Xinchang Watertown

Xin (pronounced shin) means ‘new’ and Chang means ‘town’ but this ancient settlement dates back to 1363. Located on what were once the salt fields of the Yangtze River delta this was a thriving town for centuries as salt was once as valuable as gold.

Now it has been turned into a tourist attraction with government backing to provide an out of town venue for artisans and craftsmen to practice their trades among the picturesque narrow lanes that line the canals. It was a 40 minute drive from where we live.

The day was grey and damp but that didn’t deter us and it had the benefit of keeping away the crowds.

At the entrance to the old part of Xinchang stands an impressive arch. These arches were usually donated to the town by inhabitants who had gone on to become successful. The inscriptions here tell of two sons who had passed the exceedingly competitive university entrance exams (tests which lasted for 3 days) and who had gone on to become politicians.

Inside the gate were shops selling all manner of goods that we had never heard of.

The black things were a sort of pickled cucumber which tasted quite nice (surprisingly)

I wasn’t so keen on the whole flattened pig’s head though!

We tried a local delicacy of what was essentially shredded radish in a sort of fritter batter. Sounds weird but it was really good.

The preserved wooden screen in the picture below is fairly unique because very few of them have survived (being wood). This was the frontage of what was originally a pickle shop

The original carvings were defaced during the cultural revolution (reminiscent of the Reformation) but are gradually being restored to their former glory.

Next stop was another food outlet, this time for a hot round thing filled with red bean paste and coated with caramelized sugar. on a cold damp February day this was heavenly! It’s called a Begonia cake.

Here they are being made

One of the iconic crafts in China is that of paper cutting. We visited the shop of a talented lady who had been taught by her grandmother. Finding herself alone in Shanghai and having had her wallet stolen she used the small change in her pocket to buy some scissors and a few pieces of paper. She did some cutting and tried to sell them on the streets hoping to make enough money to get back to her lodging. A tourist approached her and mistook her 5 quai for 500 and she thereby learned the value of her art.

We are sitting in her tiny shop with the huge intricate paper cut behind which took her a whole year to make.

Then it was our turn to try our hand at paper cutting.

Concentration levels are high
But this effort was only the practice round!

Now for the tricky one…

Scissors ready
And we did it! Red snowflakes with hearts inside (if you look closely)

Then for an excellent lunch at a family owned business. Our food was being prepared by the grandmother on the steps outside!

Great company and wonderful dishes
… but very few were willing to sample this one. Chicken organs. The Chinese waste nothing.

Next stop the hand made lanterns. Bunnies are popular at the Lantern festival (which was actually yesterday, the 15th day of chines e new year) as the lady in the moon is said to have had a pet rabbit.

I liked the dragons best

The streets were full of atmosphere and we would stumble across beautiful doorways.

Moon doors remind me of hobbit homes
Lovely painted doors

I particularly like seeing the faces of the locals selling their wares.

He had loofas first sale
Some just sell from their doorways

Then it was on to the tea pot maker. He was another master craftsmen who operated his business from his apartment making teapots which were not only original and creative designs but also fully functional.

It was a hands on and hands dirty experience with lots of noisy hammering as we flattened our purple clay.
Ta da! We each made of of these. I think I will stick to my day job though.

We thoroughly enjoyed the rich cultural experiences and the chance to play with clay and cut paper in such a lovely setting.

A good time was had by all.

Meditation in Movement

Taiji has become very important to me. I take lessons twice a week (daily during the holidays) and I get up extra early on schooldays in order to do my wake up exercises and to practice the routine that I am learning. I find that after 40 minutes of practice and 10 minutes of meditation, I feel refreshed, energized and ready to face the world.

Taiji is all about balance. About Yin and Yang, inside and outside, left and right etc. for example the inside of your arm is Yin and the outside is Yang. Yin (left & female) goes first. All the world contains positive and negative and we are aiming for harmony between all the elements in both a physical and spiritual sense.

A beautiful example of the Taiji Ball

My physical balance though, is rubbish, as I discovered when I had to stand on one leg with the other raised as part of the routine. I just couldn’t do it. But two weeks later, after practicing special exercises I am greatly improved. Not perfect yet by a long chalk as I still wobble more than I would like, but way better than I was.

In life, everybody experiences swings in emotional reactions to events. A bit like this…

But Taiji is not just about standing on one leg without falling over, it is also about balance in life. Completing the daily exercises actually makes you feel calmer, happier and healthier. You walk taller and with more confidence. You exude a happier persona which people find naturally attractive. Outside stressors become easier to cope with.

But Taiji component practitioners have more measured reactions. They still feel swings of emotions like everyone else, but not as severely. They are able to maintain a more balanced response and recovery when ‘life’ happens. Like the yellow line below. It would be wonderful to be able to achieve that. Certainly Master Zhang is one of the calmest and most cheerful people that I know.

Our group is small and we are all at different stages but that doesn’t matter. In Taiji we each experience an inner journey and all feel the energy moving ourselves. Master Zhang adjusts us when we are not positioned correctly and the difference of just a few millimeters is often incredible. Just standing in the right position allows the energies to flow properly and sometimes to flood through your limbs. It’s a most delicious feeling which encourages you to stand straight and to relax your shoulders. This makes a difference to the way you sit and walk and stand in the rest of your daily life. I am way more conscious now of my posture and I make a concerted effort of relax, particularly my shoulders. I was surprised to discover how often I unconsciously clench my shoulders. It was most illuminating!

An example of the fatty lumps (not me)

It is said that your face is a window to your health and some of you may know that several years ago I developed white lumps under my eyes. My GP at the time spotted those and had me tested for cholesterol (which was a bit high) and I was put on statins. I came off the drugs when I left the UK as my diet was likely to change but I was told that the lumps were permanent.

My father and his two sisters had the same lumps in varying degrees so I guessed that it was a genetic predisposition. Having said that, all three of them did suffer from heart problems and my father died from a heart attack so this is something that I need to be wary of. Over the course of the decade I grew used to the lumps and accepted that whatever changes I made to my diet that they were there for good. To my great surprise however, since starting Taiji regularly I one day realized that the lumps have disappeared. All gone. I am delighted about this unexpected side effect.

In Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM) they plot your meridians or lines traversing your body. Each line is associated with one or more of your major organs and gently massaging or exercising those lines can help your energy to flow to those organs unimpeded. It helps your all round circulation as the blood vessels are like the roads that the energy travels along. Some people though have blockages and that is what acupuncture does when it unblocks certain points along your meridians. To my astonishment Master Zhang says that he can see just by looking at someone where they have blockages!! I had one in the back of my neck which was unblocked during the retreat in August. Now my energy can flow freely.

He also explained the Chinese theory that when the energy cannot easily pass a blockage then it goes backwards into the organ or other part of the body and this, they say, is one reason why cancers can grow. If you already have cancer then practicing Nei Gong Taiji can stop the tumor growing further. Also having a history of cancer in my family, I am taking this all very seriously (just in case).

Taiji is not a miracle cure for all ills but it can be a form of preventative medicine and I have been told that if a Taiji practitioner does have an accident or falls ill, then they tend to recover faster. So far from my experience of the high cholesterol that is proving to be true.

In each class we spend some time meditating, which is a discipline that I never thought I would achieve as my mind is quite skittish. But standing meditation is surprisingly stable and comfortable (if you are in the correct position) and we can think about anything we want to but eventually your mind does calm down and on occasion you can feel incredibly peaceful and as light as the proverbial feather. Meditation is also a good way of recharging your heart.

Once or twice during meditation, my fingers felt as though they were buzzing with energy. This is the next stage of energy. There are several stages in which the energy is experienced and they develop over time. In the beginning there is a tingling sensation, which I felt when I stretched my palms in the exercises but now I can feel it much stronger, pulsing and spiraling through my hands and arms during most of the routines that we do.

A high level stage of energy is a feeling like flowing water. I can feel this when I am correctly aligned and I let my muscles relax. It’s is like bathing in a shower of delicious warm water. We do this at certain points in the exercises, particularly the Qi Gong spine strengthening ones and in all honesty it is quite a high!

For some people, who have a dense muscle mass, another stage of energy movement is when your skin jumps and pops almost like electrical impulses. And the final stage is a blissful nothing, (a stage I have yet to achieve)

Taiji is a holistic discipline so we learn things like the best way to stand when riding on the subway so that you are stable or correct sleep positions (definitely not with your ankles crossed when you are lying in your back – that is VERY bad), how to relax before falling asleep or how to walk properly. It is surprising how many people don’t do something as basic as walking correctly.

All the moves that we do in the Taiji routine we do extremely slowly and with control. In fact, the slower you do them the better as then you feel the energy flowing much more strongly. It is like meditation in movement and it is quite calming and peaceful.

However, all the moves that we do have their origin in martial arts and we are also shown how to apply them in practice. If done quickly and channeling your inner energy, the moves can be self defense. We practice these and to my great and utter surprise I seem to have a little bit of a knack for what Master Zhang terms ‘real Kung Fu’! I would never in my wildest dreams have thought this possible! However, I have thrown some of the others around the room and now even some of the men are reluctant to partner with me! Who would have thought it.

Once or twice I have been quite excited to learn some of these new skills so have gone home and asked Kevin to help me practice. Unfortunately he does not react as quickly as Master Zhang (who is also a former kickboxing champion) and I have thrown him out of his slippers and clocked him one on the jaw!!! Nowadays Master Zhang tells me not to try the new moves on Kevin!!!

Do not try this one at home!!!

I’m not entirely convinced that I could actually defend myself against a proper attack yet (I would need to ask them to pause while I aligned myself & sorted out my energy etc) but I think that I have enough confidence now to give something a go!!! I certainly know much more than I did only a few months ago. Let’s hope that I never need it.

A chilly walk down the East Suzhou Creek

After doing part 1 of the historical creek tours back in December (on the first day of the extreme cold snap) we happily turned up for the second part only to find that it was the coldest day of the vacation. Not -2 with wind chill but still pretty cold for a 2 hour walk. But we game-fully plodded on.

This half of the Suzhou Creek was home to The Lanes or cramped housing for poor people. In fact our guide’s family had lived there before being rehoused in the 1980s. The area has been redeveloped with business buildings and smart hotels now and is no longer the place for people to buy their cheap clothes from.

In the 1990’s the city authorities wanted to turn the Suzhou Creek area more upmarket so invested in high rise office buildings and couldn’t understand why all the shops closed down…people no longer lived in the area! They have now encouraged more residential building to bring people back to live here with some of the apartments among the most expensive in the city.

This sector had previously been a thriving commercial area and contains the first Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. Interestingly the gatehouse remains and from the bridge you can still see the red banners of the Cultural Revolution. Although politically sensitive the paintings have remained here.

Kevin and I have discovered that no trip to an Asian country is complete without a look at their historic post office buildings!!! (See blogs about Yangon and Hi Chi Minh) Shanghai is no exception and we were shown not only the impressive colonial exterior of the central post office

… but also the interior which boasts the longest post office counter in Asia!

Sadly with the advent of email and social media only two windows now ever open! They do also have an interesting postal museum which we were whisked through. We were told it was a small museum but I reckon that you could easily have spent half a day in there (which would have been welcome to have escaped the cold…)

I love the dragon post boxes
And the Imperial Post office (not something you see very often)
The Atrium

We then walked along the Creek past the Sassoon building ingeniously built in the shape of a S which was used to house Jewish refugees to an innocuous residential block that had been used in WW2 by the Japanese as a prison for foreign journalists and other such reprobates! Finally what was the foreigners hospital. This was a vast building run originally by the church for paying rich foreigners like the British but with a number of beds with free treatment for other nationalities such as Malays or Filipinos who fell sick.

The building has since been renovated and turned into The Bellagio, an upmarket hotel. According to Feng Shui, water means prosperity which is why there is a beautiful fountain at the entrance. This is also why many Chinese restaurants the world over have fish tanks or other water features somewhere near their entrance, to welcome money into the business.

This hotel is definitely prospering. And it has been beautifully and sympathetically renovated. I loved the grand sweeping staircase decked out in Chinese New Year decorations.

Here you can book suites for private dining where you get your own mini bar and toilets! Each floor has a different colour theme. minimum spend £60 per person excluding drinks.

But my favorite part was the walkway to the external gallery. it was like something from a science fiction film.

Outside we were treated to spectacular views of the Creek

And the financial centre across from The Bund

Preparing for Chinese New Year 2021

This festival is as big in China as Christmas is for us. It is probably the most important festival here and 2021 sees in the Year of the Ox. Actually, it is interesting to learn that 2020 was the year of the rat & rat years are traditionally when bad things happen! So that year certainly lived up to its reputation!!!

We have decorated the library and I will be reading stories which feature cows (Ox stories being thin on the ground).

I have put as many red colored books on display as possible but noticed how many books do NOT have red on the front cover.

And we have our fun cows too

All over school decorations are appearing and I am dusting off this greeting (shin nee-an Kwai le)

The shops too have been gearing up since Dec and I love seeing all the red displays

Presents are not exchanged, instead money is given in little red envelopes (Hong bao) which feels really quaint and retro now that China is virtually a cashless society. We had to go and get cash out specially and it is quite a novelty to use a cash machine again. Hong bao are not just given to children but also to people who help you. So we will give our Ayi one and I will give to the ayis at school. Ayi (eye-ee) means ‘aunty’ and is a generic title for all domestic help.

We have an Ayi called Amy who comes in two mornings a week and she is amazing. She does the cleaning, ironing and is the best bed maker that I have ever come across. But with only two of us and a small apartment that doesn’t keep her occupied for very long so she also cooks Chinese food for us. This means that we eat local food twice a week and we have sampled a wide range of dishes. I particularly like her pork soup, the local specialty of egg and tomato and of course dumplings. In this picture I am teaching Amy how to make a shepherd’s pie as she is keen to learn how to make western dishes. Interestingly most Chinese homes do not have an oven and all cooking is done in pans.

Amy speaks good English and has been really helpful with the translation of official letters or collections from the post office and generally interpreting when we need it. She is one of our go-to people when we haven’t got a clue how to do things! I will miss having such help when I get back to Blighty. We have been spoiled rotten having her and I’m not looking forwards to picking up the domestic chores again.

Every part of the animal is eaten here. Nothing whatsoever is wasted.
From our local supermarket (I wasn’t keen)

Chinese New Year is usually the time of the world’s largest human migration as the population here travels home to spend time with families. Last year was when the virus hit and lockdown in China began in earnest. Many people had already traveled and got stuck back in their home villages. This year, the government is discouraging travel even between low risk areas. There have been 18 cases of the new British strain of the virus in the past few weeks and worryingly the incubation period seems to be 21 days rather than 14. Some firms are offering staff bonuses not to travel. I even heard of one company who will pay for couples to have a few nights in a hotel as a staycation as an incentive. So we will be staying put. However, local restrictions mean that there are parts of Shanghai that are now out of bounds.

Food and fellowship is a major component of the festivities. Meals out here are always lavish occasions. Just as in the west where we have work meals out before Christmas, Chinese celebrate with team trips to restaurants.

Happy New Year Team meal
Chinese meals are always sumptuous spreads where savory and sweet dishes arrive in random order.
A steamed egg dish served in individual dry ice
Lotus root stuffed with sticky rice in a spun sugar basket

This type of tree hung with red packets signifing good fortune.

A meal with the Tai Chi class. Delicious fried rice & mushroom soup, dumplings and Peking duck
At home I have put up festive window clings, a gift from my secret friend at school

The traditional lion dance is to scare away the bad luck from the previous years. So this year the lions have a BIG job to do as 2020 was a mighty unlucky year world wide!!!

Do your stuff lions!

So Chinese New Year will be more subdued this year. Just like Christmas was for us. It’s a small price to pay to defeat this virus and we will bounce back to celebrate again in years to come.