’ (1.7 million-strong) city in the greater Suzhou region, as teeming with culture and history as modern business opportunities and tasty things. It’s a hotelier’s best bargain. Within view of the superfast railway tracks, this suburban outpost of Suzhou is ridiculously picturesque with the red-roofed villas of the well-to-do, who work in Shanghai and come home to Kunshan. The resort includes an organic farm supplying 70-80 per cent of the kitchen’s needs, a small apiary, a boating facility, and plenty of room for sports from climbing walls to 18-hole golf.

As the sun sets on a brisk, blurry day, the bees are sluggish in their comb, from which we take a fresh bite with our tea. In the charming beekeeper’s two-room cottage — a kitchen where she pours us warm, sweet, freshly milled soya milk, and an all-purpose room she shares with her family — we make much of Kat, the dog, and warm our hands around cups of bread pudding.

Further afield, the rice fields sway with rows of local farmers at work. At dinner, we will taste the other ‘fruits’ of their labour — jeera aloo made with Kunshan’s startlingly ruddy purple potatoes, accompanied by eggplant ‘makhanii’ skewered on a bamboo kathi. It will be preceded by pumpkin gnochhi bobbing in a tomato soup infused with Indian spices, and followed by a trio of nouvelle Indian desserts, where the gajar ka halwa is excellent, the banana potli a surprise, and the saffron milk parfait the hands-down victor.

Right now, across from the apiary, the world’s shortest canoe ride away is an island of white lapines dozing in piles of russet leaves, fluffed up against the breeze in the Year of the Hare. However, the cormorants in the shed on the other side of the hives are ageless guests who have it good — unlike their comrades who earn a living on the lake, their throats aren’t tied shut and they can glut themselves on the fish they catch instead of turning them over to their keeper’s profit.

The eye-popping results of human endeavour and the practical pursuit of purchasing power remain the leitmotif of our ride into modern Suzhou city next day. Once again, we are awed by the might of height. Malls the size of city blocks in Lutyens’ Delhi, glass-wrapped office towers gleaming as far as the eye can see in every direction and traffic intersections eight lanes wide startle us into silence in the new economic zone.

But another half-hour away, in Suzhou Old Town, the prestige-garnering hobby of an imperial bureaucrat brings us to cobbled streets of a more familiar, modest width. Cycle rickshaws rather brighter than those back home still ply. Shops sell the region’s famous savoury mooncakes, stuffed with pork and crusty with lard. Hawkers cry their tourist-pleasing wares of hand-embroidered handkerchiefs, little ‘mobile shirts’ of Suzhou silk and vintage-style ‘glamour’ fridge magnets. It’s all en route the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

Originally the home of a Tang-dynasty scholar, these 13 acres are now the biggest reason — of several in town — for Suzhou’s renown as an Unesco World Heritage Site. A paramount example of the classical Chinese garden, this ambitious park was established by Imperial envoy and poet Wang Xiancheng in 1513, when he appropriated the premises from a monastery. Many roads wind through the garden; most bring you, eventually, to the seat of ‘felicity on every side’ — a humble pavilion with a door to each side, a fan-shaped window between them with this legend inscribed alongside and a semi-circular traditional bench opposite, open to the stream flowing into a still pool.

It’s validation when locals think a spectacle worthy of their leisure dollar. This is very true of Zhouzhuang. Age 1,000 and arguably China’s most famous ‘water town’, it owns the epithet ‘Venice of the Orient’, despite other pretenders, including some in our homeland. Set up as one of many way stations upriver from Shanghai’s sea port, this little barely-town village still uses the waterways for commerce.

Tourism brings the top dollar. It isn’t just that the place is picturesque, which it undoubtedly is, with its criss-crossing canals forded by little stone bridges in shapes of key and arch and moon gate, overhung with willows, festooned with lanterns. The river remains the locals’ life and livelihood. Fishwives sell canal-caught crustaceans and dried fish. Barges still bring groceries to the kitchen door. Some homes are converted into tea houses. Antique residences, homes of the well-to-do of yore, stand furnished for visitors to gawk at.

Chief of these is the home of one Shen Wansan, first millionaire of Jiangsu. Truly, in the Rich Man’s House there are many halls. Also, many chairs, separately designed for the men’s meeting hall and master’s study table, different for single ladies who have no ‘backing’ and ornately supportive for married matrons. Beyond the living quarters and kitchens, yards of courtyards and corridors, are altars to the gods of wealth and fortune and to Confucius the Wise. The kitchen still steams up coloured dumplings to snack on, for the tour of the Rich Man’s rooms is long.

Outside, there are figured pumpkins (skins scratched with letters when young so that they scar over), lacquered Buddhas in a peanut shell, paintings (or prints) of the bridges, woven straw dragons and roosters and locusts, hand warmers, scarves and other sundries to buy — quite like any mela back home, a little gaudy and a little overpriced and a little over the top, and more than a little enchanting.

There is more that proves unbeatable in Kunshan, though. Like the opera. Kunqu is one of the oldest forms (600 years old), mother to the Peking opera and perhaps godmother to the Italian. Recent revival efforts saw the Kun Opera Museum set up in Tinglin Park, which also houses the three treasures of Kunshan — the Kun stone, the Chinese viburnum and the twin lotus. The ancient town of Qiandeng too, with its 80,000 sq m of Ming and Qing buildings, is also one of the largest flower-farming centres in China. Speaking of agriculture, there has long been a tug of war between China and Japan over credit for the first cultivation of rice — and a new architectural dig uncovering Neolithic paddy fields in Chuodun suggests that Kunshan may be the world’s rice bowl.

At the bottom of my bowl of happiness, though, remained a Chinese mitten crab. The females are ripe with roe, the pointy-carapaced males meatier, so ideally you eat a pair. But not one of the 2,200 tonnes harvested from the lake during their annual mating migration on the Yangtze made it into my mouth, being pronounced sub-par by chef at the fag end of the season’s eating (250g at least, or no steam basket)!

Locals agreed that I had compelling reason to return with the autumn moon, just as surely as the swallows and the plum rain will come in spring.

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