A Stroll into the Past

Ding­hai’s Old Town Vista

That's China - - The Seascape - Text by / Gemma Piali

For a glimpse of the most au­then­tic his­toric sed­i­ments in the an­cient city of Ding­hai, the Mid­dle Street to­gether with its pe­riph­eral blocks that are strewn with cul­tural spots is a must-see. The core section of the street runs for only about 200 me­ters. The great in­jus­tice is that to­day’s tourists and the younger gen­er­a­tions of the lo­cals tend to fa­vor more fa­mous scenic and cul­tural at­trac­tions in other dis­tricts of the Zhoushan Ar­chi­pel­ago, mak­ing Ding­hai a whis­tle stop that is given a cur­sory glance at best or to­tally ig­nored at worst.

The fire

The street was en­gulfed in a fire caused by a mis­placed oil lamp in a tofu shop dur­ing the Spring Fes­ti­val of 1891. More than 3,000 houses were de­stroyed, leav­ing tens of thou­sands of peo­ple home­less and one-third of the city’s pop­u­la­tion strug­gling with a se­ri­ous lack of life sus­te­nance. The city’s cen­ter­piece was ru­ined overnight. Re­con­struc­tion of the street and the restora­tion to nor­mal­ity took many years. Eight fire­walls were added to the street. The post-fire re­con­struc­tion of sev­eral bi­fur­ca­tions also ex­panded the street area into a bustling com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial block, with the orig­i­nal Mid­dle Street phas­ing out in the fast rise of the new down­town area. The irony is that prob­a­bly be­cause of its ‘in­vis­i­bil­ity’ the Mid­dle Street turned out to be the only sur­vivor in the ‘old street fam­ily’ of Ding­hai in the siz­zling gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of Zhoushan.

The streets

With a cen­tral thor­ough­fare adorned with mod­ern cloth­ing and shiny plas­tic trin­kets, veer­ing off into the laneways leads one to bustling lived-in court­yards that re­tain their authenticity. El­derly women fan them­selves as they chitchat with their neigh­bours and dogs laze about on the pave­ments oc­ca­sion­ally peek­ing at the passerby. As red lanterns gen­tly move in the breeze so does the lo­cal’s laun­dry, as it hangs dry­ing draped over the wooden beams. Sur­pris­ing glimpses into the lo­cal’s life are stum­bled upon. One mo­ment you are gaz­ing into a busy café, and the next you are peer­ing into some­one’s dimly lit home as an el­derly man sits as still as a statue star­ing back at you. The houses are not just ghostly shells of the past, but are still in­hab­ited to­day. To­wards the out­skirts of the old town, brown an­tique roof tiles con­trast against im­pos­ing white apart­ments, mark­ing the end of the walled-in ex­am­ple of past liv­ing.

On the week­end, an an­tique mar­ket draws in the young and old alike, who flock to browse through the knick-knacks. One stall fea­tures weath­ered second-hand books lined along­side the pave­ment. The ex­ten­sive mix fea­tures bizarre ti­tles such as the US Army Sur­vival Man­ual, or the Fi­nance Year­book of

Zhe­jiang from 2004. Ev­ery­thing from books about Al­fred Hitch­cock to the Sci­en­tific Truth of Psy­chic Phe­nom­ena, wait pa­tiently for the right col­lec­tor to feast their eyes upon a wellloved cover.

The vi­cis­si­tudes of the old town area can also be wit­nessed by the Zuyin Tem­ple, tucked away at one end of the Mid­dle Street off Chang­guo Road. The tem­ple went through re­peated de­stroy­ing and re­build­ing af­ter the Ming Dy­nasty, but was jus­ti­fi­ably the Bud­dhism ‘core’ of Ding­hai in the long pe­riod from the Song times to the Repub­li­can era.

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