800 years and still the place to be
3-3-3 Tour: Day 5
Back during the Southern Song Dynasty when Hangzhou was China’s capital, the city was perhaps the biggest and richest in the world. The 14th century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta called it “the biggest city I have ever seen on the face of the earth.” While Marco Polo, whether he ever actually visited China or not, noted that “the number and wealth of the merchants, and the amount of goods that passed through their hands, was so enormous that no man could form a just estimate thereof.”
As a centre for foreign trade, with merchant ships coming and going from all over Asia, Hangzhou’s rich and influential set about building a city to suit their wealth. Grand residences and teahouses were built, along with shops, restaurants and taverns in which, much like today, they could spend their time and money on the good things in life, namely, food, drink and having fun.
Today, as the capital of Zhejiang, Hangzhou is the political, economic and cultural center of the province. Its position at the mouth of Hangzhou Bay, only 180km from Shanghai – as well as being the southern terminus of the once thriving Grand Canal – has led to the city becoming a key player in the Yangtze Delta region and it continues to be one of the country’s most prosperous.
You can see this prosperity all around, from the luxury car dealerships and brand new boutiques, to the rising city skyline and locals enjoying their leisure in the squares and parks around town, or mingling with the tourists in the pedestrianised “old streets” the Chinese municipal men are so fond of developing.
The most well-known of these streets is Hefang Street, also known as Qinghefang Street, located at the foot of Wushan Hill. The street is said to be one of the oldest in Hangzhou and, though reconstructed and prettified in recent years, it still retains a history and vibrance stretching back almost 800 years.
The area has survived in some form as the city’s commercial centre throughout the many centuries since it was established. Even today, Hefang Street is home to several century-old businesses. The Chinese medicine shop Hu Qing Yu Tang and the famous souvenir shop Wang Xingji Fans, established in 1875, can both be found here, as well as Zhang Xiaoquan Scissors and many traditional stores selling silks, handicrafts and the usual tourist-oriented knick knacks. There are still several teahouses and restaurants, while after dark, the place comes alive with all sorts of street crafts and entertainment.
It was this that interested me most. Whereas many such streets in China have succumbed to the “generic shopping street” blueprint that pays the rent while not exactly retaining the area’s character, Hefang Street manages to blend tradition with commercial interests whilst still showcasing the culture that made it such a vibrant neighbourhood in the first place. There are clay figures being crafted, paper cutting and carvings. There are portraits and caricaturists, street games and snacks. While market stalls and hawkers vie for your attention, the local ladies dance on mass and kids fly kites in Wushan Square. There was even an evening rollerblading class in progress when I arrived, with tiny kids on tiny wheels whizzing past, crouched like speed skaters, as they negotiated bends, cones and any dancers that strayed too far from the safety of the pack.
Hangzhouans know how to enjoy themselves. A city with a lake purpose built for leisure at its heart knows that life is too short to be spent office-bound and stressed. Rather, work when you have to and spend the rest of your precious time indulging in the things that really matter. For centuries Hefang Street has been the place to do just that.