The Golden Week is an annual 7-day National Day holiday for the Chinese citizens, where people and companies arrange to work on the weekends before and after this holiday so as to have a 7-day interrupted long holiday. This wonderful weekend comes right after the long weekend from the Mid-Autumn Festival when Friday was also an off day, which meant that the school staff were on ORD mood long ago, as experienced by situation with the delay of tuition fees payment.
To be honest, after 3 years of non-stop travelling around Europe and its surrounding destinations, I dread the process of travelling a bit. Most of the time, travelling exhausts me because of all the packing and unpacking, the subconscious pressure to explore as many places as I can because I might not get another chance, budgeting to ensure that I keep within my spending limits. Furthermore, I constantly live in the fear that I would miss a train or a flight, and even though this issue can easily be resolved with ~money~, I hate the thought of being tardy and wasteful. Yet I recall to myself that the reason I am here is to live China and understand the lifestyle, culture and customs a little better, and hence I forced myself out of my dormitory room and out of Haining. I intended to be alone, for almost the entire week.
I tagged along with Heekang to Hangzhou early in the morning so that I could share the cost of a taxi, which actually gave me some travelling blues because I was packing late into the night until 12am and had to get up as early as 6am (yeah, lousy excuse of a soldier). Thankfully, all travelling blues dissipated when I happened to sit opposite an eloquent Chinese man, who sheepishly asked to borrow my portable charger; indeed, you can survive in China without cash on hand, but you cannot do without sufficient phone battery. By a stroke of luck, he happened to work in the Suzhou Industrial Park, a place (and case study) that I gained interest in after having read the autobiography of Philip Yeo. He has been living and working in the area for decades, and supposedly witnessed the growth of the industrial park from when it was nothing to its glory days now. He knew certain things that were sensitive to the Singaporean context: I shared how the Suzhou Industrial Park partnership with Singapore has been cited on local news as an example of a business deal that did not go according to plan, and he readily agreed that sometimes, subsequent actions taken by the beneficiary could be seen as insincere or even dishonest, after having accepted all the perks of the partnership. Regardless of that, to him (and I guess the local government), the SIP was regarded as a benchmark for foreign partnerships. A glorious, successful project that contributed to the stunning night skyline of the Suzhou he knew. I enjoyed the conversation with him lasting the entirety of my hour-long train journey, and he ended it by offering me a tour around the Suzhou Industrial Park, bent to revise my pre-conceived impressions of his workplace that he held immense admiration and gratitude for. I agreed, and thereafter I cancelled my return train tickets from Shanghai to book a train on the weekend heading to Suzhou instead. 三人行必有我师.
PS: We coincidentally met each other at 灵隐寺 again when I was touring the attraction, and he got all excited inviting me to Suzhou once again. Of course, what a coincidence, that I once again met this person who taught me so much in an hour. At this point of writing I have not met up with him the third time yet, but writing as a female, here is a reminder to myself to stay cautious in a foreign country.
灵隐寺 was the first place I went to after heading to my hostel and dropping off my belongings. There have been sentiments that in Hangzhou, there are two essential places to go: 西湖 and 灵隐寺. I have been to the former briefly, and so I wanted to check out what the latter was about.
Because I was travelling alone, I thought a lot about my surroundings. I remember what my professor on Chinese Civilisation said about religious syncretism in the ancient Chinese society. The Guan Yin, for example, represents syncretism of three different religions: Buddhism (by the lotus), Taoism (by the limitless depiction of gender implying its immortal status), and Confucianism (with some depictions being flanked by children, although this is more a school of thought than a religion). The 灵隐寺 was where many of these elements came together, despite its construction on the basis of Buddhism teachings. Although the country is now regarded as atheist, partly a consequence of the brutal Cultural Revolution, the syncretism in the past could explain the situation of why revolts (or rebellions as they term it) were never conducted on the basis of religious lines.
I went to the 雷峰塔, otherwise known as the Leifeng Pagoda, on the first official public holiday of the Golden Week and truly felt the squeeze. It was truly National Day in a different country – street vendors were selling hand-held national flags, children had temporary tattoos of national flags on their faces, banners and billboards were plastered everywhere wishing 祝贺中华人民共和国69周年, WeChat moments were constantly being updated by people swelling with national pride with pictures from the National Day proceedings on campus, and Weibo was constantly giving me notifications of celebrities that were wishing 祖国生日快乐. Streets were crazily crowded with tourists from all over China, and I cannot imagine how it must be like in Beijing. Crowd control officials were everywhere – on the metro, there were officials that would push the doors closed, and there were also officials squeezing with the crowd who continuously repeated to watch out for your feet, to let passengers alight first, and to watch out for your belongings. On to the roadside, the length of a usual bus stop could allow for 3 buses to stop for passengers to alight simultaneously, and beside the entrance doors of each of these 3 buses there was each a crowd control official that would direct the crowd away quickly. It was extremely chaotic, but extremely ordered at the same time.
The papers briefly summarised that “她(China)曾积贫积弱，如今重焕生机。六十九截，汗水与泪水，光荣与梦想。中国未来的成就于辉煌，有你，我，他共同创造。“ This sentence succinctly encapsulates the status of China today, on their path of revival after having gone through a devastating past of lacking leadership. If I were a Chinese citizen enjoying my holiday at that point in time, I would have been extremely thankful for the gift of family time from the government policies. Although naysayers argue that the economic standstill during the week is too damaging to the economy, the long-run intention to encourage nationalism from domestic tourism is clearly seen, and arguably highly effective to instil desired societal values that would move their country forward.
I ended my trip quickly after this, heading back to Haining early in the morning as I could not sleep well in the 4-bed hostel with loud snoring and children screaming and playing around early in the morning. It was also filled with insects, and I had to kill a moth right above my head before sleeping. I felt uncomfortable and irritated from the poor hygiene management on my floor. I had lots of complaints when I woke up at 2am and 4am in the morning, but these were quickly forgotten when I embarked home back into campus. I guess I am starting to become a comfort zone person.
I arrived in this city after an early morning train ride from Haining and was extremely blessed to have met Qianxuan, who accompanied me through the entire day. Shanghai was not spared from the tourist crowds arriving from everywhere, but what amazed me was the confluence of all international brands within this same city. It was as if I moved into another country – Haining, even at the heart of the city or railway station, had low-rise buildings, streets flanked by shophouses and quiet roads with people giving way on crossings. Shanghai 南京西路, at where I met Qianxuan, had several global brands within the same area. Tons of Starbucks outlets, as well as the biggest one in China (or the world?) where the Starbucks outlet was treated more like an exhibition, Zara, H&M, Uniqlo, 许留山, Genki Sushi, Etude House, Innisfree, Olive&Young, all the brands which I only saw overseas, or in the heart of Orchard Road. One would only feel the difference when there is change, and indeed, I felt the difference in purpose of these two cities immediately. I could see the draw of Shanghai to a foreign expatriate or even the global tourist audience like myself. How relatable and familiar it was, and how much I missed the draw of a big and ordered city.
I entered one of the Starbucks outlets on one occasion, and I must have looked like a tourist from my dressing and mannerisms. I stared at the menu entirely written in Chinese other than the standard Cappucino, Latte and Espresso, and probably looked quite lost. I also wore shorts throughout the two days when I was in Shanghai even after it got colder, and it must have been distinct from the dressing of the locals because the staff at the Starbucks outlet got all excited, whispering to one another in Chinese about guessing where I was from – “她是哪里来的呀“ ”我不知道！“ ”她好像是…“ and started speaking to me in English for my order. Even though they obviously made a mistake in judgement over there, I suppose they are currently going through the 嫌土爱洋 phase that Singapore once went through, the admiration (and maybe adoration) of the Westerner, and the preference for English over that of their native language.
南京东路 with Qianxuan!
I learnt a lot from Qianxuan that day, who has been in China longer than I have been in London, which would have made her extremely familiar with this city and country. I verified myths about the 高考, that it is indeed not truly based off meritocracy because of the abundant resources and better education people in larger cities get compared to interior regions of the country. In fact, the ministry does recognise this issue by trying to boost the scores artificially of those in the inner cities, but that might not even be enough to lift the unseen ones out of poverty. I also learnt that in a country with more than a billion people, people are constantly underemployed, and that roles in the civil service are often highly sought after and viewed by other people with immense respect (including the military career). The pool to hire people from is extremely narrow, given that family members are expected to have a certain social standing, yet the absolute numbers remain extremely large because this place is huge.
I have heard this countless of times from other people, that while China is still in its developing stages, it is improving really quickly. Qianxuan would attribute this to their political system. It looks and feels nothing like it did 8 years ago, the last time I was here. She keeps learning from her mistakes.
I was brought to an area overseeing the Suzhou Industrial Park, and the guy, thankfully was an honest man. I was brought to the above symbol of a tael (representing 外圆内方), that supposedly signified the commemoration of the ties between Singapore and China. He showed me Chinese books written on the Suzhou Industrial Park and its timeline to completion and ascension; let’s just say the tone and attitude towards the project varied very very much from what I had read in Singapore-published books. He also recommended two places for me to go: 观前街 and 山塘街, which were really beautiful. I walked alone in the dark of the night through the streets, listening to street performances of Chinese songs I knew with 40 sticks of roasted duck intestines in one hand and brown sugar bubble tea in the other. I loved the lived experience, and I will constantly remind myself to relish in this for the following 9 months.
山塘街 by day.
Quotable quotes that I want to remember:
China is a huge and vast country, that many locals have not even been to other parts of the country themselves. These are more prominent for pretty inaccessible destinations like Tibet, or cities within the Xinjiang Province. I tried searching them up myself, but they necessitate many changes in transport modes, which may challenge even the most seasoned traveller. Across these regions, it is understandable that customs and cultures differ greatly, it is akin to stepping into another country but using the same official language. I have been around the coastal regions and arguably wealthy cities, namely Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Shanghai; actually, even Haining probably has a fair share of the pie from the prosperity of its neighbours. I intend to go north to look a little more into Chinese history with Huimin during the winter break, namely Beijing, Xi’an and if I have time, Luoyang. Hopefully when summer arrives, I would have a chance to go further west into the interior land-locked regions that provide another dimension to my current understanding of China. My university education here has all been very exciting, and everyday on my walk back to my dorm passing by the beautiful clocktower and the lake within the school, I am thankful that I persisted with this choice that I once thought could have been fake. My sharings are often limited by thoughts that people would question my intentions, but I hope this blog remains a safe space for me, especially as I am blogging in a language independent of the environment I am currently in.
Amid the class and privilege debate, I am aware that while I have not been blessed with the best of learning opportunities in my childhood, I am presently living the dreams of many. The same man I spoke to, who had already paid off his housing loans, had only travelled outside to China to South Korea his whole life because of his lack of proficiency in the English language and hence the inability to get around foreign countries by himself. Thank you for teaching me some valuable life lessons in that one hour.