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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.
|Collin awaiting blast-off|
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|
“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.
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.
“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 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.
|Carved Elephant Tusk|
“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.