Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
China – A Modern Miracle
The trip took place prior to the COVID travel restrictions.
The concept behind Shanghai’s Expo a few years back was “Better City, Better Life” and in the new China this is not just a copywriter's glib tag line, it is a commentary on the primary role the city plays in the future of the country and its people. And remarkably, the transformation has happened in just a few short years… out with the old, in with the new! We all clearly remember the chaotic and violent Cultural Revolution of the Mao Zedong era, when the cities were emptied and masses of people were sent to the countryside to toil in the fields. The entire country was deconstructed and reconstructed into a new agrarian age where anyone with learning or culture was persecuted and “re-educated” down on the farm.
But not unlike a Phoenix rising from the ashes, the concept for a new China has been birthed. Starting with the manufacturing explosion brought about by the advantage of an unlimited cheap labor force, and just a few years following the incredibly successful and confidence building 2008 Olympic Games, there has been a 360° turnabout in attitude with the cities now being seen as the hope for the Chinese future. In a major reverse population exchange, the countryside is now being plundered of able bodied workers to fill job opportunities in the cities. I fully expected to see progress given China’s meteoric rise on the world scene, but nothing could have prepared me for the culture shock of Shanghai and the surrounding towns of Ningbo, Hanghzhou, and even the Garden Capital of China: Suzhou.
As an aside: I visited cosmopolitan cities in southeast China and my observations reflect only that one small area out of this vast country. No doubt this meteoric development is limited to the commercial centers and “the old China” can still be found for those seeking to experience a true, ageless culture.
Ningbo is one of China’s oldest cities dating back to the Hemudu culture of 4,800 BC and known as a major trade city on the ancient Silk Road at least 2,000 years ago. What I thought – hoped - would be a charming seaside village on the East China Sea, turned out to be a modern town of almost 3 million people. But there are still bits of the old China to be seen, namely the 1th century Tianfeng Pagoda on a hill facing the sea. Another historical preservation is Tian Yi Ge, a complex of buildings surrounding a garden that dates back to 1516 and is the oldest surviving private library in China. This traditional estate layout for the wealthy or high-born i.e. individual buildings with paths weaving in and around a landscaped garden and waterways, would bring the Chinese love of nature into a living environment and offers a respite from the stress of daily affairs.
Ningbo is where the game of Mahjong was invented and there is a room in the Tian Yi Ge museum complex displaying some of the earliest examples of the game tiles, along with a wonderful full-size bronze sculpture of three sages playing the game… thoughtfully they left a space open just for me to join in.
Ningbo also sports a “Bund” or walk along the waterfront, but unlike Shanghai’s more famous ultra modern Bund of skyscrapers and neon lights, Ningbo’s city planners have maintained the integrity of the original area by keeping the buildings of moderate size and character. We saw any number of ordinary people and professionals alike, taking advantage of the charmingly rebuilt streets adjacent to the Bund, by setting up sidewalk photographic shoots of brides to be, school graduates, and children posing for proud parents.
Ningbo, like all the cities we visited, has a thriving shopping climate as a walk through the International Shopping Mall soon confirmed. In the middle of the outdoor mall was a large fountain where I saw small children climb into a huge bubble balloon device and bob on the water. I could not help but laugh out loud along with them as they bounced on the water.
My brief stay in Ningbo was at the Sheraton Ningbo Hotel, a state-of-the-art contemporary property with international décor and touches of Oriental art and artifacts. The Sheraton provided the first authentic taste of China that evening at a banquet arranged by the Marketing Communications Manager Yale Yu that included the General Manager Wilson Lum, who delighted us with his wonderful sense of humor. The meal was a sampling of Emperial cuisine and included dessert consisting of 11 small plates, with each tidbit artfully displayed on a platter chosen to set it off to best advantage. The Pan-seared Codfish and the Braised Tomato with Assorted Mushrooms were just 2 of the outstanding dishes. www.sheraton.com/ningbo
Next stop was Hangzhou City (pronounced Hung Jo) and again a beautifully landscaped modern city, but this time with slightly more Chinese than international flavor. Hangzhou is renowned for its scenic and historical West Lake area. This Central Park of Hangzhou has two major causeways and we choose the Su because even at an early hour the shorter Bai was already crowded. The leisurely walk took almost two hours and provided photo ops at just about every step of the way. The day was overcast in the morning with a deep haze hanging over the water which made the boats materializing out of the mists seem like an ancient Chinese painting come to life. Unfortunately by the time the sun broke through, the lake had lost its poetic beauty in the heat and the crowds. A word to the wise, go early and don’t dally.
Another absolute must see in Hangzhou is Fei Lai Feng, a Buddhist sculpture gallery carved into and along a craggy mountain that leads up to the Lingyin Temple complex, whose pagodas are over a thousand years old. The mountain, scarred by caves, nooks, and crannies, caused by groundwater erosion, created a platform for the 338 stone sculptures of Buddha that were carved between the 10th and 14th centuries. One of the best known sculptures is the laughing Maitraya Buddha; it is the best preserved of its kind and dates to the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279) when artistry was at its peak.
Hangzhou, like all the cities in China that I visited, is on the move, and Hefang Street is a perfect example of its redevelopment program. An outdoor mall of sorts where both sides of the street are crammed with shops and restaurants; artisans plying their crafts; stalls of handicrafts and even photographers with props and costumes eager to provide a pseudo-taste of ancient China, fill the street. Prior to its restoration Hefang was a historic street famous for selling handicrafts and Chinese traditional medicines as far back as the Ming and Qing dynasties. Now a focal point for tourists, Hefang Street is also known as Snack Street for the diverse foods readily available from all around the country. And at the end of the street was the omnipresent – yes, even in China – McDonald’s.
Suzhou (pronounced Sue Jo) is a day trip out of Shanghai and is a welcome change from the glitzy high-tech world of the big city. Known as the “Garden Capital of China” - and with good reason as there are several well preserved home and garden compounds that can be visited. The traditional Chinese garden includes sculptured or naturally eroded stones around which are carefully positioned trees and plants meant to set off pools and flowing water, moon gates, dragons or other auspicious figures, placed around individual buildings that served different purposes, i.e. living quarters, libraries, meeting halls, etc. So that when you visit a “garden” you are also seeing the architecture, furniture, design, and artifacts of the period. The most frequently visited gardens in Suzhou are the Humble Administrator’s Garden and Master of the Fishing Nets Garden but equally impressive, and perhaps less crowded, are Lion’s Gate Garden and Lingering Garden. They are all beautiful and spending more time enjoying one is better than rushing through, in order to see two or more. After all, that is the purpose of a garden, to relax and enjoy the peace and beauty of nature. Having said that, there is a modern garden that is noteworthy and that is the one of the famous architect and Suzhou native, I.M Pei Museum and Garden.
Also of note, are the ancient Pagodas that dot the landscape and lend scenic reference to many of the gardens including the very rare Shuang Ta or Twin Pagodas that are stunning examples of 10th century artistry. They can be reached by walking down one of the few remaining old streets that somehow escaped the wrecker’s ball. So much of the old has been replaced with a sanitized version for the tourists of what China was like that, especially in Shanghai, it often feels more like a theme park then a real living environment. We stopped at one of the 2 by 4 sized shops to watch a woman deftly place buns in a steamer and asked if we could try them.
There was some difficulty in communicating and we ended up with bowls of the most delicious soup with fried buns floating on top. My only concern was that the heat and humidity of the south China summer made eating soup somewhat daunting, but not wanting be appear rude I gingerly addressed the bowl. Fortunately it was so good that it went down with remarkable ease. So after much bowing and smiling, and with a full stomach, we continued on our way.
Shanghai, like many other world-class cities, is segmented by a waterway, in this case, the mighty Huangpu River and its tributaries, with Puxi on the west bank and Pudong on the east bank. Referred to as the “Oriental Pearl” since ancient times, the city is a cosmopolitan mix and match of Oriental and Western culture, design, gastronomy, and style. The famous walk along the river in Puxi called the Bund was constructed during the first half of the 20th century and has beautifully maintained examples of western architecture and style. Pudong across the river hosts the best of Chinese innovation in architecture and design with stunning skyscrapers such as the distinctive Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, and the magnificent Shanghai World Financial Center. The walk along either bank of the river is a wonderland at night when many of the buildings are outlined in light displays and even the boats gliding on the river are illuminated, turning the whole scene into a fairyland of lights, shapes and colors. But least you think Shanghai is all modernistic, be advised that it has managed to maintain many ancient gardens, temples, and pagodas, to lure the tourist… and their dollars.
A word regarding driving in China – don’t even think about driving in a rental car; leave the driving to the locals. Driving rules in China are inscrutable and there seems to be little relationship with accepted world-wide practices. As Thomas Chabrieres told me during our sometimes hazardous drive through downtown Shanghai, the typical Chinese driver will see only the car directly in front and does not take into account approaching side or rear traffic, so entering a main traffic artery from a side street is dictated solely by what’s in their path. Since everyone drives that way, it works with considerable weaving and close – very close – misses. Contrarily, the Chinese I met outside of their cars are patient, polite and friendly and eager to aid with interpreting or directions. I found that the younger generation will often linger to overhear English spoken and, if they are especially brave, join in. I often included strangers on the street in my comments and was sometimes rewarded by being asked to pose for a picture with them and their families. One recent high-school graduate explained that he was fluent in reading English but had little practice in speaking it, so we chatted for some time with his Mother – who did not understand one word of our conversation - proudly beaming encouragement at him.
Overall, I loved the energy in the cities I visited and the overwhelming sense of pride in the world-view role that the new China has inspired in its population.
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