Until a couple of weeks ago, I had never been to mainland China before. I had visited what are considered “Special Administrative Regions of the People’s Republic of China” such as Hong Kong and Macau, but I had never set foot on the mainland. However, that could’ve all been a completely different story 11 years ago. In mid-2007 I moved to Dajeon, South Korea to work as an English teacher in order to get experience to make it easier to find a position in Singapore, but the day I accepted the job offer from Korea, I also received one from a primary school in Guangzhou, China. If that offer had come a day earlier, I may have possibly made a completely different decision, one that more than likely would’ve delayed my eventual move to Singapore by about six months, due to my school in Korea canceling my 12-month contract halfway through after discovering I had an undisclosed medical condition.
A lot of people around the world don’t realise that Singapore is a sovereign city-state off the coast of Malaysia, as opposed to a city in China. When these people are Europeans, they tend to be curious when they discover their assumption of Singapore’s location is incorrect, but during the year we spent in New York, people — particularly middle-aged and older men — finding out that I lived in Singapore, yet hadn’t been to China was often grounds for an argument that went as follows:
Middle-aged New Yorker: “You sound kinda funny. Where you from?”
Me: “Well, I grew up in Australia, but I’ve lived in Singapore for the past few years until recently.”
Middle-aged New Yorker: “Huh. What’s it like living in China?”
Me: “I don’t know, I’ve never been.”
Middle-aged New Yorker: “But you just said you’re from Singapore!”
Middle-aged New Yorker: (Getting aggressive) “That’s in China!”
Me: “No, it’s not.”
Middle-aged New Yorker: (Even more aggressive) “But there’s Chinese people there!
Me: (Trying to be reasonable) “There’s a Chinese dude sitting just over there, he’s not in China…”
My ability to use that reasoning was all about to change as Anna had been invited to Hangzhou, China as a guest at the Congress of the Chinese Ophthalmological Society and I was tagging along for the trip as well, joining her and her fellow Singaporean ophthalmologist buddy, Don Pek. It was going to be a bit of a stressful trip for Anna, as she had to fly out to Hanoi, Vietnam on Tuesday, September 11 to give a presentation on behalf of Bayer. Don and myself would depart from Singapore for Hangzhou on Wednesday, September 12, however, there are no direct flights from Hanoi to Hangzhou so Anna would spend Wednesday night in Hong Kong on a layover and arrive in Hangzhou on Thursday, September 13 if all were to go smoothly.
I wouldn’t say I was apprehensive about this particular journey, as even if I’m not sure I’ll particularly enjoy a place, I’ll still go just to see if I’m wrong and usually I am and end up having a great time, in a similar vein to me eating a strange dish before deciding whether or not it’s disgusting. I was always interested in visiting China, the problem was that I haven’t heard a whole lot of glowing feedback about the place:
- We always see the same stories in the media about China; it’s dirty, polluted, a bit backwards and there are people shitting and spitting in the streets, that type of thing and that’s without even mentioning the country’s horrendous human rights record.
- Older Singaporeans tend to think of mainland Chinese, or PRCs as they like to call them, as second-class citizens, again rarely having anything particularly complimentary to say about their very own ancestors.
- A lot of the firsthand stories I have heard from people who have visited China are generally negative. Case in point: My friend, Yarny, was in Hangzhou for a neuroscience conference a few weeks ago. She said she had diarrhoea the entire time, the toilets were disgusting, and her taxi driver spat in the passenger footwell of the cab. Anna has also visited China on a previous occasion and a passenger on her Air China flight on that trip spat in the aisle and rubbed it into the carpet with his foot.
- How the place is portrayed on shows like An Idiot Abroad. If you haven’t watched the first episode of the first season, this clip doesn’t even begin to do it justice, but it’s a start:
The food doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I’ve actually already tried most of the stuff in that video, my biggest fear was cleanliness. Watching people snort and spit makes me feel physically ill and on the topic of sickness, if I were to get a stomach virus or food poisoning there, both of which are extremely easy to do, I’d have to use a squat toilet and I can’t squat. Put that toilet in a public environment and that is the perfect recipe for a mental breakdown for me.
Anyway, my visa was approved and Wednesday had arrived so it was time to be on my way.
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
The day began the same way it usually does when we’re going overseas; I dropped Kermit off at the dog hotel, grabbed a bite to eat, and then caught a taxi to meet Don in the airport. We had checked in and were sitting down when before long there was a call to go to our boarding gate, despite the fact there was still an hour before we were due to depart. We had nothing else to do so Don and myself made our way to our boarding gate and it was absolute chaos. There were children running around, crying, and licking the windows while shouting adults with Chinese passports tried to get through security with lighters, liquids, and sprays, all needing to hand over the items and go through the metal detectors several times again, each time forgetting another contraband object. Was it ignorance of the rules? An attitude of “those regulations apply to everyone but me so I’ll be fine?” A misunderstanding, or simply just an insight into the general chaos and disorder we would be experiencing over the coming days? Only time would tell, but one thing was certain — That early boarding call made perfect sense.
Another thing that made sense was getting Business Class seats for what would be a less than five-hour flight. We were flying with Scoot and this plane was tiny and extremely basic so I wouldn’t fit in the seats or bathroom in Economy, not to mention the general mayhem that was happening with all of the kids and extremely loud adults back there. Don and I would be sitting in the front row in separate aisles, both with a vacant seat next to us. Don immediately fell asleep as soon as he was seated, something I simply can’t do on an airplane, especially a plane with seats as uncomfortable as this one, but there was a benefit to this fact and that was that I was awake when the flight attendant was handing out the arrival cards, but for some reason she just walked straight past me. I later asked a different flight attendant if I needed one, only to be met with a response of, “Oh, no, not if you’ve got a Chinese passport.” Anna has told me over the years that I am becoming more Asian as time has passed, even openly referring to me as an “egg;” white on the outside, but yellow on the inside. Still, I didn’t think it had become this defined so I managed to convince the flight attendant that I was in fact NOT Chinese and was given my arrival card. I filled it out, took a look at the reverse side, and that’s when I saw something that brought a smile to my face — The usage of the word ‘alien.’ You notice a lot of things get lost in translation when you travel overseas, but Asian countries generally tend to be the only ones that use ‘alien‘ correctly:
- Often Disparaging and Offensive. A resident of one country who was born in or owes allegiance to another country and has not acquired citizenship by naturalisation in the country of residence (distinguished from citizen).
- a foreigner.
- a person who has been estranged or excluded.
Yup, it really just seems to be us native English speakers who instantly think of spacemen when we hear or read the word, however, ‘alien’ is the correct term in this case. For example, when I lived in Korea, my employment pass was a Certificate of Alien Registration (right). I know, it looks a little weird when you’re not used to that particular definition, but it’s even more amusing when you’re a bit tired from the stress, hassle, and boredom that comes with traveling on an airline where you can’t access the inflight entertainment and you read these terms on the back of your arrival card:
Anyway, I had my crappy inflight meal, played a few games of Solitaire on my phone while listening to music until my battery went flat while some Singaporean-Indian guy in the seat behind me took his shoes off and slid his feet between the small gaps down onto the armrests on the vacant seat beside me. I turned around and he was wearing a suit and reading a printout on banking risk assessment. Why did it come as no surprise that he was a banker? I’m not going to say it outright as it is a stereotype that applies to the majority of, but not all, Singaporean males working in the finance industry, but if you’ve ever met one before, you’ll probably know exactly what I’m hinting at. This one was so full of himself he even made a phone call as the plane was landing, despite all the announcements not to.
It took what seemed like forever, but we eventually landed at the airport in Hangzhou, a city that would be our home for the next few days:
Hangzhou is the capital and most populous city of Zhejiang Province in East China. It sits at the head of Hangzhou Bay, which separates Shanghai and Ningbo. Hangzhou grew to prominence as the southern terminus of the Grand Canal and has been one of the most renowned and prosperous cities in China for much of the last millennium. The city’s West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, immediately west of the city, is amongst its best-known attractions.
Hangzhou is classified as a sub-provincial city and forms the core of the Hangzhou metropolitan area, the fourth-largest in China. During the 2010 Chinese census, the metropolitan area held 21.102 million people over an area of 34,585 km2 (13,353 sq mi). Hangzhou prefecture had a registered population of 9,018,000 in 2015.
In September 2015, Hangzhou was awarded the 2022 Asian Games. It will be the third Chinese city to play host to the Asian Games after Beijing 1990 and Guangzhou 2010. Hangzhou, an emerging technology hub and home to the e-commerce giant Alibaba, also hosted the eleventh G-20 summit in 2016.
Once we were off the plane, immigration was a breeze. Well, at least for me, Don hadn’t been given an arrival card so he got sent back to fill one out and join the end of the line again. For me it was a matter of scanning my fingerprints and using facial-recognition technology, something that would become a recurring pattern over the course of this trip.
Once we were both through, our hotel transfer was waiting to take us to the Wyndham Grand Plaza Royale, the hotel where we would be spending the following three nights. As we were driving along the freeway I quickly realised my preconceived perception of what Hangzhou would be like was way off the mark. If you read that Wikipedia excerpt about the city, you would’ve noticed that Hangzhou was referred to as “an emerging technology hub.” That’s underselling it a little as Hangzhou has been described on multiple occasions as China’s answer to ‘Silicon Valley,’ that link being just one of many when you Google the phrase. As we traveled past towering residential blocks we could see a night skyline that consisted of moving murals made from millions of fluorescent light tubes covering entire groups of what looked like buildings at least 30 storeys high that recreated video montages of everything from cartoons to videos of people just walking around. It was actually quite incredible and I instantly decided that if I ever ended up living in Hangzhou, I would start a business selling replacement fluorescent lights. We also went through several gantries where lights quickly flashed over our lane as we went through as if taking a photo, possibly tracking our entire journey. Once we arrived at the Wyndham Grand, there were more facial-recognition devices on the counter, as well as security cameras every couple of metres. I didn’t really think much of the cameras in the airport as that is pretty standard, but once Don started pointing them out we noticed them everywhere. Visitors to London mention the sheer amount of CCTV cameras around the city, estimated to be approximately 500,000, but I think Hangzhou definitely gives them a run for their money and, according to this article from the Wall Street Journal, it isn’t just in the country’s tech centre:
Facial-recognition technology, once a specter of dystopian science fiction, is becoming a feature of daily life in China, where authorities are using it on streets, in subway stations, at airports and at border crossings in a vast experiment in social engineering. Their goal: to influence behavior and identify lawbreakers.
China is rushing to deploy new technologies to monitor its people in ways that would spook many in the U.S. and the West. Unfettered by privacy concerns or public debate, Beijing’s authoritarian leaders are installing iris scanners at security checkpoints in troubled regions and using sophisticated software to monitor ramblings on social media. By 2020, the government hopes to implement a national “social credit” system that would assign every citizen a rating based on how they behave at work, in public venues and in their financial dealings.
Facial-recognition technology is one of the most powerful new tools in the surveillance arsenal. Fueled by advances in artificial intelligence, these systems can measure key aspects of a face, such as distance between the eyes and skin tone, then cross-reference them against huge databases of photographs collected by government agencies and businesses and shared on social media.
That sounds more like that terrifying episode of Black Mirror than what equates to everyday life in China, a country where you still can’t drink the tap-water, however, over the coming days we would come to realise just how technologically advanced they were becoming.
We checked into our rooms, helped by our Ukrainian clerk, walked down the stale, smokey-smelling hallway and once we were in our rooms, it appeared as if they were designed by Donald Trump if his favourite colour were brown. Our rooms definitely looked like they were taken directly out of a stereotypical Chinese style guide, coming complete with a pillow menu and, to my relief, a regular toilet. Don’t get me wrong, it was a really nice hotel, take a look around mine and Anna’s room:
I opted against ordering any extra pillows, instead just turning on the air-conditioner to get rid of the musty smell, had a shower, grabbed some room service in Don’s room, and then went back to my own to catch up on some sleep.
Thursday, September 13, 2018
Anna would be arriving later in the day at around 4:30pm, however, I didn’t have roaming at that point so I’d have to stick around the hotel to keep a wifi signal so she could contact me when she arrived. It didn’t really matter to me about not having internet anyway, because both Facebook and Google are blocked in China so there wasn’t a lot to look at. Instead, I had a shower, brushed my teeth with bottled water as I do when I’m in places where the water is undrinkable and I fear getting sick, India being another prime example, and then went down to meet Don at the hotel brunch buffet in Cafe Royale. Maybe the dishes that you order in the cafe are fine, but hotel buffets in general aren’t particularly good and this one was another that fit that mold. Sure, there were some options, such as the noodles, rice, and roast dishes, that were fine, but then there was the risotto that looked like mashed potatoes, the fried fish that just didn’t taste fresh, the cheese platter where the crumbs were rolled into a separate ball for people to cut from, and nothing could get me to even try buffet sashimi in China. Decide for yourself:
Okay, I may have painted a sketchy picture of the buffet, but we did find some good stuff there, including the cheese (just not from the multiple crumb-balls). Another general rule when visiting places where you can’t drink the water is that you also shouldn’t eat salad there either, because if they do wash it, they’ll be using tap water, not Perrier. Don had been to China several times before, including a trip to Hangzhou 20 years ago, therefore I figured he must’ve just had an iron stomach when he started eating the salad, as opposed to the Fisher-Price ‘My First Digestive System’ of which I am in possession, so I didn’t bother to mention the whole salad thing to him.
After lunch I hung out in Don’s room, just chatting and listening to music while he worked, Don stopping periodically to go to the bathroom, when finally I received a message from Anna that she had arrived. People who read this blog regularly might have noticed a pattern recently — On our last three international trips, there has been some kind of disaster just after we arrived or immediately after we departed:
- Volcanoes erupted, destroying at least 25 homes and causing the evacuation of around 20 residents on the day we left Hawaii.
- We then went to Japan, a country that has been battered by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and typhoons ever since we left.
- Next we went to Thailand and a kids’ soccer team got trapped in a cave in the neighbouring province the day we arrived.
On this occasion, Anna was flying in from Hong Kong which was only beginning to get hammered by Typhoon Mangkhut. As of Monday, September 17, when I first began writing this piece, nearly 400 people in Hong Kong had sought medical treatment, and more than 1,500 were taking refuge in 48 temporary shelters there as a result. Luckily, Anna arrived safely and I was greeted by this message from her during her cab ride to the hotel:
Anna had indeed received the welcome I had expected upon my arrival, but she got to the hotel with no problems. The conference’s President’s Dinner was on that night and Anna had asked if I was invited, but hadn’t received a reply so we took that as a no. Still, we had a couple of hours before she had to leave so we took a quick stroll around the neighbourhood:
After we had walked around and checked out bars and other places we could visit later in the night, we went back to the hotel so Anna could change and then take a 30-minute taxi ride to the President’s Dinner. This left Don and myself to our own devices so we walked back into town and had a look at one of Hangzhou’s main attractions, the West Lake:
West Lake is a freshwater lake in Hangzhou, China. It is divided into five sections by three causeways. There are numerous temples, pagodas, gardens, and artificial islands within the lake.
West Lake has influenced poets and painters throughout Chinese history for its natural beauty and historic relics, and it has also been among the most important sources of inspiration for Chinese garden designers. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, described as having “influenced garden design in the rest of China as well as Japan and Korea over the centuries” and reflecting “an idealized fusion between humans and nature”.
About the formation of West Lake, there are few records in ancient documents. The “West Lake Sight-Seeing Record” says, “West Lake is surrounded by mountains on three sides. Streams wander down the hills into the pond. There’re hundreds of springs underneath. Accumulated water forms the lake.” Modern scholars studied topography, geology, sediment and hydrodynamics, and generally held that West Lake was a lagoon formed gradually from a gulf.
West Lake is said to be the incarnation of Xi Shi, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. Since ancient times, West Lake was associated with a large number of romantic poets, profound philosophers, national heroes and heroines. West Lake was also the retreat for many Chinese writers of the past. The Northern Song Dynasty poet Lin Bu, shunning the life of being an official, lived in seclusion by West Lake for twenty years, and dedicated himself to the cultivation of peach and plum blossoms.
That doesn’t seem like a bad place to have to walk by every day in order to get into town. We had a look around the lake, taking in the natural scenery, the military statues, and all of the other eye-catching occurrences happening in every possible direction. The only problem was the pollution and the setting sun made it a tad difficult to take in the true scenery or get the statues in a good light, but these pictures should give you the general idea:
Hangzhou is in the same timezone as Singapore (and Perth for you Aussies reading this), but it seems to get dark here about an hour earlier, dusk being at around 6:00pm. I normally don’t eat dinner until after dark, but most likely due to the light we were starting to feel hungry so Don and I walked into town to find a place to eat. Fortunately, unlike Anna, Don can read some Mandarin which opened up our options substantially. We wandered through the beautiful architecture and backstreets looking for a good place for dinner, all the while taking in the sights all around us. We narrowed it down to a seafood restaurant that had live turtles swimming around or another one that had what looked like really good local food. Don’s not as adventurous when it comes to food as I am, plus I’ve had turtle before, so we opted for the local place and it was certainly a great choice. We were led to our table by a waitress still puffing on her cigarette and ordered a baked spring chicken wrapped in lotus leaves, some sweet prawns that seem to show up quite often in Hangzhou, some pork, vegetables, and a pig stomach soup for myself. I also ordered a beer, a local one that I had never had before, and was asked if I wanted ice with it. I wasn’t going to run the risk of having ice made from tap water so I enjoyed my meal with a room-temperature beer consisting of 2% alcohol. Needless to say, the food was great, we skeletonised the chicken and I ate a lot of pig guts.
After dinner we started to make our way back, as Anna’s dinner had finished reasonably early and it turned out I was invited, they just didn’t confirm it. Oh, well. Our walk back to the hotel allowed us to take in some of the West Lake view by night and it is truly beautiful, especially some of the passenger boats that travel around there. I took some photos, but the local way seems to be that if you want to get a picture from a certain vantage point and someone else is snapping one from the same place, you just push them away so you can stand there. The only problem is that doesn’t work when the person taking pictures is about double your body weight. As a result, I got some great photos and other people had to wait for me to move, as opposed to just shoving me out of the way to take my spot like they do to others:
Don’s stomach was really starting to give him trouble so we had to get back to the hotel, posthaste! remember, kids, don’t eat salad in China. Anna and one of her colleagues had returned from the President’s Dinner so we decided to hit the town for what would’ve be a memorable night if only we could remember it. Don had decided it was best if he stay in the immediate vicinity of his bathroom so Anna, her colleague, and myself went out, beginning at the night market of which I had earlier taken a photograph that was now in full swing. This market had some interesting stuff available, particularly street food, but along with brushing with bottled water and not eating salad, I generally adhere to another piece of advice when visiting Asian countries, summed up perfectly in this song by The Cramps:
Street food can be delicious, but it is also a perfect way of getting ill due to it sitting out in the open and being unrefrigerated so I avoid it if I have even the slightest doubt, however, the stuff at one particular stall seemed pretty safe so I thought I’d give it a try. If you watched the clip from An Idiot Abroad at the beginning of this post, you would’ve seen all of the stuff available on skewers in China. This stall had a variety of insects, reptiles and an array of other animals available on sticks, such as lizards, larvae, centipedes, seahorses, tarantulas, and beetles. Almost all of what they sold I had eaten before, but I had never encountered a place that sold starfish on a skewer in my life so that’s what I ordered. The woman operating the stall put my starfish in boiling oil for a few minutes, rolled it sparingly in chilli flakes, shoved a couple of sticks in it and it was ready. I waited for it to cool down a bit and then took a bite out of one of the legs, although I wasn’t particularly impressed; it had the texture and I assume the taste of deep-fried corrugated cardboard. Anna and her colleague both tried some too, but they were also nonplussed, I could definitely have spent what equated to the AU$5.00 (US$3.65) that I paid for it on something better, but it was more because the opportunity was there. Here’s the stall:
We continued to walk around the market and then went off to find a bar, but as my starfish cooled down, it also got a lot crunchier and more difficult to eat. At this point I was only eating it because I was still holding it, it had no actual taste and I was beginning to fear for my teeth as I have broken them on less so I threw the remaining couple of legs of my fried asteroidea into a nearby bin. We had walked past a craft beer place the previous day so we decided to give that a shot. We went inside and it became abundantly clear immediately that this was a favourite hangout for white guys, most of whom appeared to be employees of the Apple store. In fact, until Anna and her colleague entered, everyone inside except for the staff were white. We ordered a couple of beers, but the place was quite dark and history has shown that Anna starts to fade when trying to drink in a dark room so we settled our bill and went elsewhere.
One thing that is interesting is that China is trying to go cashless, but not a lot of places accept credit cards either. Instead, they use a system called Alipay, a third-party mobile and online payment platform that was established in Hangzhou 2004 by Alibaba Group. As I mentioned earlier, Google and Facebook are blocked in China, instead opting for WeChat, a Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media, and mobile payment app that’s been in use since 2011. All of these involve involve scanning QR codes with your phone to pay for anything so you see QR codes absolutely everywhere! This caused a bit of a problem for us, because it was a hassle and relatively pointless to set up an Alipay account so we both downloaded the WeChat app, but the only way to activate it is to have an active WeChat user scan a QR code on your screen to validate your account. Don has a WeChat account, but it was suspended for some reason so he couldn’t validate ours. Fortunately, places don’t have a problem with tourists paying with cash and, despite my flight attendant’s contrary opinion, I’m clearly not a local.
Our next stop was Li Yue Music Bar, where we’d spend the remainder of the night. I was drinking beers and Anna and her colleague got a bottle of wine and we settled in for a fun night. The place had a cover band and a screen behind them on which you could post a photo or message by, you guessed it, scanning a QR code in WeChat. We struggled for ages to try to find alternate ways to put up pictures of me eating a starfish and one of Anna and myself, but to no avail. After struggling to figure it out, one of the staff members showed us how it was done so our images were finally on the screen and it gave us a bit of a laugh when they came up, but what we didn’t realise was that some of the staff clued on to what we were trying to do and took photos of me without us realising and posted them on the screen with messages reading “I hope you enjoy your stay here…” and similar things. There was space on the screen for two messages which scrolled through in the order of when they were posted, plus a large photo to the right side, all of which would show up behind the band when they played. With the combined effort of Anna, myself and the staff, we inadvertently white-washed the screen by the sheer number of photos of me, sometimes all three positions on the screen having a picture of yours truly, the one of Anna and I even zooming in on me for some reason. Everyone in the bar was cool, the staff getting drunk and taking photos with us, the singer of the band coming over to hang out, and the table next to us joining us a few rounds of drinks. We were quite hammered by the time we got back to the hotel, but we showered and went to bed, however, for some reason Anna woke up at about 3:00am and insisted she needed another shower.
Anyway, a few snaps from our time at Li Yue Music Bar:
Oh, and as for the band, here’s a video of them doing a Madonna cover. I despise Madonna, but I mainly put this in here to see how often pictures of me appear in the background:
Friday, September 14, 2018
Anna managed to get up on time and go the conference, and when her and Don returned it was time for lunch. We easily convinced her not to bother with the hotel buffet and instead decided to find something in town, but there was going to be the issue of air quality while we were walking. China is well-known for its pollution, but I’ve never seen a warning like this before when opening the weather app on my phone:
None of us fit into “Sensitive Groups,” but it might not be particularly pleasant walking around in the dry heat with air that is a little difficult to inhale. Still, we did it and stumbled upon a restaurant where we had some more of those great local prawns and some pig’s trotters for lunch. Pig’s trotters are just like consuming the fattiest pork imaginable, but they are a pain in the ass to eat and exceptionally messy, so much so that this restaurant even gave us plastic gloves to eat them with.
We finished lunch and Anna was still tired from all of the flights and the lack of sleep from preparing her talks for the coming weeks. Add that to the big night we had had previously and she was feeling pretty drained. Don was also still not feeling particularly energetic after his food poisoning so we decided to go back to the hotel to crash for a few hours. Don and Anna both took about a four-hour power-nap and I just read a book until it was time to eat again.
Before long that time had rolled around and Anna had found a restaurant she wanted to try called Grandma’s. She also still hadn’t done a proper walk around West Lake and the restaurant was supposed to be nearby so we took in all of the sights of the lake again on our way to dinner, but when it came time to find the restaurant, it was nowhere to be found. We came to the conclusion that it had closed down so we went to a mall nearby that had what looked like a really good steamboat restaurant upstairs so the decision was made. We went in, pulled up our seats at the soup pot and ordered a bunch of stuff to cook, including chili-covered beef that came with a statue which blew liquid nitrogen steam over the meat to look like smoke in order to symbolise how hot it was. In fact, using the steam from liquid nitrogen on food is quite common in Hangzhou, as we also saw several stores selling desserts that came in a similar fashion. As is usually the case, we had two soup options, one spicy and one plain, but the combination of the smell of the spicy soup and chili beef had us constantly sneezing, the aroma permeating our clothes. Still, dinner was great and it was soon time to hit the town again.
Anna, being the obsessive researcher she is, had found out about Huanglou Jazz Bar and wanted to check it out. It was this great little bar with a live jazz band in a really intimate setting, however there were no spare seats downstairs without a reservation so we were ushered upstairs to a table where we could look down on the stage and witness the band doing their thing from above and they were fantastic, the girl on piano possessing an incredible voice. We stuck around for a while, but Don still wasn’t in top shape so we walked back with him to the hotel.
Here’s how the day had looked until that point:
It was still only about 11:00pm by the time we got back to the hotel so Anna and I decided to soldier on. We like to go to shisha bars when we’re overseas, as it is banned in Singapore and Anna had heard that there were a few in Hangzhou so she decided to ask at reception if they knew of any. The receptionist told us there was one nearby among all the other bars, pubs, and karaoke joints near our hotel called ‘Alan’s’… or possibly ‘Allan’s,’ or maybe ‘Allen’s,’ or even some other orthography as we didn’t clarify the spelling when she told us. Anyway, we wandered around the bar district near our hotel, Anna searching all the variations of the spelling of ‘Alan’s’ in Google Maps with no luck when out of nowhere I noticed a sign across the street that said ‘Helen’s.’ Ahhh, ‘Helen’s,’ we never thought of that variation. When we climbed the stairs and went inside we found it to be a really cool bar playing great music and full of college-aged kids, all playing a dice game similar to Yahtzee. We were clearly the oldest people in the bar, but we had a blast and we made a new discovery — e-shisha. We knew China were trying to go digital in every single way possible, but we definitely didn’t expect this and it was great. No changing coals, no ashy taste, it was an awesome revelation to top off another great night out, one that would’ve been almost perfect if nobody had vomited across all of the urinals in the men’s bathroom inside Helen’s. Also, if we were able to, paying our tab there would’ve been easy because you just scan a QR code again, this time bolted to your table, as well as printed on the tab.
A look at Helen’s:
Saturday, September 15, 2018
We were to fly back to Singapore later in the night, but we still had plenty of time to kill. Anna still hadn’t seen West Lake during the light of day, plus another friend and colleague of Anna and Don’s, Marcus Ang, was in town for the day. Fortunately, the weather forecast only said there would be “haze” so we would be fine walking around today.
Obviously, the first item on the itinerary was lunch so we strolled into town, taking in all the sights such as weird stickers that adorn all air-conditioning units depicting two little boys in their underwear, eating ice-cream while hugging. We also witnessed people riding around the streets on rental bikes with their babies in the basket, and out of shape men walking around in the heat, shirtless, without a care in the world. A common technique among Chinese men in Singapore in the never ending battle against the heat is to roll their t-shirts up to their nipples for some reason so we weren’t surprised to see many examples of people doing this on a particularly warm day in Hangzhou. Generally these guys are just standing around, minding their own business, and as we walked past one of the military statues near West Lake there was an overweight man doing exactly that, just standing there with his shirt rolled up to the nips, reading the plaque at the base of the statue. At the combined insistence of both Anna and Don, I rolled my shirt up and went over to join him for a photo, despite the fact I couldn’t read a single word on the plaque, however, he saw me coming and left. We still got the picture though, sans man in rolled up shirt. In hindsight, rolling up your t-shirt really has no effect when it comes to making you feel cooler, or look cooler for that matter.
We found our restaurant for lunch that Marcus had booked and ate well, particularly a pyramid of thinly sliced pork that we ate in buns. After lunch, Don and Marcus went back to the conference, but Anna was free that afternoon, so we decided to check out the shopping malls and some of their horrendously awful clothing and furniture:
As is always the case, Anna had been doing her homework and decided we should spend the afternoon walking around Hefang Street:
Hefang Street, once called Taiping Street, dates back to the time South Song Dynasty when Hangzhou was the capital city. In 1152, General Zhang Jun (张俊) was conferred the title of as was “Qinghe County King”. In order to highlight his high status, Zhang Jun began to build his mansion around Taiping Street. People called this site as Qinghe Fang and renamed Taiping Street as Hefang Street. In South Song Dynasty, Hefang Street has been a rather prosperous business site and the center of culture and politics. It is said that Zhang Jun once invited to Emperor Gaozhong to have an unprecedented feast of China’s history in Qinghe Street and the menu came down and became today’s Hangzhou Dishes.
Nowadays, Hefang Street is the most famous and the only well-preserved ancient street in Hangzhou. It represents the old story and showcases the folk culture of Hangzhou. The cobbled street is lined with lots of time-honored stores from which you will get a better understanding of ancient Hangzhou and Ancient China. You could explore the traditional Chinese Medicine Culture, enjoy the delicate handicrafts, taste the delicious Hangzhou dishes.
It was definitely an excellent choice. Although being what one would assume to be a prime tourist destination, there turned out to be very few foreign tourists walking around the area on this particular Saturday afternoon, however, there seemed to be a lot of tour groups from other parts of China. Anna and myself took our time meandering through the streets and alleys in the district, checking out all of the ancient buildings, the statues, monuments and sculptures, the museums, the stores selling handmade jewellery and handicrafts, the food, and the traditional Chinese medicine stores that literally sold snake oil. These pictures will only give you very basic idea of the place, but they’re all I can do unless you see Hefang Street for yourself:
Tim and Anna Join the Revolution
Anna was in a jewellery store, checking out rings as she likes to do whenever we are overseas, trying to fulfil her goal of purchasing one in every country we visit. This is not a rapid process so I had a look around some other stores nearby while she was doing so and stumbled upon a place that had tons of movie memorabilia and old TV sets in the window so I decided to go in and take a look. They had similar stuff inside, as well as some Madame Tussaud’s-style models of celebrities, but it was when I walked around a corner that I found what we’d be doing later — There were sets, props, and costumes so you could pose and have your photo taken from a different period in China’s history; street scenes from the early 20th century accompanied by traditional cheongsams and robes, mountainous landscapes with warrior costumes… and propaganda murals featuring Mao Tse-tung, complete with uniforms from the Communist Party of China. Guess which one I chose?
I crossed back over the road to where Anna was in the jewellery store, told her I had a surprise, and waited for her to finish looking around. When we went back to where the photos were to be taken, I took her to the area where the Communist ones were being done. She gave me a weird, kind of shocked, look and then burst out into uncontrollable laughter. I guess we’re doing it, then. We had to wait for another couple to finish having their pictures taken, then it was our turn.
NOTE: Some people are offended by the ironic veneration of tyrants, particularly one who, while being one of the most important and influential people in modern history, led a regime that was responsible for the deaths of between 30-70 million victims and the deadliest famine in human history, and would find this all a tad insensitive, but the opportunity to take part in a Communist propaganda photoshoot while in China rarely raises its head so I had to make the most of it. Add in the fact that absolutely nobody would believe a giant ang moh would be working with the Communist revolutionaries (well, maybe my flight attendant might), I was posing in the photos with my wife, who happens to be a racially Chinese woman, and a lot of elderly local people found it hilarious. Remember, never be more offended than the victim.
Anyway, back to the task at hand. We donned our costumes over our regular clothing and stood around, sweating, waiting for the other couple to have their pictures printed. The uniforms were extremely stifling and it was already a hot day so things were getting a bit moist and uncomfortable. There was a jacket that fit me okay, but the pants were where I had trouble, the longest pair not even reaching my ankles. I almost resembled LeBron James before each game of last year’s NBA Finals (right) if he had been arriving at the arena in Red China attire. While we were standing around, a small group of curious onlookers had gathered, confused as to what they were seeing, especially when Anna snapped a sneaky picture of me holding a rifle in one hand and the Little Red Book in front of the Mao mural while we were waiting for our photographer.
He soon arrived and that’s when the true insanity began. As he was taking the photographs, he was coaching us on how we should pose for each picture; some were sitting at a table posing with Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, others had Anna teaching me from it by a lantern. There were also pictures with Anna holding a pistol to my head while I begged for my life or tried to bribe her with a pot of tea. It was already incredibly difficult to keep a straight face, as is evidenced by Anna’s facial expression in the shots where she is threatening to kill me, but by this point it was even harder because a group of at least twenty mainly elderly Chinese people had gathered around and were absolutely pissing themselves laughing at us while taking pictures of their own, despite the numerous signs around the room instructing them not to. It got even worse when the photographer told me I was holding my rifle upside down and I then snapped the barrel off it while correcting my pose. Finally, the photographer pulled out a box for Anna to stand on so we could salute and then pose in the infamous “Great Leap Forward” position, all before our smiling, adoring crowd. When the photos were done we removed our sweaty costumes, put them back on the rack, went into a back room and selected and paid for the pictures we wanted. Here is the end result:
When the propaganda photoshoot was done we started to make our way back to the hotel so we could pack, check out, and go to the airport for our flight back to Singapore. As we walked back we saw more of the older, dirtier areas of the city, but even then it still didn’t appear how we would’ve expected. There were obviously some low-income households there, but it was still a lot cleaner than we were led to believe, not to mention extremely safe. We were getting quite hot and tired on what would’ve been an hour-long walk home so we found a cab and got back to the hotel. When we arrived there was a problem; I was exceedingly sweaty, however, I had only brought enough t-shirts for three days and I had also sweated through my shirt on Thursday. The only remaining option was to wear my shirt from the previous night, which still stunk of the chili steamboat soup, bringing tears to the eyes of anyone who came near me. Still, better than smelling sweaty so I chucked it on and we made a move. We went to the airport, arrived at the boarding gate an hour early as advised, and Anna was asked to drink some of the cough syrup she had brought with her in a medicine kit to prove it wasn’t poison before we boarded the plane for our flight home. Anna wouldn’t remember any of that though, because that medicine knocks you out!
Also, In keeping with our ongoing trail of disaster, when we arrived home to Singapore we discovered that parts of southern China had also been devastated by Typhoon Mangkhut shortly after we departed.
We had a fantastic time in China and it was nothing like I anticipated. Yes, there were things we expected, such as the pollution, the insanely reckless driving where traffic lights and crossings are merely a suggestion and crossing the road could potentially be an Olympic sport, everybody everywhere smoking, and the terrible fashion. However, there were several unexpected discoveries during our trip, be them good, bad, or otherwise. I realise these are based only on a short stay in what is the fourth-biggest metropolitan area in, depending on sources, the third- or fourth-largest country in the world by total area, but I wasn’t anticipating:
- An essentially cashless society: As I mentioned several times, credit cards are rarely accepted anywhere and cash is hardly ever used. Instead, most establishments favoured the use of QR codes being scanned by apps on people’s phones to pay for goods and services, which comes with it’s own problems. The obvious one is how you would pay for anything if your phone unexpectedly died, but a person told us that there is also the issue of employees printing QR codes that link to their own personal bank accounts and discretely pasting them over the company one, allowing them to pocket all of the cash that was to go to the business.
- Hangzhou is extremely clean and is becoming environmentally conscious: There is very little litter on the streets because there are both rubbish and recycling bins everywhere and people actually use them. Sure, we saw people spit and we did witness an old lady pull her grandson’s junk out and let him piss on the footpath, but that one was an isolated incident. Also, despite the fact that the water is undrinkable and the air quality is abysmal, it appears they are taking steps forward to attempt to remedy these problems, such as using electric buses (below).
- Older people don’t seem as traditional as they are in Singapore: Again, we spent a few days in the city centre, venturing into a more residential area on the final day, but we noticed that when it comes to traditions, rituals, and the way they dress, elderly Chinese Singaporeans appear more set in their ways. Our neighbourhood in Singapore, Tiong Bahru, is gentrified, now full of cafes, barber shops, galleries, that type of thing, but many older citizens who have lived there for years still wear gaudy pantsuits, burn incense, and leave out food and burn paper money for dead ancestors, but that wasn’t really the case in Hangzhou. In fact, Ghost Month was wrapping up when we left Singapore for China and there were still mass burnings and food laying around that very day near our apartment, all done by people of all ages, not just the elderly, yet we saw very little of anything resembling that at all in China. Perhaps Hangzhou isn’t particularly Buddhist or Taoist, I don’t know.
- The facial recognition thing is genuinely frightening: The sheer amount of face scans and security cameras you encounter in Hangzhou is truly startling, there is a camera looking at you every couple of metres while indoors and it’s not much better outside, either, with the ability to map your entire path. No, I’m not a conspiracy nut in a tinfoil hat, this is their actual goal! You need to be able to sign in to the Wall Street Journal website to read that entire article, but the heading and introduction sum it up:
China’s New Tool for Social Control: A Credit Rating for Everything
Beijing wants to give every citizen a score based on behavior such as spending habits, turnstile violations and filial piety, which can blacklist citizens from loans, jobs, air travel.
Nothing good can possibly come from having every action you make in your day-to-day life rated in the same way we currently do for how Uber drivers handle individual trips! I earlier put the IMDB link to the first episode of the third season of the TV series Black Mirror, which dealt with this exact topic almost two years ago, however, their plot summary was a little vague, so let’s use the abridged wikipedia episode summary (click on the episode title in that link for the full summary):
Using eye implants and mobile devices, people rate their online and in-person interactions on a five-star scale. This system cultivates insincere relationships, as a person’s rating significantly affects their socioeconomic status. Lacie is a young woman currently rated at 4.2 and keen to achieve self-improvement, hoping to reach a 4.5 rating to qualify for a discount to a luxury apartment. Lacie tries to gain favour from highly-rated people, as they have larger impacts on scores, and sees a great chance to achieve her goal, when school friend Naomi asks her to be maid-of-honour at her upcoming wedding, with many highly-rated guests. After a series of mishaps on her way to the wedding that send her ratings plummeting, Naomi calls Lacie and tells her not to come. Enraged, Lacie manages to get to the celebratory dinner; she grabs the microphone and starts giving the speech she had written. The guests rate her negatively, causing her rating to drop to zero. She becomes dangerously upset and security removes her from the area. She is placed in a cell and has the technology supporting the rating system removed from her eyes. Feeling liberated, she gets into an argument with a man, without worrying about being rated.
When I first saw that episode, I thought to myself that it would be pretty creepy if a similar type of rating system was ever used in real life. It now looks like that is actually going to happen.
- English is used a lot: Because I don’t speak any Mandarin and was arriving before Anna, I insisted on a hotel transfer, but I really had nothing to be concerned about, there was a good chance a cab driver would’ve been able to communicate with me. A lot of signs and menus are in both Mandarin and English in Hangzhou and there are many people with a decent grasp of English in the service industry. Our hotel even had a European receptionist on at all times, as well as local ones. Also, the people in Hangzhou are generally really friendly.
I was initially wary about my first visit to China, however, it might just have been because of where we were staying, but I would happily return again, hopefully soon.