Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022

© Jeremy Ferguson

Hangzhou's West Lake was a favourite imperial retreat in the 12th and 13th centuries.

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Beyond Shanghai

Two of China’s most historic towns are a stone’s throw from its bustling metropolis

Call it Manhattan-on-the-Huangpu — Shanghai is installed as the urban glamour girl of the 21st century. But sooner or later, you cringe at the crush of 20 million people, as we did. Which is why we fled. Twice. The first time was to Hangzhou.

Pronounced “Hong-Joe,” it lies 180 kilometres southwest of Shanghai. It’s a two-hour drive, at least until the Shanghai Maglev — the fastest train in the world at 431 kilometres per hour — arrives in 2010 and cuts the time to a mere 12 minutes.

With more than three million people, Hangzhou may not sound all that laid-back. But compared to Shanghai, it’s a village. And because it hasn’t been part of the Chinese mainstream since the 13th century, it feels like one.

The city has long been renowned for its history and beauty. Its greatness peaked in the 12th and 13th centuries, when it was China’s capital under the Southern Song Dynasty. When Marco Polo passed this way, he described the city as “beyond dispute one of the finest and noblest in the world.” And the intrepid Marco had seen more than most.

Peace and prosperity seemed Hangzhou’s lot, but the maelstrom of Chinese history finally caught up with it in the 19th-century Taiping Rebellion and 20th-century Cultural Revolution. Much of the old capital’s magic today is really very recent.

The Lei Feng Pagoda, for instance, was built in 975 CE, and boasts one of the greenest panoramic views in urban China. You can huff and puff your way up its 1000 steps or, since it was rebuilt in 2002, ascend the hill by escalator and elevator.

The balconies of fashionable condos furnished from Ikea hang with equally fashionable undies. Razzle-dazzle fireworks flash across the skies in mid-afternoon to celebrate weddings on auspicious days. Downtown Hefang Street represents old Hangzhou for tourists. It has a permanent carnival atmosphere. Anything can happen.

On Hefang Street, the popular snack is xi-dan or “happiness egg.” Happiness is a boiled, half-hatched chicken egg in which the embryonic chick is eaten, feathers, blood and all. My wife tucked into one, much to the amusement of the astounded Chinese throng, who gathered around her to see if the foreigner could really do it.

“What does it taste like?” asked her chicken-hearted husband. “Chicken,” she said, pulling a feather from her mouth.

The husband found local fare more appetizing at the Chenghuang Pagoda restaurant. Hangzhou delicacies are justly renowned: Beggar’s chicken comes wrapped in lotus leaf and bursting with five-spice fragrance. The chef steamed shrimp in tea leaves. Both stand as testimonials to the awakening of China’s gastronomic dragon.

A flash of history

And for more Hangzhou history? Why, the Song Dynasty Theme Park, of course. It was the first historic theme park in China. All the stops were pulled. The result is an over-the-top, full-throttle dance extravaganza based on Hangzhou’s heyday as ancient capital.

A $6-million budget buys plenty of costumes and special effects in China. Don’t be surprised when rain pours down from an artificial sky, an ancient wall is swept away by a sorcerer’s flood, or warriors battle in pools of light and smoke as live horses thunder across the stage.

The reborn Imperial Court is resplendent, of course. Just for good measure, the Chinese, who do this sort of thing brilliantly, throw in a French can-can and a coy black-light striptease to remind you this is Hangzhou by way of Vegas.

Inarguably, Hangzhou’s crown jewel is West Lake, an idyll known across China for its eye-filling scenery, lagoons, pagodas, old stone bridges, rockeries, weeping willows and flowering peach trees. For people who watch people, it proffers a fine passing parade: old folks out for a stroll, lovers patting each others’ bums, couples out for a gentle spin on the lake, erhu players with their haunting, high-pitched melodies, wandering opera singers and fishermen silhouetted at sunset.

On the lakeshore, the modern Xihu Tiandi complex encapsulates hip Hangzhou: a swank, renovated neighbourhood of galleries, restaurants, clubs, bars and, yes, Starbucks. Its Hong Kong developer designed it as a role model for Asian café society.

We ate at the Tea and Wine Chapter, a boutique restaurant on the lake’s eastern shore. The clang of a shoe-store bell brought out our server, nattily dressed in a svelte linen riff on the South Chinese costume.

What are Chinese hipsters eating? Tofu, the ubiquitous bean curd, arrived soft and silky, with crab roe set like little orange pearls among the ivory tofu cubes. Sichuan duck smouldered in a sauce seething with chilies and five-spice. In the “crystal fold” tradition, iceberg lettuce — God did have a reason for it after all — became a crunchy wrap for a racy mix of minced chicken and spices. We ordered a bottle of Carmenere from Chile. What a fusion it was: atmosphere and wine from the West, delicious, seductive fare from the East. Eat yer heart out, Marco.

Water world

Our second escape took us to Zhou Zhuang. An easy day trip only an hour west of Shanghai, Zhou Zhuang is regarded as the finest “water village” in all China. Lakes surround the town on all four sides, and canals and waterways have ribboned through it for more than 900 years.

Tourism officials promote it as the Venice of China. Wherever it is, if it has a stinky canal, it’s “the Venice of” somewhere. But tourists who make their way to Zhou Zhuang won’t be disappointed. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site for very good reasons and a marvellous insight into rustic life in the Middle Kingdom.

Although Westerners are only now discovering it, it’s long been a favourite with Chinese tourists, who arrive in busloads to enjoy its convoluted canal walks, arched stone bridges, well-preserved Ming and Qing Dynasty houses and ride in 14-seat “gondolas.”

Zhou Zhuang translates literally as “Zhou’s Village.” In 1086, a man named Zhou founded the town by donating his house and five hectares of land to build a temple for local people.

If its waters have always rendered Zhou Zhuang remote, it was that same inapproachability that saved it during the ferocity of the Cultural Revolution. Even the zealous Red Guards found they couldn’t walk on water.

Nowadays, the town receives nearly two million tourists a year. In prime time, the atmosphere is circus-like, each and every Chinese tourist seems to be on a secret mission ooohing and aaahhing at the easy charm of the place and snapshooting with cell phones.

The mission is the town’s signature dish of Wansan pork thigh, which, braised to a coppery golden-brown, fills the windows of souvenir shops. They also vanish as quickly as storekeepers can put them out. “If a wife comes to Zhou Zhuang and fails to bring her husband a pork,” cackles one local, “he may consider divorce.”

The dish is readily available on the menus of local restaurants. It comes glazed in soy and sugar and slathered in brown sauce. The itinerant foodie would be crazy not to order one for lunch. The layer of burnished blubber may put you off at first, but press on: this fat is delicious and the flesh of the pig, juicy and succulent.

Devil of a time

If you arrive in late afternoon, the busloads will have departed and you’ll have the town almost to yourself. Then you can freely photograph the bridges, explore the interior courtyards of Ming Dynasty homes and navigate the canals with singing oarsmen in conical hats — the gondoliers of Zhou Zhuang.

The town has 14 stone bridges, some hanging with moss. The most celebrated are the Twin Bridges, called the Shide and Yongan. The UN featured them on a postage stamp in 1985. It’s the bridges that afford the best views of Zhou Zhuang and the crazy day that roars from sunrise to sunset.

The lovely 15th-century House of Zhang is a 70-room Ming Dynasty home. It has a tea room, a beguiling study designed for Confucian contemplation and a beautiful garden with a canal running through it. The garden seems to many a beleaguered tourist as a kind of refuge.

That refuge becomes a fishbowl however, if like me, you are a left-handed backhander when you sit down to write a postcard. The Chinese have, it seems, never seen such penmanship. I become an instant celebrity because of it. Arms were flung around me. Pictures were excitedly taken. Profuse thanks rained upon me. Tourists shook my hand even as I tried to write. It was as close as I will ever get to feeling like Brad Pitt.

Plan to spend the better part of a day wandering the nooks and crannies that fascinate outsiders. Souvenir shops flog tacky chinoiserie. Local women pose as peasants for cameras, and are probably wealthier than the tourists. But it’s a joy capturing the sloping tile rooftops, the shimmer on the canals, the bridges spanning time.

A boatload of Buddhist monks on a sightseeing tour pulled up near me. “Where from?” shouted a monk.

Chanada yang guizi,” I replied in Mandarin.

The monk was baffled for a moment. Then he burst into raucous laughter. I’d told him I was a “foreign devil” from Canada.

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