Asian Chronicles 7 - Suzhou => Shanghai
Suzhou was built with new money. It is a manufacturing town grown from the plain, watered by international joint ventures, and sprouted through the ant-like labors of the Chinese proletariat marching ten-by-ten toward middle class.
All the major players are there: Apple, BMW and Boeing, Nike and North Face and countless others.
Condo-farms have risen on the plain,
to house the laborers
that work the factories
to make the products
that prod consumers
in the economy that Joint Ventures built.
On this sprouted plain,
With no place to go ‘cept crossing Suzhou,
Get out of the way, their blaring horns say.
Remember Suzhou was named Venice of the Orient for all its canals? Like Venice and Bangkok, people and goods were moved via the waterways. Not long ago, they confiscated a major canal for the new subway line, to ease congestion. The subway has disrupted cross-flow water traffic, moving water traffickers to the streets, exacerbating congestion. We call this progress.
Our Holiday Inn, just one block from the Grand Canal, was built with new money - and new features that new money might desire - like all-glass bathrooms. From the main part of the room, the line of sight was through the glass shower, past the sink, to the toilet. What the Hell? You have got to be kidding me!
I hunted frantically for a button that MUST lower a shade. There must be something! Oh this is not going to go well for Lael and Collin, I thought, brother and sister sharing a room. I found a button that lowered a privacy shade. Whew!
Suzhou is the home of fried rice - that beloved combination of rice, vegetables, and meat. It is a fast, one-dish meal popularized by Chinese immigrants working fields and railroads of the western US.
Chinese people say you want to be:
Born in Suzhou
Play in Hangzhou
Eat in Guangzhou
And die in Liuzhou.
Born in Suzhou - because it is home to many great scholars and excellent education.
Play in Hangzhou - for its beautiful scenery on the SE coast of China.
Eat in Guangzhou - historically known as Canton. Need I say more?
And die in Liuzhou - known for its camphor trees and artisan caskets.
Before we leave Suzhou, let me expound on the facilities. Most of China’s antiquities date back hundreds, if not thousands of years. They have been retro-fit with toilets - most commonly squatty-pottys. During times of heavy use (say... a week long national holiday) the facilities are completely overwhelmed - as are the janitorial staff.
While the Chinese feel squatty-pottys are more sanitary because they don’t touch anything, my experience was anything but. Most often, I stood in urine to use the potty and then tracked urine on my soles. Auwe! One of our drivers kept a bleach-soaked towel covering the first step into the bus - so that every entering sole was daubed in disinfectant.
I more fully understand why Asians remove their shoes when entering the home, why wearing shoes inside is an affront and considered both rude and disrespectful.
Another squatty-potty hint: control your flow to decrease splashing, lest you wear urine on more than your soles. I’m just sayin’ ...
After breakfast we boarded our bus and crawled onto the freeway bound for Shanghai, stopping once again at the midway rest-stop selling teriyaki chicks and duck tongue.
The guide book read: “The largest city in China, Shanghai contains the most striking blend of oriental and western cultures. Originally Shanghai was a seaside fishing village, today it is a multi-cultural metropolis - the largest city in China” where real estate sells for 20,000 USD per square meter and the average Lamborghini buyer is 29 years of age.
They say the best husbands are found in Shanghai. Why? At the early morning market, shoppers are 80% men who shop, cook, and clean. But of course! The 29 year-old Lamborghini owner who can afford a condo at $20,000 per square meter is a WOMAN!
Our first Shanghainese stop was a tea house. Not the open-air, open-beamed, countryside structures with rice-paper screens, low wooden tables and benches, run by an ancient inn keeper and his wife and protected by kung-fu warriors. No, this was a modern facility that turned out $100+ wheels of tea for tourists. The “induction room” of these state-run stores are nearly identical. Low slung benches line the walls and fill the middle of the room. Young women linger at the front, readying for the demonstration.
Tea cups were nestled, spooning in a large circular bowl and were bathed in hot water from a steaming tea pot - to warm and clean them while our hostess began her pitch. She was a tiny woman, maybe 90-pounds, in a tight, full length, silk skirt with matching shell that flaunted her flat tummy and petite figure. I expected her to dance at any moment.
“You dink tea?” she asked, “I dohn sink so,” she waggled a finger back and forth, “Or yahw belly smahw like us.” She giggled, covering her mouth shyly. (If you are a portly American - expect chiding for your belly across all of China.) “Gheen (green) tea,” (remember, southern Chinese have difficulty with the letter R, it is not in their alphabet. My Popo always called me Loli.) “Gheen tea no fahmentation (fermentation). Oolong tea fity pahsent (50%) fahmentation. Black tea 100 pahsent fahmentation.” Her enunciation was slow and precise. “Why Chinese peepoh can smoke and keep vey good heoht (health)? Because Chinese peepoh exahcize ehvey day and we dink tea and we sing-a-song to detox owh body. Dybeetee looking foh yawh beeg belly.” She covered her mouth with a tiny hand and giggled again.
And while she is 100 pahsent correct about dybeetee looking foh yawh beeg belly, she apparently missed the memo that liver and lung cancers are the leading cause of death in China - unusual by western standards - but we will discuss that later.
“Slow tea good foh yawh leevah. Fähst (first) taste beetah (bitter), then sweet in yawh thwoat (throat).” They poured the first round of tea and it was indeed bitter with a sweet aftertaste. “Beetah taste weduce (reduce) leevah heat, good foh yawh heoht.
Then came the lesson in to properly hold a tea cup. Hold the teacup between thumb and index finger. Support the bottom with the middle finger. When drinking, use the middle finger to tilt the teacup. Notice the cup tilts, not the head. Ladies: splay the 4th and 5th fingers. Men: keep 4th and 5th fingers together. “Guhl-man index fingah point up, foh and fyh fingah (4 & 5 finger) like dis,” she demonstrated, splaying her 4th and 5th fingers before covering her mouth to giggle again. Alrighty then!
“Peoh tea (I thought pure tea; we would later learn it is pu’er - pronounced pyuh-éhr - tea is a slimming tea) get wid (rid) of yawh beeg belly - like you and you and you,” she pointed at some of our men, her finger stabbing in their direction.
“I’ll buy the tree,” Roy volunteered to our guffaws.
Drink it hot for slimming, she instructed, cold with salt for poo-poo. “You know poo-poo?” she asked. When everyone laughed, she covered her mouth. “Use tea leaf eight time, then mix leaf with egg-white to make skin white in two week.” She made small circles with small hands to demonstrate smoothing the concoction over her face.
“You Uncle,” she pointed to golf-addicted and deeply tanned Stan, “You take two yeah!” Stan’s face broke into a wide smile while his shoulders bobbed in laughter. No measure of tea and egg whites would ever turn Stan white.
Pu’er tea is thought to lower triglycerides, raise good (HDL) cholesterol and lower bad (LDL) cholesterol. In February 2012, Dr. Oz recommended drinking several cups of pu’er tea each day to aid in weight loss.
Pu’er tea is a black tea that undergoes microbial fermentation and oxidation after the leaves are dried and rolled. Western black tea is called red tea in China. So this black tea is a completely different. It undergoes gradual fermentation and maturation over time and its price is commiserate with age. Hence, this tea is labelled with year and region of production and at the tea factory - cost 100 USD per wheel.
Tea take home messages: Black tea needs to breathe - hence the use of tea caddies for black tea storage. Green teas are not fermented and will stay fresh longer in an airtight container. You’ve seen the tiny and ornate Chinese teapots? Make tea in a tiny teapot, add hot water as needed, after eight times, use the leaves for your face (or garden). Lastly, “No buy tea in bag. Dey put wuhst (worst) tea in bag. Buy loose tea.”
The afternoon was spent at City God Temple, an outdoor shopping mall and replica of an ancient city, built up around a functioning temple. Loo-Loo took the ladies several blocks away to a low slung building with a side, alleyway entrance. We ducked-down through the doorway into their hideaway - a windowless room compressed by low ceiling, and shelf-lined walls displaying knock-off, designer handbags: Michael Kors, Gucci, Dooney & Bourke, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dolce Gabbana, et al.
“The color is off,” Lael said, her face lined with disgust, “And the hardware is wrong. I’m not buying a fake bag but why would you even want a bad fake bag?”
We made our way back to City God Temple and I wandered it’s alleys and streets alone. As I gazed through a shopkeepers window admiring the beautiful teapots and cups, a man sidled up to me.
“Lady, you like tea? Come wit me, I have bettah one. I give you good plice lady.”
I shook my head and waved him off, “No thank you.” I moved to the next window and he followed me, pestering and imploring.
“Come lady, come. I give you spehshow plice foh nice one!”
“Don’t go,” Derek spoke in my head. “People will ask you; don’t go because when dey close dat door, no one know where you are.”
I had just finished Amy Tan’s book, Saving Fish from Drowning, about a hapless group of foolish San Franciscans who did just that - accepted an invitation and were swallowed into the Burmese jungle.
He walked abreast and sometimes two steps ahead, beckoning past three shops until I stepped into a tobacco vendor to rid myself of him.
“I saw you walking alone,” Kevin said when I rendezvoused with the younguns drinking beer, “I thought you were brave.” ... or foolish.
The locals ate soft-shelled crab from swirling, steaming vats. Hot crabs, eaten shells and all, were shared by families to the same gleeful exclamations American kids make for ice cream.
“I don’t get this,” Lael said quietly, “We have 45-minutes in the Suzhou Museum but three-hours in a tourist trap?” Amen sister!
That night we assembled in a tightly packed, windowless, wooden theater to watch a performance by the Shanghai Acrobats. The theater was dimly lit, the stairs to our seats, steep. This place is a fire with countless fatalities - waiting to happen. It made me nervous.
DIGRESSION: China has little sensibility or sensitivity for the disabled. The Chinese government is focused on bringing the country into the industrial age through productivity. Those that cannot be productive fall through the cracks. And while the aged are venerated in Asian cultures, there are few concessions made for them. Our tour guides had no sense for it either, for if they did; they would purchase seats with easier access for our elderly. Its just not on their radar. It is a generous society that takes care of its disabled and elderly. But I digress, as I am wont to do.
On stage, a globe-like, metal cage - waited. The act was very Cirque de Solei - less polished, less fancy but highly skilled and acrobatic. The grand finalé involved eight motorcyclists, precision riding at high-speed, inside the globe: weaving, criss-crossing, upside down and mostly at 90-degrees to the ground. Without windows or ventilation system, the air filled with the exhaust of two-stroke engines. I wondered about carbon monoxide poisoning as my eyelids felt heavy and closed.