HANGZHOU’S EN­DUR­ING ALLURE

PER­HAPS NO CHI­NESE METROPO­LIS ENTWINES ITS PAST INTO MOD­ERN LIFE QUITE AS MAG­I­CALLY AS HANGZHOU, AN AN­CIENT LAKE­SIDE CITY WITH STYLE AND SEREN­ITY TO BURN.

DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Amy Fabris- Shi

No Chi­nese metropo­lis threads its past into mod­ern life quite as mag­i­cally as Hangzhou, an an­cient lake­side city with style and seren­ity to burn.

into a cas­cad­ing pyra­mid of wa­tery light as a sym­phony orches­tra played and fire­works ex­ploded over­head, even world lead­ers ex­cit­edly whipped out their smart­phones to record the spec­ta­cle.

Host­ing last year’s G20 Sum­mit was a defin­ing 21st-cen­tury mo­ment for Hangzhou. But it wasn’t the first time that the fa­bled Chi­nese lake city has made in­ter­na­tional head­lines. Seven hun­dred years ago, Marco Polo de­scribed Hangzhou as “with­out doubt the finest and most splen­did city in the world.” Through­out Chi­nese his­tory, em­per­ors and schol­ars, painters and writ­ers have es­poused the serene charms of a place known in po­ems as “Heaven on Earth.”

On my first trip to Hangzhou, more than a decade ago, I re­mem­ber wan­der­ing along wil­low-fringed West Lake, hik­ing through neatly groomed tea ter­races, and lis­ten­ing to chant­ing monks in their moun­tain­top tem­ples. Like many vis­i­tors, I felt like I’d been trans­ported into a Chi­nese fairy­tale il­lus­trated with wa­ter­color brush­strokes. If only that fairy­tale had in­volved a magic car­pet and a mar­tini, as Hangzhou’s trans­port in­fras­truc­ture and life­style of­fer­ings didn’t quite match the fa­bles of its past.

Fast-for­ward to Septem­ber 2016, when, as cam­eras panned across the city sky­line dur­ing the G20 broad­casts, it wasn’t just pago­das and lo­tus-dap­pled lakes that Hangzhou was show­ing off to the world. Across town from the pic­turesque is­lands and stone cause­ways of West Lake, city plan­ners have been erect­ing a new cen­tral busi­ness district be­side the Qiantang River. Like many mod­ern Chi­nese cities, the area is hall­marked by soar­ing sky­scrapers and in­ter­pre­tive ar­chi­tec­ture. Here, the cen­ter­pieces are the neigh­bor­ing In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence Cen­ter (where the G20 del­e­gates con­vened) and Grand Theatre, shaped like the sun and moon re­spec­tively. Both were de­signed to ref­er­ence tra­di­tional Chi­nese sym­bol­ism, though the con­fer­ence cen­ter’s giant re­flec­tive gold ball has per­haps been re­ceived with some­thing less than awe: lo­cals have dubbed it the Fer­rero Rocher.

Tour guides heav­ily pro­mote the G20 venues to Chi­nese pack­age tourists seek­ing a re­as­sur­ing vi­sion of new­ness. But the ben­e­fits of this mod­ern makeover re­side be­yond sim­plis­tic sym­bol­ism. A stream­lined trans­port sys­tem, gor­geous new ho­tels, and so­phis­ti­cated life­style and en­ter­tain­ment en­claves have added re­newed lus­ter to tour­ing Hangzhou’s his­toric sites, which re­main glo­ri­ously un­touched by city plan­ners. Most trav­el­ers ar­rive in Hangzhou via China’s high-speed rail net­work. The jour­ney from Shang­hai takes just an hour aboard one of dozens of daily bul­let trains that make the 350-kph dash be­tween the two cities. (Most of the high-speed trains uti­lize the mas­sive new Hangzhou East Rail­way Sta­tion near the new CBD, but if you’re headed to West Lake, buy a ticket to the more cen­tral Hangzhou Rail­way Sta­tion in­stead. Both sta­tions are con­nected to the metro net­work, which is a faster al­ter­na­tive than get­ting stuck in Hangzhou’s no­to­ri­ous traf­fic jams.)

On my most re­cent visit, I zipped into Hangzhou East Sta­tion and jumped onto a shiny new sub­way train. A few stops later I was in an ex­press lift to the Sky Lobby of the city’s new­est (and high­est) ho­tel, Park Hy­att Hangzhou. En­sconced in beau­ti­ful gray mar­ble far above the city streets, it makes for a grace­ful and im­pres­sive ar­rival ex­pe­ri­ence. Higher still, the 48th-floor rooftop ter­race is one of Hangzhou’s hottest nightlife des­ti­na­tions, serv­ing up craft cock­tails and live mu­sic to the city’s smart set. Dur­ing the day­time, how­ever, it pro­vided a fine van­tage point for me to plot out my trip.

Sev­eral bod­ies of wa­ter have de­fined Hangzhou’s ur­ban land­scape for cen­turies. The wide Qiantang River, un­miss­able from my perch atop the Park Hy­att, wends a thick curve through the east of the city. As the south­ern ter­mi­nus of the Grand Canal link­ing Hangzhou and Bei­jing, the river has con­trib­uted to the city’s wealth and im­por­tance since the sixth cen­tury. It is also fa­mous for the world’s largest re­verse tidal bore, which surges up­stream from Hangzhou Bay at up to 40 kph and a height of nine me­ters. Lo­cals call this hy­dro­log­i­cal phe­nom­e­non the Sil­ver Dragon. It oc­curs daily, but reaches its dra­matic peak on the 18th day of the eighth lu­nar month.

Then there is West Lake, Hangzhou’s most beloved at­trac­tion. A stroll or pad­dle along at least part of its 15-kilo­me­ter shore­line is de rigueur, with scenic spots bear­ing such be­guil­ing names as Lo­tus on the Breeze at Crooked Court­yard, Three Pools Mir­ror­ing the Moon, and Ori­oles Singing in the Wil­lows. The steep wooded hill­sides that cra­dle the lake and ap­pear to dis­solve into the sky in in­fi­nite shades of blue are also ripe for ex­plo­ration. One holy moun­tain is home to the 1,700-year-old Lingyin Bud­dhist tem­ple com­plex, and its sur­round­ing grot­toes are em­bed­ded with hun­dreds of cen­turies-old carved stone Bud­dhas.

On another hill­side not far away, touristy Longjing (Dragon Well) is one of Hangzhou’s nine clas­sic tea vil­lages. To get there I hiked though un­du­lat­ing ter­rain past dark-green tea bushes and the large vil­las of pros­per­ous tea farm­ers. The lat­ter are gen­er­ally happy to demon­strate the roast­ing of fresh leaves in a hot wok and may even in­vite you in­side for a re­fresh­ing cuppa.

Revered across China, Longjing green tea is grown, roasted, and en­joyed here much as it has been for cen­turies, but I was in­ter­ested in a con­tem­po­rary tea ini­tia­tive that’s brew­ing deep in the for­est. Shang­hai-based French ex­pat Marie Amiand, a for­mer cos­met­ics con­sul­tant, was en­coun­ter­ing health is­sues caused by Shang­hai’s pol­lu­tion when her re­search into nat­u­ral detox­i­fi­ca­tion led her to Hangzhou and its ter­raced tea plan­ta­tions. “The EGCG polyphe­nol

ex­tracted from Longjing tea is the most pow­er­ful an­tiox­i­dant found in na­ture; it’s 10,000 times more ac­tive than vi­ta­min E,” she ex­plained to me be­fore my visit.

After sev­eral years of re­search and de­vel­op­ment with biotech lab­o­ra­to­ries in Ja­pan, France, and China, Amiand launched her own skin­care brand, Lu Ming Tang. Head­quar­ted in Hangzhou, its range of fresh-scented creams, serums, and mists in chic vin­tage French pack­ag­ing is in­fused with the heal­ing and oxy­genat­ing pow­ers of green tea and chloro­phyll, which help to neu­tral­ize tox­ins and free rad­i­cals. Other prod­ucts, like the Mirac­u­lous De­tox Paste, are en­riched with su­per­foods found in tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine— things like ju­jube, sesame, and black rice.

But Lu Ming Tang’s most pre­cious gem can be found tucked away in the wooded hills above Longjing vil­lage. In an im­pres­sive coup, Amiand man­aged to con­vince gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties to lease her the re­built Song-era tem­ple house where the long-reign­ing Qing Em­peror Qian­long is said to have scribed the Eight Scenes of Dragon

Well. She then spent four years metic­u­lously trans­form­ing the pav­il­ion into to­day’s La Mai­son Lu Ming Tang.

On a rus­tic path just be­fore the en­trance to the vil­lage, I fol­lowed sign­posted for­est trails past or­na­men­tal rock­eries and gag­gles of el­derly res­i­dents chat­ting as they chewed sun­flower seeds and sweet man­darins in the shade of pago­das. En route, I chanced upon the ac­tual moss-cloaked Dragon Well that gave the vil­lage its name (the well’s clear, sweet wa­ter is said to make the best tea in the land) be­fore scal­ing an an­cient stone stair­case to La Mai­son.

Fronted by a peace­ful ter­race with wooden ta­bles and vases of pink and white hy­drangeas, the pav­il­ion makes a de­light­ful spot for high tea. Its sec­ond-floor sa­lon is dec­o­rated in el­e­gant mint green with hard­wood floors, carved lat­tice win­dows, and mar­ble-top ta­bles; framed mirrors lin­ing the walls are etched with po­etry about Longjing copied from Em­peror Qian­long’s cal­lig­ra­phy.

“Some­times, it takes an out­sider’s vi­sion to show­case the gifts of our cul­ture in a fresh new way,” I’m told by Lu Ming Tang’s re­tail man­ager John Wang. Lo­cal of­fi­cials con­cur, and have re­cently granted Lu Ming Tang the of­fi­cial Longjing seal, a highly prized recog­ni­tion of authen­tic­ity re­served for tea prod­ucts ex­clu­sively from this hal­lowed vil­lage.

Hangzhou’s wealthy

past has gifted it many re­fined ar­ti­san tra­di­tions, and my next stop was a quad­ran­gle of mod­ern mu­se­ums built from the re­con­structed re­mains of fac­to­ries and ware­houses

along the Grand Canal in the city’s north.

My guide ex­plained that 33 tra­di­tional folk-art skills from Hangzhou are in­scribed for pro­tec­tion as in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage, and the Hangzhou Arts & Crafts Mu­seum show­cases more than half of them. Built on the site of a for­mer silk-weav­ing fac­tory, its up­per floors host a per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion, but the sec­ond floor is the most fun: it’s home to 19 masters’ stu­dios where you can watch Chi­nese ar­ti­sans and their ap­pren­tices dex­ter­ously craft­ing silk um­brel­las and fans, weav­ing del­i­cate Xiaoshan lace, and carv­ing minia­ture stones. Many of the stu­dios are in­ter­ac­tive and vis­i­tors can learn ba­sic tech­niques, from pa­per cut­ting to hav­ing your own Ghost mo­ment at the pot­tery wheel.

If you wish to delve deeper into spe­cific crafts, you can skip across the court­yard to the China Umbrella Mu­seum, China Fan Mu­seum, or the dra­mat­i­cally ti­tled China Knives, Scis­sors, and Swords Mu­seum—chop chop! I, how­ever, chose a dif­fer­ent type of artis­tic en­deavor. “I like to think of Loopy not just as a club but as a mini arts cen­ter fos­ter­ing new trends,” young Hangzhounese mu­sic pro­moter Yifei Shu told me as we nib­bled on tapas in the res­tau­rant at his year-old party space Loopy. Over­head, a hot-pink neon sign reads: TIME YOU EN­JOY WAST­ING IS NOT WASTED.

Born in Hangzhou, Yifei stud­ied fash­ion de­sign at nearby Zhe­jiang Uni­ver­sity and fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy in Lon­don. After four years abroad, he re­turned to his home­town to open a photo stu­dio where he also hosted oc­ca­sional mu­sic gigs. “I re­al­ized that Hangzhou needed more live mu­sic venues to gather with friends and cre­ate and en­joy good mu­sic and mod­ern cul­ture,” he said. With his shoul­der-length hair and thin goldrimmed glasses, the soft-spo­ken pho­tog­ra­pher has since be­come an un­likely pi­o­neer of Hangzhou’s elec­tronic mu­sic scene.

Late last year, Yifei opened Loopy in a shop­ping mall not far from West Lake. Fronted by a res­tau­rant serv­ing Span­ish-style bites, the club is ac­cessed via a padded cor­ri­dor that leads into a dou­ble-height con­crete bunker, where a small stage hosts a reg­u­lar ros­ter of hip-hop, trap, and techno DJs and live bands. Moritz von Oswald and HVOB are among the re­cent gigs.

Yifei stud­ied clas­si­cal pi­ano as a child and plays key­board for a lo­cal band called Junks. He de­vel­oped a pas­sion for techno mu­sic when he lived in Lon­don and is ea­ger to ed­u­cate Hangzhou mu­sic mavens. “Lo­cals are used to go­ing out to com­mer­cial clubs to dance and drink. We are try­ing to in­tro­duce a new club cul­ture by bring­ing great un­der­ground mu­si­cians to Hangzhou,” he ex­plained. “I’m proud when a big-name DJ comes to China and their tour posters list Hangzhou along­side Bei­jing and Shang­hai.”

As part of his mis­sion to spark new ideas, Loopy also hosts a se­ries of TED-style talks by en­trepreneurs and in­no­va­tors in dif­fer­ent fields, show­cases ro­tat­ing art ex­hi­bi­tions, and screens cult movies and doc­u­men­taries in the cozy bunker. “Hangzhou is well known for be­ing a re­laxed tourist city,” Yifei added. “Peo­ple here tend to be eas­ily sat­is­fied and there isn’t much mo­ti­va­tion to ex­plore the world or new habits. It’s not like Shang­hai, which has al­ways had a lot of for­eign in­flu­ences. But this is chang­ing.” Leav­ing Loopy, I crossed a sleepy rib­bon of the old Grand Canal—another re­minder of how Hangzhou mag­i­cally weaves its past into mod­ern life. I’m just in time to catch sun­set on West Lake; it’s the best time of day, when the pas­tel blues and greens are off­set by golden rays re­flect­ing from the wa­ter and pagoda roof tiles.

Flanked by pav­il­ion-stud­ded moun­tains and of­ten draped in mist, it is easy to see how this land­scape en­tranced gen­er­a­tions of po­ets and artists. Around me, groups of dancers prac­ticed Latin steps (in­clud­ing one lady in full Fla­menco at­tire!), se­niors per­formed their even­ing tai chi ex­er­cises, and of­fice work­ers ped­aled home on app-shar­ing bi­cy­cles, all seem­ingly bask­ing in that sense of easy sat­is­fac­tion that Yifei de­scribed.

A few min­utes’ stroll from the wa­ter’s edge, another large new de­vel­op­ment has greatly im­proved the din­ing and en­ter­tain­ment op­tions near West Lake. Lo­cated on the old Zhe­jiang Uni­ver­sity cam­pus, Kerry Cen­ter com­prises the Mid­town Shangri-La ho­tel, a trendy shop­ping mall, plus loads of cafés and bars set in pleas­ant al­fresco court­yards.

Shangri-La opened its first main­land China ho­tel in Hangzhou back in 1984 and its new flag­ship has al­ready be­come a hip lo­cal hang­out. Guests can open their French doors to re­veal glimpses of the lake, while a re­laxed cen­tral court­yard with gur­gling wa­ter fea­tures and week­end pop-up mar­kets ex­em­pli­fies quin­tes­sen­tial Hangzhou liv­ing. The ad­ja­cent shop­ping mall of­fers lux­ury and high-street brands plus some stand­out lo­cal la­bels. HGHI’s smart cheongsams and em­broi­dered silk shirts are worth check­ing out, as is the Lu Ming Tang bou­tique.

For a taste of Hangzhou cui­sine, join the line at Cheng Zhong in the Kerry Cen­tre mall for cre­ative lo­cal fa­vorites like Dongpo pork, sautéed river shrimp with Longjing tea leaves, and West Lake vine­gar fish, along with Can­tonese and lo­cal dim sum. On the ground floor and ex­tend­ing out into the court­yard, Mid­town Brew­ery at­tracts a fun crowd with craft beers brewed in-house and named after Hangzhou metro stops, like the Pengbu Porter and Lin­ping Pale Ale. In the even­ing, there’s a lively band from Colom­bia. Back on the lake, Im­pres­sion West Lake: En­dur­ing Mem­o­ries of

Hangzhou is a new ver­sion of the long-run­ning mu­sic-and-laser pageant pro­duced by Zhang Yi­mou that so beguiled G20 lead­ers last year. In­volv­ing hun­dreds of performers, a float­ing stage, and daz­zling high-tech ef­fects, the show de­picts clas­sic Hangzhou legends and Chi­nese folk songs with a sprin­kling of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky’s

Swan Lake. But more than any­thing else, it serves as a fit­ting trib­ute to a city that’s en­joy­ing a new chap­ter in its elo­quent his­tory.

Above, from left: A carv­ing of a myth­i­cal qilin at Lingyin Tem­ple; the lobby lounge at the Mid­town Shangri-La. Op­po­site: Tak­ing in the scenery on the wil­low-lined shores of West Lake.

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