Mentom - Singapore 2012

© Mentom – May 2012

ZhouZhuang - Venice of the East

Saturday 15 August 2009, by Mentom

All the versions of this article:

  • English

The working week is over, it is Friday evening and while having the unavoidable "TsingTao and beef spicy-very-spicy" dinner with the collegues, I meditate about what to do on the weekend in Shanghai. Staying in the dusty and sunburned city itself is not really an option, beside the heat and the pollution, I visited most of the city already. Then ... why not another weekend as a "tourist in the ancisent town"?

Zhou Zhuang, the "water city", or also called the "Venice of the East", is a 90 minutes bus drive away from Shanghai : 60 minutes of honking and stop-and-go to leave the traffic jams and the city behind, and 30 minutes of a pleasant drive through some of the remaining villages surrounding Shanghai. Count in some 160 Yuan for the bus leaving at the Shanghai Indoor Stadium including the entrance to the site which is about 100 Yuan.

After beeing dumped by the bus driver on the parking, I am left on my own to find the "ancisent town". Luckily the city is equipped with the usual entertaining English signs, and I enter the old town which is not too far away from the bus stop. "Carry valuables". Aha.

The city has still it’s old houses which are well-preserved (or well-reconstructed?). According to Wikipedia, ZhouZhuang already existed as early as 800BC. The town is criss-crossed by narrow paved walkways between the houses, making the town look very pittoresque. But the most uncommon feature are small water canals that are built in a way that nearly every house’s back door leads to its own private small pier. Today, only tourist boats busily carry the tourists from one spot to another. But one can still easily imagine how these water ways have been used in ancient times.

Some history: during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), ZhouZhuang became very wealthy, due to its location close to the Great Canal. This canal which is the longest artificial waterway that has ever been built, stretches from Beijing to Hangzhou, which lies a little more South then Shanghai, just some 1800km long. This is when merchants, scholars and government officials settled town and transformed the city. Most of the houses that can be seen today reach back to that time or to the Qing (1644–1912) and even Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties. In fact, the city does not differ a lot from how Marco Polo might have seen it.

The only non-charming aspect of visiting are the hoards of Chinese tourists, easily recognized as a compact bataillon armed by umbrella’s to protect from the sun and carrying identical-color stickers on their jacket or hat. The bataillon leader is yelling in Chinese into a supersized megaphone, which is a lethal weapon when you get within a 3m range. Possibly with this technique he achieves to explain the town’s history to everyone and to make way through enemy bataillons (other-color stickers, kill’em!) marching in different directions.

Also quite annoying are the shop vendor’s basic English "cheap price", "just have a look!" and "eat here!" inviting you to empty your wallet at every possible location, although many of the hand-crafted items look very nice.

Finally by accident I find refuge in a quiet shophouse a bit aside the tourist area : the shop owner sits at one of the few tables with his old (presumably mother, or grand-mother?), both sipping a green tea and smiling in silence. At the opposite site of the crumbled wall sits a Buddhist monk, equally sipping a tea in silence, just without the smile. The front and back door of the shop house are open, such that the sunlight enters from the street, enough to create this half-light, half-shadow ambience where you can clearly spot the sun rays in the air. The owner’s boat is tied to the pier just behind the backdoor and quietly moves on the waves.

The impression was such that i nearly had the feeling that some Imperial China soldiers would burst into the room to arrest the monk, who would suddenly show his kung-fu talents before finally fleeing through the backdoor on the boat.

Since everyone was sipping tea in silence, I just did the same : I sat at a table and started secretly observing the shop owner and the monk in silence, while they were certainly observing me as well, but seemingly in a much more discrete way. After a while I felt like immerged in ancient times and lost the feeling of time and space - it was like beeing allowed to reach back some hundred years ago. A magical atmosphere.

After having finished my tea, I left the silent group and wandered around in the town, from house to house. The magnificent Chengxu temple is dated back to the 11th century, while the Zhang and Shen houses still look like just abandoned yesterday by their owners and not about 400 years ago.

I realised that the people who maintain these old houses and display the old craftmanship and traditions to the tourists during the day, are not simply actors but also truly live in the same places, and possibly live only from what they sold - as if nothing changed since several hundred years.

From some glimpse through open doors I also saw the extreme poverty they must live in - very often one single room seems to be the living, cooking and sleeping area at the same time, and there seems to be nothing of value inside. Old people begging in the street tried to persuade me to buy some postcards. Such a contrast to the center of Shanghai, just about more then an hour away!

The bus driver honks from the parking. I believe to fully appreciate this town it requires an overnight stay in one of the ancient "hotels". To have a walk in the quiet evening when the tourist and vendors are gone and red lanterns are lit along the canals. To enjoy a roasted pig trotter in one of the small shops with balcony to the canal. And to wait for the sunset while sipping another grandma’s tea with the friendly monk.


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