This weekend we ventured to the West Lake at Hangzhou, now one of China’s premier tourist destinations. Tourism for Chinese nationals is a recent phenomenon – one of the outcomes of Reform and Opening. In Maoist China there was very little internal movement – and not much left to look at after the Cultural Revolution.
We were sitting near a willow by the lake, thinking of Song Dynasty poetry (well, something like that) when we noticed a young couple dismount from their bikes (two of the 50,000 available to rent), hold hands and gaze out over the misty water. We then noticed faint music in the background. Further investigation revealed a speaker covered by a grille in the undergrowth. The piped music was all part of creating the romantic atmosphere. Earlier, I’d caught the strains of the Skye Boat Song.
The previous evening, we enjoyed an evening brandy and coffee by the lake, alongside many affluent middle class Chinese. Live music was provided by a young man who sang in the style of early Bob Dylan, often in English and with a melancholy air.
Saturday afternoon provided a whole host of other kinds of music. There were many groups of older people singing and playing traditional music, just as I’d experienced on my first Sunday in Ningbo. There were also groups dancing to recorded music or taking part in dancercise classes. We passed older people carrying small radios which blared out pop music. They often clapped and skipped as they walked along. Young people didn’t seem to join in these public displays so much, although we came across one kareoke performance by a young girl.
Just as tourism is a post 1978 concept, so is the use of public spaces for community activities. In Mao’s China, leisure in the way Westerners understand it, did not exist. Any physical exercise in your spare time was to make you fitter and therefore better able to perform work tasks. Hobbies – even keeping pet birds or fishing – were discouraged or banned and public spaces were only for marches and parades to celebrate nationhood. Now there are thousands of anglers’ associations! Could it be that the new extrovert musical displays are part of a reclamation of civic space? The longer we have been here the more interested I’ve become in this and am thinking it might be a stimulating topic for an MA dissertation.
These are some of the pleasanter sounds we’ve experienced. China is extraordinarily noisy. As I write, at 9pm on a Sunday night I can hear the whine and crashing of the local building site and – this will go on all night. There are occasional car hooters – very tame compared to daytime driving. As there appear to be no rules of the road, hooting is a substitute. On our bikes we notice the many different tones – perky one offs from ebikes meaning ‘I’m here’ to loud and aggressive parps from cars, buses and lorries if any vehicle or living creature is in the way.
Chinese is a noisy language. Of course it is tonal, so the choice of pitch is significant. To attempt the fourth tone (going down) you must sound angry. And there appears to be a lot of shouting. Chinese people shout at each other at any time of the day or night. A Chinese man who doesn’t get the taxi he wants after queuing with the rest of us in a scrum at the station is a verbal force to be reckoned with. A popular restaurant full of say 300 Chinese people enjoying local Hangzhou cuisine, such as Beggar’s Chicken – chicken baked with beef and mushrooms in clay – is a clamorous place.
And to our chagrin we found that a 5 star hotel thinks nothing of allowing staff to dismantle tables from a banquet on the floor above our room all through the night. The technique was to roll the round tables along the floor. Another noisy place? The waiting room at Hangzhou station full of about 2000 people waiting to board the 16 carriage train back to Ningbo. For the first time I experienced a kind of panic at being in such a crowded environment, especially as we surged forward to go through the narrow gates down to the platforms.
Tomorrow it will be back to work at the university and sanity will be restored – and peace and quiet. If you arrive around 8am you can find Chinese students practising their English – reading texts and translations aloud preparing for classes. The library is truly silent, the only occasional sounds are computers booting up or pages turning. What bliss – I can’t wait!