Ode to Hangzhou
Guangzhou was a sweaty, sticky place full of people that couldn’t speak Mandarin. They wore large straw hats, and liked to stare at you. They had terrible teeth. City buses had no air conditioning, were held together by rust, propelled by the black smoke they belched out in endless streams.
Than there was Paradise. Also known as Hangzhou.
But I liked Guangzhou. Guangzhou was the wealthiest city in China in 1990. They had the best laowai Mandarin speakers. Guangzhou was full of Arabs and Africans that could speak Mandarin and talk my socks off. True, they were prisoners of a sort, stuck there for 5 years at a time, with one trip back in between. Lots of Iranians, too. They were all called State Students, or 国费生。
They were wards of the State. We all considered ourselves laowai, and there was no animosity between any of us. I had an Iranian classmate, who liked to hand out dates.
But in the end, there was simply no place to go. I could only visit the purple Sun Yat Sen Memorial so many times, or climb Baiyunshan once. 5 Goat Park……well…..goats are goats. Yes, Guangzhou was close to Hong Kong. Yes, taking one trip per month to Hong Kong kept me sane. The movies, Pizza Hut, McDonalds….loved it!
But Guangzhou was nothing if not a huge city of concrete and long buses, taxi’s and bicycles. There was the occasional BMW.
Yes, Guangzhou got me into movies. And commercials. 广州had three 5 star hotels, where I could buy Time and the SCMP. It was in my view, due to it’s proximity to Hong Kong, the best place for foreigners that couldn’t speak Chinese. In retrospect, Guangzhou is the only place I could’ve lived in when I first came to China. I honestly don’t see how a Westerner could’ve lived anywhere else.
But I had no companionship.
True, after a few months, I started to meet girls, and meet my(and theirs, trust me)needs. But I lacked laowai friends in Guangzhou.
So on the advice of one of my Chinese teachers, I left. He had told me that “if you want to learn more about China, you should leave Guangzhou”. In hindsight it sounded like an easy decision. Not everyone thought so, though. My classmate at the time from the States had actually decided to stay another year though in Guangzhou. I think she made a mistake.
And where I should go was a pretty easy choice.
I had met a girl while teaching English, who was a Senior at University, and in turn was a Japanese teacher. She was very light skinned, slender, with gorgeous long, ravenous, black hair, sexy as hell, and nice curves in all the right places. She was also very sweet, though with a tiger of a personality. I should write a post about her and I sometime, and how we met, because she’s my wife now. I was very much smitten with her, and quite frankly I just fell head over heels in love with her. (doesn’t mean we won’t divorce tomorrow!)
She was from Hangzhou, and that’s where I went.
(Now, creep that I was, there’s a bit more to it that. so let’s just focus on Hangzhou the city for this post.)
Once I got to Hangzhou I had to apply to get accepted to the local university, which was Hangzhou University. It doesn’t exist as an entity anymore. I think it’s part of Zhejiang now…(Zhe Da). My university back in America still had me enrolled as a University graduate student. This was important. Because of this I was able to still obtain student loans, which really is what got me to China in the first place. They insisted I ask them for permission to transfer universities(my school in the States’ had an exchange program with the one in Guangzhou).
I pretty much blew off this request, and moved anyway. I was in love and knew what was best for me. (why did I go back to Hangzhou, when my gf was in Guangzhou? She got a job back in her hometown…another post)
I was still able to obtain the student loan for a 2nd year and paid them all off a few years later.
Well, I moved into Hang Da a short while later and was pleasantly surprised. I had discovered earlier I’d be living in the city , which was really nice, rather than learning Mandarin in Guangzhou in the middle of rice fields.(incidentally those fields are all gone now, and my school is surrounded by sprawl).
But the biggest welcome to me was that Hang Da(Hangzhou University), had lots of laowai! There were Australians, a whole group of Germans..it was great! The first thing I did upon moving in was get a bike. The Australians were all very warm and friendly. They shared their porn, and pretty much led me around town.
The first day I was there they loaned me a bike and took me out to a local pub. I couldn’t believe that China had bars! It was the first bar I’d ever seen in China, beyond the hotels. We walked in and even the bartender spoke a little English! It was great! Dumbass I was, the Aussies told me to buy my beer before I walked in. (not a beer lover, I bought one anyway to fit in) Later the bartender would open it for you. Of course she didn’t’, but all the same didn’t kick us out either.
The Aussies told me the bar was owned by the PLA. I have no idea how they knew that.
Right away I was struggling with what the hell had I been doing in Guangzhou???
The guys told me I had to get a bike, which I’d surmised myself right away. I don’t recall how I obtained the bike I had, but it was a junk heap. I didn’t care. It was rusted through and through, and I think cost me maybe 50 rmb. I believe I bought it from an Australian. Anyway, she had two wheels, and that was good enough for me. At the time there was a bike repairman on every corner, and fixing it was never going to be an issue.
Once I got a bike I just took off. It was akin to a bird realizing it could fly. It was freedom. Freedom from the bus. Freedom from the bus stop and freedom from the taxi’s. Freedom from feeling constrained within one place. The Aussies took me around and said we would eventually hit the lake. I asked what lake? And they just stared at me.
Really, I didn’t know.
My coming to Hangzhou was just pure luck. I knew nothing of the history of the city. Not a damn thing. My gf could’ve been in Guiyang or Hunan and that would’ve been good enough for me.
I knew nothing of 杭州出美女 or all the pretty girls come from Hangzhou. (trust me,they have ugly girls,too, which is akin to a short guy being from big, bad Texas)
I knew nothing of the Southern Song Dynasty, or of Yue Fei.
Really, those of us that like China, and want to be taken seriously need to learn about Hangzhou, and it’s history.
We came across an even area with hills in the background. The Longjing Hills, of the famous tea. ( Back than the hills could be seen from across the lake, day in and day out. Not anymore. ) This flattened area was West Lake. Running down the middle of the lake was a long white causeway. We took our bikes over the causeway to the other side of the lake. Now today, Hangzhou is overcrowded with tourists. Imagine the long lines of people at customs that go to Hong Kong, and than triple that number. No one needs any documentation to go to Hangzhou.
Hangzhou is similar to Hong Kong in two main ways: it relies on tourism from Mainland China, and adversely doesn’t like too many of them.
Hangzhou to this day has a rule barring construction of factories within a certain distance from West Lake. However, again….Westlake is no longer as visible as it once was. There are no belching factories in Hangzhou, but beyond the borders of Hangzhou are plenty of such a thing and the city has suffered as a result.
Living in Hangzhou allowed me for the first time to really study China beyond the textbooks. Especially Chinese history before the advent of the CCP.
(All laowai in China studied from the same damn textbook, and we all studied about Gubo and Palanka. 2 fictitious foreigners in China, and their travails while learning the language. Poor G and P. They were cursed at every laowai vacation stop in China. )
I was able to of course see historical West Lake. Below is a description with far meatier detail than I am able to describe. Suffice to say that at one time, West Lake was an outlet to the sea…..alas no more.
Upon coming to Hangzhou, I learned it had once been the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, ie the defacto capital of China.
I learned that Kublai Khan had actually besieged Hangzhou in 1276, on his way to creating the Yuan Dynasty.
Yue Fei has his “tomb” here. Yue Fei being the competent general wrongly persecuted by the Emperor Gaozong.
Lingyin Temple is probably the coolest place to go. It’s a big temple with as nearly as many people that go to the Forbidden City. The crowds take away from the atmosphere, so one must go early while the tourists are still eating breakfast.
Living in Hangzhou afforded me the opportunity to visit these sites, and soak in the atmosphere. I was lucky to have lived in Hangzhou at this time. Hangzhou is where I became captivated with China. Hangzhou was and is, one big classroom. It is here I first leaned about the importance of Chinese Silk, and Longjing Tea....It didn’t hurt that it was only a 4 hour train ride from Shanghai….(which today takes less than an hour)
The air was cleaner, there weren’t nearly as many people, and the population was less mobile. Now, with the mobility of the Chinese population, the local Hangzhou dialect has finally been overwhelmed by Mandarin. Yet, the prestige of living in Hangzhou is greater than ever, and has quite frankly squeezed out the ability of the local populace to live in the middle of the city.
Hangzhou is now the San Francisco of America; only wealthy people truly live in the middle of the city. West Lakes shores, where once only government officials lived, is now increasingly dominated by Overseas Chinese, and wealthy folks from not just Shanghai, but other places.
My wife’s parents own an aprt in Hangzhou, and as they will both live to be 170, it looks like my daughters are setup for life, once they sell it. The aprt is in a nondescript location, abt 2 bus stops from the lake. It’s value has quadrupled over the last 10 years, since we bought it.
The government has done a decent job maintaining Hangzhou, but industrial creep has taken it’s toll, and as I alluded to earlier, a haze hangs over the lake that rarely goes away. Still, Hangzhou is a very bikeable city, and an efficient place to learn about Chinese history and culture.