A visit to the tailor

Ten days ago with some trepidation I entered Ningbo fabric market, accompanied by a friend who had already identified the best stall for silk brocades. I had decided to have a dress and jacket made for myself.

At first, the market doesn’t seem very promising. You enter from the main east-west street of Ningbo up some steps and through a ‘doorway’ of flapping, dirty plastic strips. In front of you stretch a sea of shoes, laid out on makeshift stalls. Hurrying through ‘shoe city’ you walk up a short flight of steps to the mezzanine, to find the fabric market. Here you can see every kind of material, from silk to sailcloth, sheeting to soft-furnishing of the furriest kind. We headed to a small stall, where rolls of silk brocades were displayed next to examples of how they could be made up into jackets and Chinese style dresses.

The choice was dizzying, but with my friend’s help, I picked out a brocade of dark blue with silver dragons. Under the direction of the two women in charge, I also chose some contrasting grey linen. I had brought with me a jacket and dress that I hoped could be copied. Sure enough, with a bit of sceptical tut-tutting and close examination the two seamstresses decided that my models were copiable.

Now I was instructed to get ready to be measured. This involved undressing behind a black sheet, held up by one of the women, just behind the counter and next to the sewing machine. Privacy was limited, and when I turned around I saw my friend amongst a group of Chinese women all having a good stare at the foreigner’s figure, fuller than theirs, no doubt. I got into the clothes I had brought with me and these were subjected to some professional scrutiny. A bit baggy across the chest (bu xing – not good); a bit tight around the hips (bu xing); length a bit long; the jacket, not bad (bu cuo). With a couple of pinches and lifts of material, I saw exactly why my dress had never quite fitted. Many measurements were recorded onto some scraps of paper and then it was all over.

We moved onto agreeing the price, or rather the women told me what the items would cost and I said yes. No bargaining allowed. At the end of two years here I’m still perplexed about when to bargain and how to do it. I obviously give off the vibe of being a soft touch! Anyway, the price was still about half what I might have paid in the UK and I was triumphant at having managed to get this far. Plus I’d learned some useful new vocabulary, such as ‘sleeve’ and ‘zip’ and practised some old words. We’ve done two chapters on buying clothes in our rather staid text book. These taught us words for colours, along with ‘try on’, ‘suitable’ and ‘size’. Nothing about negotiating the price of clothes made from scratch in a market.

Today was the day agreed for collection and I caught the bus back into town, hoping I’d be able to find the stall on my own. When I got to the mezzanine I looked to left and right – which one was it? And then I saw the woman who had subjected me to the measuring session and she recognised me with a smile. My clothes were indeed ready. The jacket – beautifully made, was without buttons, and I was taken around the corner to choose some. Then these were sewn on in seconds, while I tried on the grey linen dress behind the black sheet. Not much of an audience today but both pieces fitted brilliantly, better than anything I’ve ever worn before. I was ecstatic, and the two tailors looked mildly amused. Foreigners, so easy to please!

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Shakespeare in Shanghai

As soon as he appeared on the giant screen of Shanghai Grand Theatre, a loud gasp of pent up excitement was released from the audience. This was the sound of about 300 Chinese young people aged 15 to 25, mostly girls, seeing a close up of actor Tom Hiddleston, talking about his role as Coriolanus. Well, as the gushing Emma Freud told us at the interval of the NT Live showing, he has recently been voted the sexiest man in the world. There was further excitement at the sight of Mark Gatiss, also in the cast; such is the power of ‘Sherlock’, one of the most popular exports here.

As our TV is not working for some reason (perhaps the subscription to Yingzhou Digital has run out), and we have finished our stock of dramas on DVD, we decided to venture further afield in search of some English language culture. Watching an NT Live show in Shanghai seemed a good place to start, and in the past we’d eyed the massive, white Grand Theatre on People’s Square with interest and wondered if it would ever show anything we’d want to see.

We’d been warned that going to the cinema in China can be distracting, as the audience talks loudly much of the time. In fact, the earnest young students sitting through ‘Coriolanus’ were generally quiet and attentive. But when Hiddleston showed off his athletic body or the text (Chinese subtitles) had any kind of sexual innuendo, ripples of sound – embarrassed laughter or appreciative sighs – spread out around the stalls. The director had interpreted Coriolanus’s reconciliation with Aufidius as having a strong homo-erotic undercurrent, and a man-to-man kiss on stage was almost too much for our audience, which erupted into laughter, whoops and cries.

Any overt expression of emotion seemed to be difficult for the Chinese audience – kissing, crying or shouting all caused an audible reaction – especially if Hiddleston was involved. The experience was curious and distracting in a way very different from what we had expected. It felt more like being at a pop concert than a production of Shakespeare. The audience seemed very detached from what was happening in the story, as if the emotional intensity of it hadn’t affected them. Perhaps this is inevitable with a translation or perhaps Shakespeare is too culturally remote to travel to China.

We haven’t given up though. Shanghai attracts touring companies and we have just booked to see Matthew Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’ in September at one of the city’s newest venues, Shanghai Culture Square, in the French Concession. This is another massive theatre, opened in 2011 and seating more than 2,000. It has been designed to bring international musical theatre to China and eventually to encourage home-grown product. The write up in Shanghai Time Out is impressive – revolving stage, rain-flood technology and an ice-making machine. Most of the current programme looks conservative, and I wonder if the people booking the show realise how Bourne interprets ‘Swan Lake’. I look forward to watching the performance and the audience’s reaction, but I hope it’s a bit less hysterical than last weekend’s experience.

Yangshou: karst scenery and tourism

Last weekend was another holiday weekend – Dragon Boat Festival – and we joined a plane load of Chinese trippers on a flight to Guilin, in south China. Guilin is one of the top tourist destinations because it is on the River Li, which cuts through the strange and fantastical karst scenery familiar from Chinese paintings.
We didn’t go for the famous river cruise down the river, but instead took a taxi for an hour and a half to Yangshou, which sits at the confluence of the Li and the Yulong rivers. There we stayed in a European style guest house, the Giggling Tree, a series of ancient yellow-brick farmhouses that have been beautifully restored by a young Dutch couple. Apparently, there is much interest by Chinese officials who consider the enterprise, which employs 25 local people, as a model development.

The Giggling Tree (highly recommended) lays on all kinds of help for its visitors, especially bikes and routes around the locality. The temperature was above 30 degrees, but we still went cycling for 3 or 4 hours each day. Our reward was some intimate views of the farms and fields that occupy the completely flat floors between the knobbly limestone mountains. On several occasions we found ourselves completely alone outside, probably for the first time in China. We could see every stage of the process of rice cultivation, which looks as though it hasn’t changed for centuries. Peasants strode bare-foot through deep mud ploughing the paddy fields with oxen or water buffalo. Others threw seed into the prepared fields, while women and children carried out the back-breaking work of dividing and planting out the seedlings.

The guerrilla gardening mentality that I’ve noticed in urban Ningbo clearly has its roots in this kind of landscape. Every tiny piece of cultivable land has vegetables growing on it, sometimes intensively planted so that low growing species are intermingled with taller plants. In between the paddy fields, there are fish farms and occasional fields of lotus. For me it was magical to see a vast array of pink lotus flowers coming into bloom, waving above the blue-veined big umbrella shaped leaves.

After cycling to Dragon Bridge, we left our bikes to be transported by a small tractor back to Yangshou and stepped onto a bamboo raft – ten large trunks of bamboo bound together. We sat on two deck chairs while a young man steered the raft as it drifted down river for a couple of hours, over small weirs and past the ubiquitous limestone outcrops.

The river revealed what Chinese tourists consider to be fun when messing about on the river. Groups of young men and boys enjoyed drenching each other with spray from two metre long water guns. One raft had been taken over by a couple and their photography team who were posing for their wedding photos. Teenagers and children gathered on a big, covered raft in mid-stream which had been set up as an internet café.
Tourism is coming to Yangshou big time, and you wonder how long its ecosystem can survive. On our first morning, as we set out on our bikes, within 5 minutes we met a traffic jam. Cars were backed up, unable to get past a queue of tour buses which was attempting to negotiate the narrow roads, originally designed for nothing much wider than a bullock cart.

One evening we signed up for a demonstration of cormorant fishing. This entailed sitting on a small motor boat while a local man persuaded his four cormorants to dive for small fish. They had thread loosely tied around their necks to stop them swallowing any fish more than about four inches long. After a time they regurgitated these into a basin. Once upon a time this was a way of fishing; now it is merely a ‘turn’ to entertain the tourists. We avoided the nightly mass performance on the river, the mud baths and the coloured light displays in the many caves.

There are signs that the whole area is about to be turned into a Disneyfied ‘scenic spot’. At least one large gateway has been built across the road as an entrance into the karst landscape, so that cars will have to stop and buy a ticket and tourists can be counted. This is the way tourism is developed in China. Gradually the landscape ‘experience’ is being parcelled up and commodified, to make it easier to sell. I enjoyed our trip and would willingly return (ideally in cooler weather), but I can’t help feeling that the theme park elements are set to grow and that it might become increasingly difficult to enjoy solitude in these beautiful natural surroundings.