Monday, December 24, 2012

Asian Chronicles - 6

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To Shanghai / Suzhou - Tuesday 10/2/2012  

If its Tuesday, it must be Taiwan Shanghai.
“Xian is the root of China,” Peter explained as our bus raced toward the airport. “Beijing is like a branch; Shanghai is like a leaf.” We were headed for the newest, shiniest, showiest leaf in China’s ancient forest - Shanghai.
I am not a city lover and have no real desire to tour Asia’s leaves. Cities worldwide have become amazingly homogenous with Starbucks, McDonald’s, and “Kentucky.” The days of buying cheap in Asia are past. Most of what I saw could be purchased on Amazon at a better price and sans the need to lug it home. 
I would much prefer eco-travel while touring their antiquities. Peter encouraged our return to Xi’an for deeper exploration. He leads tours down the Silk Road toward Istanbul. “We ride camels across the Gobi Desert and sleep in tents.” Now yer talkin’!
“No thank you-u-u,” my niece Lael said softly, rolling her eyes.

Deng Xioping was a reformist leader in the Communist Party who led China’s charge toward a market economy. In 1979, he opened Shanghai to outside investment companies. Today, 60% of multinational companies have offices in Shanghai. 
The Shanghainese have new money; their women are known to be “Hi-i-i-gh maintenance,” Derek said, lifting his nose in the air before cackling like one of them. “They talk high and fast. You will hear them ngah-ngah-ngah-ngah-ngah,” he yammered in falsetto, opening and closing his hand in the form of a yapping mouth. Derek giggled again.

At the airport’s security check-point, passengers relinquished their lighters - scads and scads of Bic lighters. At the other side, exiting airports, peddlers peddled those lighters for a few yuan. Talk about a racket!

“Good afternoon,” our Shanghainese tour-guide said, “Aloha.” She was a tiny woman, about five-feet tall, in her early 30’s. Her black hair was trimmed pixie-style; we call that rice-bowl in the islands. A rice-bowl haircut is a blunt cut of every hair extending beyond the lip of an inverted rice-bowl placed on the head. It was the typical haircut of Chinese immigrants to Hawaii at the turn of the century. Hence its name: rice-bowl haircut. Okay, she was Shanghainese, it wasn’t quite a rice-bowl haircut.
“You are from Honolulu.” she continued. “My name is Loo-Loo. My family name is Loo, L-O-O,” she spelled it out for us. “You can call me Loo-Loo. You can remember?” 
She began to lay out the rules. “Shanghai streets very busy. You cross at zebra-cross.” Zebra-cross? Loo-Loo pointed outside the bus - to white striping painted on black asphalt creating black and white roadway striping. Ah, zebra-cross is a crosswalk. Loo-Loo pointed to an overpass, “You see the camera? They send us ticket for no seatbelt.”
“If you need to go to the bathroom, you say, ‘I want to sing a song.’ We don’t say, ‘I go to the bathroom.’ We say, ‘I go to sing a song.’” Seriously? “When we are near a bathroom, I will ask if you need to sing a song. Okay?” 
Can I just say... there is something seriously warped in a culture that suppresses communications regarding the universal, biologic need for elimination to that degree. I’m just sayin’...
“You know Chinese banana?” Loo-Loo asked. We gave her a puzzled look. “Chinese banana are Chinese people with no Mandarin.” er... that would be us. “You know what is an egg?” Yellow inside, white outside, I began to problem solve. I would think that was the Chinese person who did not speak Mandarin because they are yellow inside and seemingly white outside without Mandarin. But noooh, eggs are Caucasians who speak Mandarin. But... but Caucasians aren’t yellow inside... Whatever.

187 mph
Our destination was the Bund, Shanghai’s business waterfront. We could arrive one of two ways: via tour bus or Maglev Train. Maglev = magnet levitation. In a joint venture with Siemens, China built the first commercially operated, high-speed, magnetic levitation line in the world, to connect the Shanghai Pudong International Airport to the outskirts of Shanghai. Construction of 18.6 miles of track began in 2001 and was completed in 2004 at a cost of 2.1 BILlion. (They ran into swamps requiring deep pylons and likely more than a few corrupt officials with deep pockets.) Top operational speed of the train is 431 km/h (268 mph) though is was clocked at 501 km/h (311 mph) in a test run. The journey to the airport takes a mere 8-minutes. The hope was to ultimately connect China by affordable and time efficient rail, i.e. Shanghai to Beijing. (Stats from Wikipedia)
Collin awaiting blast-off
However, ridership has lagged as the depot is located 20-minutes outside Shanghai’s City Center, forcing riders to board yet another form of transportation. Additionally, ticket prices are double that of local cab fares. We paid our fare and boarded the virtually empty train; our ride was smooth and quiet. No clackety-clackety-rickety-rackety, this was first class comfort terminating at a fancy depot in the middle-of-nowhere. Hmmm. What pocket-lined official approved THAT? The larger project, the unification of China by Maglev rail, was scrapped due to cost overruns and low ridership. No duh!
The Bund is like ... like Hong Kong harbor’s Mini-Me. (See Austin Powers - The Spy Who Shagged Me). It has it’s share of towering glass and high finance, a dirty waterway, and luxury shopping. Again, nothing I couldn’t get on Amazon. But don’t take my word for it as I am constantly perplexed with the near universal enchantment of modern cities - give me Petra or terra-cotta soldiers.

We boarded our bus again, this time destined for Suzhou, approximately 90-minutes from Shanghai. Suzhou (pronounced Sue-joe, where the J is soft - like Jacque and Beijing) is within the southern Yangtze River delta and is known for China’s silk industry and series of canals that has it dubbed the “Venice of the East.” 
The Grand Canal is the longest (of course it is) canal (meaning artificial and manmade = hand-dug by Chinese peasants) in the world (1,400 miles). Beginning in Beijing, it connects the Yellow River in northern China to the southern Yangtze. Oldest sections of the Grand Canal date back to the 5th century BCE and various sections were combined for its completion during the Sui Dynasty in 581-610 CE. With the completion of the Grand Canal, Suzhou found itself along a major trade route when, in the 10th century, China invented the pound lock (think Panama Canal). Locks allowed river barges to traverse the 138-foot Shandong mountains and float goods up and down The Grand Canal’s length.
The names of southern cities along the grand canal: Xuzhou, Chuzhou, Yangzhou, Taizhou, Suzhou, Huzhou, Hanzhou all end in zhou, meaning boat. 
More recently, Suzhou’s New District is a designated region for technological and industrial development. Think iPhone. 
“In 2003, the district's total output value was 25.1 billion yuan. Industrial sales equalled 70.06 billion yuan. ... with exports of 8.76 BILlion USD.” - Wikipedia. THAT was 2003 - pre-iPhone!

shoyu duck feet
Our bus raced along a multi-lane freeway past large, high-rise industrial complexes, each housing tens of thousands of workers. Mid-way between the two cities, a rest stop provided a place to sing a song and vendors with local delicacies: shoyu (teriyaki) chicken and duck, duck feet, duck tongue, chicken feet, and crucified chicks.
shoyu chicks
The bathrooms were mostly squattys and hand-washing occurred at a central, stainless steel trough outside. There, an old woman vomited into a trash can and young mothers were known to hold their children over the trough to urinate.
“Don’t touch that Amma,” Collin grabbed Mom firmly by the arm, “We have hand sanitizer.”
“Gawd Collin, I didn’t know you were such a germ-a-phobe!” Mom exclaimed as he led her away. Such were the beginnings of calling him “the Phobe” for the remainder of our trip.
Bicycle and tricycle traffic was infrequent on the freeway that was marked with pedestrian crosswalks! If flagged, the public bus stopped anywhere along the freeway. Grace and patience are requisite for driving in China.

deep-fried fish
We disembarked in Suzhou and walked a narrow path between construction site and crumbling building to a restaurant. Chilled appetizers of aspic and liver paté turned out to be variations of dried, pickled, and smoked tofu. The deep fried fish had an unusual presentation, one I’d never seen. My companions said the food was greasy. I picked at vegetables to put on my rice and then... then they brought me a plate of stir-fried vegetables: cauliflower, broccoli, snow peas, green and white onions, and carrots followed by an egg fritter in broth - I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
We were serenaded by a woman playing a pipa - a pear-shaped, fretted lute. I’m sure she was good - if one has an ear for the screechy, nasal songs of China.
After dinner, we checked into our hotel - the Jasmine Holiday Inn. It stood alone, adjacent to several blocks of pure carnage, fields of rubble and destruction. Woe be to them when reconstruction begins, we thought. The place will be a construction dustbowl. 
That night we hit the streets, wending our way past food carts, shoulder to shoulder with the locals, past a “Kentucky”. 
“We like Kentucky,” Loo-Loo said. “McDonald’s not so popular.” Apparently Kentucky has made a teriyaki-like recipe that is quite popular in China. Smart guy that Colonel Sanders. Hawaiian islanders eat teriyaki chicken sandwiches and burgers. McDonald’s would be wise to figure that out in Hawaii and China. Wait! What am I saying? Fast-food is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality! I hope Mickey Dz fails and leaves China altogether! But I digress.
The curbs and sidewalks were uneven and unlit; the footing treacherous. The streets were streaming with cars and scooters, all with horns a-blare, as if to say, “Look at me and my new moneeee.” The annoying and incessant honking did not abate until shopkeepers closed after 10 pm. 

The dawn was quiet, the denizens of Suzhou still sequestered within save the errant motorist careening down the street, horn blaring like a rooster announcing dawn - look at meee, look at me and my new moneeee. I pulled the curtains back to glare disapprovingly.
Breakfast was a wonderful, international buffet on the sixth floor. Suzhou was gray and drab in the morning light, a real industrial town. 
“Nē hoú,” we said aboard our bus. “We don’t say nē hoú in Suzhou,” Loo-Loo corrected. “We say jóusàhn.” (pronounced jow-sun) Ah, we know jóusàhn - it’s Cantonese. My Popo (grandmother) was from Canton, spoke Cantonese and used jóusàhn. We had arrived in southern China, where Cantonese - pure Chinese - is spoken and the temperate climate allows for vegetables and the food Americans know as Chinese food.

Our first destination was “The Lingering Garden” - a renowned, classical, Chinese garden. What are the elements of a Chinese garden? Do you remember? They are: water (yin), rock (yang), flora, and architecture. 
The Lingering Garden was commissioned in the mid-1550’s by a local official. The bamboo groves and stone forest were added by subsequent owners and in 1823CE it opened to the public as a resort. The garden has been abandoned and fallen into disrepair during multiple eras. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the government of Suzhou took ownership of the garden and its restoration. It reopened to the public in 1954 and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001. 
Lingering Lael
As we waited in the queue outside, a young Chinese mother stopped to request a picture of her toddler with my niece Lael. Lael lifted the child while mother and grandmother cooed to get the child’s attention. 
“It’s because you are so model-esque,” I said.
“It’s because I’m the only black girl in China,” she countered, “And they’ve never seen one in real life.” Lael was gracious and accommodating with their curious stares.

Lael, Mike, me
Auspicious Cloud Capped Peak
The buildings of the garden occupy 1/3 of the total area and are traditional Suzhounese with black-tile roofs and white-washed walls - all very yin-yang. The central garden harbors the oldest sections and the great Auspicious Cloud Capped Peak.
The crowds were thick with tourists and tour groups. We shuffled slowly, shoulder to shoulder. Loo-Loo provided a running dialogue through our earbuds while some groups used bull-horns, though signage clearly prohibited their use. 
“It’s a holiday,” Derek said. “There is no one here to enforce; that’s why.”
And why did we spend a fortune to come to China during their national holi-week? Grrrrrrrrr. My bad. We should have paid more attention. Be advised - DO NOT go to China during the first week of October!!!
“Look out the windows,” Loo-Loo said. “Each window is a picture frame and each frame has three views.” The main structure contained men’s and women’s chambers. The men’s chambers were ornate with carved rafters and window casements, better views, and cushioned chaises for smoking opium. The women’s chambers were spartan.
I was intrigued with several ancient weather stations: a wooden plaque holding two stones, one round, one square. The round stone is above the square - remember round is a symbol of heaven and square a symbol of earth. The round stone (a barometer) becomes moist when barometric pressure falls and ambient humidity rises. The square stone turns a reddish hue with rising temperatures. I wondered if forecasting was possible or if the stones merely confirmed the current weather pattern. 
The bonsai garden was fabulous... but there was no lingering in the Lingering Garden. We were off to the Silk Factory. Why is the silk industry in Suzhou? Because the climate is favorable for orchards of mulberry trees, on which silk worms feed.

Loo-Loo pointed to the treelined roadway.
“Camphor trees,” she said. “You know camphor? C-A-M-P-H-O-R, camphor. Camphor tree is all over Suzhou; everyone has camphor tree. When you have daughter, parent plant camphor tree. When daughter about sixteen, matchmaker come. Don’t look at girl, look at tree. Tree big and strong, girl too old, no one want her. When girl marry, parents cut down tree, make camphor box for wedding.”
My Popo was matched by a matchmaker. She was a picture-bride from Canton, bound feet and all, sold to my grandfather’s family in Hawaii. I wondered if the camphor story was still true in China, where a girl’s value is determined by the horticultural skills of her parents and a tree in the yard. 
Loo-Loo expounded on the one-child policy. “Now, not enough girls. No baby girl adoption to US anymore. You know? Now, you want grandchildren? You buy condo for son and his new wife. You buy BMW.” Loo-Loo laughed, she - the mother of a young child. Well that’s an interesting turn of events, eh? So much for the camphor tree!

We gathered in a large room where they delivered Silk Basics 101. The lifespan of a silkworm is thirty-days. This is a government store; no price negotiation. Silk is sold by weight. It is lightweight, warm in winter, cool in summer. 
“Polyester is shiny; silk - no. Polyester is itchy and if you catch it on fire - the smoke is black. Silk no itch and when it catch on fire - the smoke is white. It smells like burning hair, like natural fiber. Silk pillow very good for you, good for migraines. Inside, a little pocket of herbs and silkworm poo-poo,” Loo-Loo held up a long, narrow sachet. “We call poo-poo pillow. You have neck problem; you get poo-poo pillow and neck problem go away. Very good for you.”

We poured out onto their showroom floor, stopping at a clickety-clackety machine that unwound cocoons. “One cocoon is one thread,” Loo-Loo said. Women stirred cocoons floating in hot water with a natural-bristled brush, until it snagged the thread’s tail. Then both thread tail and cocoon were lifted onto the machine for unwinding. The pupae (the worm metamorphosing into moth) at the center, looking a little like a shelled pecan, were discarded and likely used for fertilizer in the orchards which gave them life.
Dbl Cocoon
Silk Stretch
Double pupae, two pupae in a single cocoon, were de-bugged by hand because the cocoon is not unwound but stretched over a frame for blankets and comforters. The dried cocoon felt soft and lightly textured, like merino wool. We watched factory workers stretch a double cocoon over a twin-sized wooden frame. They let us do it next and I jumped in to try. The cocoon was amazingly tough and difficult to stretch, but stretch it we did without a tear - a sign of silks resilience over our skill. Our purchases were compressed and packed for shipping.
Carved Elephant Tusk
Lunch was followed by a visit to the Suzhou Museum of Art designed by Ieoh Ming Pei - better known as I.M. Pei. I.M. Pei was born in Canton in 1917 and moved to the US to study architecture in 1935. He is an award winning designer, best known for the Pyramid at the Louvre in France. The museum at Suzhou is his most recent work and, given his age, perhaps his last. The museum was beautiful, the works of art contained therein, breathtaking. We did the breakneck and breathless, 45-minute tour where I could easily spend 3-4 hours.
Eight Immortals
Intricate Fretwork
The walk back to our bus was through a street-fair of merchant booths where a pungent odor filled the air.
“That’s stinky tofu,” Derek said. “It’s fermented more long.”
Squares of tofu simmered on an outdoor griddle, filling the air with ... stink. Christie (one of the younguns) bought a small bowl and we all had a taste. It was tart, its flavor much better than its smell.

Just before dinner we took a short boat ride down the Jing Hau, the Grand Canal where some Suzhounese have homes along the water. Near the dock, a man red-faced with drink tailed us looking for a handout, “Hey money, money,” he called out, “Hey money, money.”
The pace of this tour was getting to us and we welcomed the opportunity to eat-in at our hotel.

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