Tag Archives: China

Pingyao

The Pingyao city wall at dusk

In the last couple of decades, the popular image of China, at least outside China itself, has become a very modern one. Much in the same way that Japan’s rapid modernisation subsumed an ancient “shoguns and ninjas” image and replaced it with a hi-tech, futuristic one of robots and intelligent lavatories, China’s recent boom has brought some rather more unsightly stereotypes to the fore – smog, factories and endless apartment block developments among them. When we visit the big-ticket tourist cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an, we often see one or all of these, but we do it for some small and carefully-preserved piece of China’s history – Old Shanghai, the Imperial Palace Museum, or the Terracotta Army. After those fascinating exhibits, the cities around them feel like a strange mix of luxury stores, grey cookie-cutter apartment blocks and ultra-modern, ambitious and sometimes ridiculous new construction. In the People’s Republic’s rush to create a communist utopia, and the resulting u-turn and plunge into a market economy, Chinese life has changed, seemingly completely. So, one begins to wonder, where is a living version of old China? One that pre-dates the Cultural Revolution and isn’t cluttered with tourist shops and ticket booths? One answer to that question is a little town in remote Shanxi province, called Pingyao.

One of Pingyao's shopping streets

One of Pingyao’s shopping streets

Pingyao has a long history. Situated roughly halfway between Beijing and Xi’an, it has been in the company of the centres of Chinese civilisation for over 2000 years, and held a position at the eastern end of the trans-continental Silk Route. But it was more recently, during the last throes of the Qing dynasty, that the city amassed much of its riches. It was in Pingyao in 1823, as wealth in the form of silver moved across the vast empire to finance development and occupations, that China’s first bank emerged. Business boomed and Pingyao spawned several banks, with branches across the empire and as far away as India. It all went well until the fall of the Qing in 1911, by which time the wealthy banking families of the city had built impressive homes and amassed enviable art collections. The 20th century was unkind to Pingyao as the business centres shifted to the coast, industries were nationalised, and Shanxi’s national role was reduced to the extraction of coking coal. The upshot of Pingyao’s descent to the fringes, however, seems to have been its protection from modern China’s relentless development and the preservation of the city’s precious heritage.

Pingyao's West Street (Xī Dà Jiē) at night

Pingyao’s West Street (Xī Dà Jiē) at night

Pingyao has been surrounded by a city wall for over 2000 years, but the wall in its current form has been in place since the Ming dynasty in the 14th century. Its 6km length encloses and overlooks a criss-cross of tiny lanes, marshalled by 2 perpendicular main arteries. The southern half of the north-south artery, South Street (Nán Dà Jiē), is the most heavily-touristed, straddled by an ornate gate and lined with shops selling tourist nicknacks, eclectic collections of antiques, and restaurants and cafes. South Street also finds itself among the bulk of the tourist attractions and guest houses in the city, heavily trod by large Chinese tour groups and a smaller crowd of foreigners. There are two temples and four bank museums in the southern half of the city, as well as two double-entendred “escort agency” museums. Some of the attractions date from over a millennium ago, and each reveals a precious piece of China’s history, chief among them the pioneering Rishengchang Draft Bank Museum, with a room full of treasures dating back to the Song Dynasty. The Rishengchang Museum is part of a city-wide entry ticket of 120RMB that includes a number of attractions and is valid for three days. But the beauty of Pingyao is not only in the draft banks and temples, but also in walking its sometimes-restored, sometimes-rubble-strewn dead straight lanes.

The extent of the branch network for the Rishengchang Draft Bank in Pingyao

The extent of the branch network for the Rishengchang Draft Bank in Pingyao

Turning off the main streets, the touristic nature of the lanes quickly dwindles, but the ancient village architecture never does. Dark brick façades rise either side of you and the sky forms a thin strip over your head, the horizon in front obstructed by an ornate gate in the near distance, or one of the watchtowers on the city wall. The occasional electric bike creeps up behind and rushes silently past, while elderly locals rest outside their houses, watching Pingyao life go by. At night the lanes are strung up with red lanterns to light the way – until they’re not, and the path is pitch black, haunting bike lights in the distance mixing with the faint smell of heating coal and the cool night air to give an otherworldly feeling to your evening stroll. The outskirts are dotted with construction as new buildings are being built with similar materials in a similar manner to the old, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between ancient and new. But there are a number of hotels and guest houses, such as the Yide Hotel in the city’s western half, set in courtyard complexes from the city’s golden era, whose success will likely be the guarantee of the preservation of much of the city’s wonderful heritage. And the city wall itself can be walked the entire perimeter, as part of the city-wide entry ticket, offering a rooftop perspective over an ancient Chinese city, still living, and finding its place in the new China without wholesale demolition and high-rise construction.

A small lane in Pingyao at night

A small lane in Pingyao at night

An example of new construction that remains true to the old in Pingyao

An example of new construction that remains true to the old in Pingyao

In the headlong rush to enrich a nation of 1.5bn and reach economic superpower status, heritage has been the least of China’s worries. But now that large numbers of Chinese are beginning to travel, and faraway parts of the country are accessible with airports and fast trains, it’s likely they will want to see what’s left of their precious ancient heritage preserved, that now they can afford not bulldoze the old and replace it with something new, but find the value in what’s there. We outside China can help too, by seeking out the genuine “old China”, by looking further afield than the big cities and digging deeper into a country that’s so much more than just smog, factories and high-rise glass-and-steel.

A courtyard at the Yide Hotel in the western half of Pingyao

A courtyard at the Yide Hotel in the western half of Pingyao

More about Pingyao:

The UNESCO Entry on Pingyao
An Article in the Financial Times
An Article in the Economist Magazine ($)

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Hakka Villages of South Fujian

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Directly to the west of the city of Xiamen in southern Fujian, near the border with Guangdong province, nestled among rolling green hills of tea, rice and tobacco plantations are the villages of China’s Hakka ethnic minority. These migrants from the far north made their move as long ago as 300 AD, escaping poverty and persecution, and made a new home in the hilly Fujian countryside above the fertile river deltas. Initially unwelcome in this southern land, they housed themselves in imposing round multi-storey rammed-earth houses, impregnable and self-contained, a combination of family home and fortress. Little-known outside of the Chinese societies of east and south-east Asia, the Hakka have had a disproportionate impact on their part of the world since their arrival in the south, counting the revolutionary Sun Yat Sen, the former Chinese premier Deng Xiao Ping and Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore among their number. But it is these curious giant mud houses, called tulou and ranging in age from 70 to 700 years old, that attract tourists to the villages around Yongding and Nanjing in Fujian in their busloads to learn about the culture of a people whose name “Hakka” literally means “guest”.

The heavily-touristed Huaiyuanlou building, with souvenir sellers lining the approach.

The four-storey heavily-touristed Huaiyuanlou building, near Nanjing, with souvenir sellers lining the approach.

The inside of the Huanjilou building, near the town of Yongding. The Outer ring of the building is for living, cooking, while the inner sections usually house areas for worship and bathing.

The inside of the 320-year-old Huanjilou building, near the town of Yongding. The Outer ring of the building is for living, cooking and storage, while the inner sections usually house areas for worship and bathing.

The postcard tulou cluster of Tianluokeng from above. It's the most picturesque collection of houses and makes it onto plenty of tourism material aimed at the Chinese market.

The postcard tulou cluster of Tianluokeng from above. It’s the most picturesque collection of houses and makes it onto plenty of tourism material aimed at the Chinese market.

Tianluokeng from below with our guide Helen (Fei Fei) and our driver Mr. Zhang (the Chinese Ben Elton).

Tianluokeng from below with our guide Fei Fei (Helen) and our driver Mr. Zhang (the Chinese Ben Elton). photo by Manal Shehabi

Many of the tulou have been turned over to government-approved tourist attractions so their ground floors, previously used for cooking, are now souvenir shops.

Many of the tulou have been turned over to government-approved tourist attractions so their ground floors, previously used for cooking the family meal, are now souvenir shops.

Some of the tulou are operating as family-run inns where guests can sleep and eat.

Some of the tulou are operating as family-run inns where guests can sleep and eat.

This is an inn in the villiage of Taxia near Nanjing city in Fujian.

This is Weiqunlou inn in the villiage of Taxia near Nanjing city in Fujian.

Taxia fits the bill for the typical Chinese village - a bubbling river flows under ornate bridges past red lanterned houses under terraced hills.

Taxia fits the bill for the typical Chinese village – a bubbling river flows under ornate bridges past red lanterned houses under terraced hills.

A Taoist temple in the Taxia village. Each pillar is a symbol of an ancestor who passed the Imperial Examination for the Chinese civil service - an achievement to which some men devoted their entire lives.

The approach to the Taoist temple in Taxia village. Each pillar is a symbol of an ancestor who passed the Imperial Examination for the Chinese civil service – an achievement to which some men devoted their entire lives.

A woman delivers offerings for her ancestors to the Taxia village Taoist temple.

A woman delivers offerings for her ancestors to the Taxia village Taoist temple.

The offerings take the form of (real) food and (fake) cash normally, lovingly donated by descendants still very much in touch with their roots.

The offerings take the form of (real) food and (fake) cash normally, lovingly donated by descendants still very much in touch with their roots.

The cobbles outside the privately-run Yanxianglou building. The family has eschewed the government tourism system and so enjoys less visitors but maintains a more peaceful setting. All around the walls are pictures of a successful uncle in the family who became a successful businessman in Indonesia and who returns each year to the family home.

The moss-and-firework-covered cobbles outside the privately-run century-old Yanxianglou building near Yongding. The family has eschewed the government tourism system and so enjoys less visitors but maintains a more peaceful setting. All around the walls are pictures of an uncle in the family who became a successful businessman in Indonesia and who returns each year to the family home.

Ornate eave decorations in the Yanxianglou building near Yongding.

Ornate eave decorations in the Yanxianglou building near Yongding.

A trader in the Heguilou building near Nanjing. The traders inside the more-touristy tulou might not always be descendants of the house clan, but they are all Hakka natives and their businesses very much family affairs.

A trader in the 200-year-old Heguilou building near Nanjing. The traders inside the more-touristy tulou might not always be descendants of the house clan, but they are all Hakka village natives and their businesses very much family affairs.

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Jinmen

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The Fujianese island of Xiamen in China, including areas like Haicang on the mainland and the Gulang Yu islet, is a place full of day trips. There are enough places to see and things to do, and to see again and do again, that it could occupy a casual traveller for a very long time. But talk to enough people and you soon learn about another day trip – Jinmen. “What’s Jinmen?” goes the typical conversation.
“It’s a Taiwanese island you can get to by ferry”
“You can get the ferry to Taiwan???”
“Well, Taiwan is a long way away, but Jinmen is an island nearby that’s controlled by Taiwan”.
You see, back in the years following WWII there was a battle for China’s soul. Put simply, it was a civil war between the nationalist Kuo Min Tang and Mao Ze Dong’s communist Red Army. It was a titanic struggle and today, we still don’t have a result. The nationalists, who still claim to be China’s rightful government, were eventually pushed off the Chinese mainland and set up their capital in Taipei, 300km away on the island of Taiwan (as a side note, this explains why Taiwan competes in the Olympics under the name “Chinese Taipei”). With ambitions to re-take the mainland, they called their country the “Republic of China” (ROC), but most people simply call it “Taiwan”. Mao and the communists called their country the “People’s Republic of China” (PRC) and it is that which we now commonly call China.
But as well as the island province of Taiwan, the nationalists managed to keep hold of a few outcrops in the Taiwan Strait, Jinmen and its little brother Lesser Jinmen, officially belonging to Fujian province, being the closest of those to the mainland.

A temple gate in the Jinmen capital Jincheng.

A temple gate in the Jinmen capital Jincheng.

The ferry ride from Xiamen’s Wu Tong terminal to the Shuitou port on Jinmen is a sharp 30 minutes, but enjoys all the formalities of international travel – immigration, customs and duty free stores at either end and a fresh stamp in the passport upon emerging from the rather dilapidated facility in Shuitou. The line of taxis waiting outside belies the sleepy, countryside nature of the island. Either side of the quiet single lane main roads, rocky hills, partly forested sit behind semi-rural vistas of rice paddies and scattered houses.

Jinmen is the almost-X-shaped island just right of centre in the map above, and its brother Lesser Jinmen (or Lieyu) the smaller island to its west. These  outposts of Taiwan sit surrounded 180-degrees by the People's Republic of China and separated by a vast stretch of open sea from Taiwan itself. From this  angle it looks a miracle that they're still part of Taiwan at all.

Jinmen is the almost-X-shaped island just right of centre in the map above, and its brother Lesser Jinmen (or Lieyu) the smaller island to its west. These outposts of Taiwan sit surrounded 180-degrees by the People’s Republic of China and separated by a vast stretch of open sea from Taiwan itself. From this angle it looks a miracle that they’re still part of the ROC at all.

On the north eastern tip of the island lies Mount Lion, a fortress-come-museum tunnelled deep into a mountain with a 32km range Howitzer cannon pointing out to sea and the PRC. Thirty-two kilometres takes its shells well into enemy territory and so it’s a weapon of which they are rightly proud. The tunnels hewn into the rock are decked out with posters promoting Jinmen tourism and the exhibits along the way to the cannon offer the visitor imitation experiences of the theatre of war. It’s all very theatrical. I passed a mocked up war room where only a grandmother and her grandson sat colouring pictures. The lady, who was from Taichung on Taiwan island, greeted me and we chatted about her time in Australia briefly and then bid each other good day. Continuing up the passage, occasionally I passed a section of the tunnel that was walled off behind which I could hear mysterious voices chattering away.

Helmets on standby at the entry to the tunnels of Mount Lion Cannon Fort on Jinmen.

Helmets on standby at the entry to the tunnels of Mount Lion Cannon Fort on Jinmen.

The cannon is on the seaside of the mountain, dug in behind a lookout and accompanied by a noisy and patriotic video presentation reminding visitors of the times, as recent as the 1970s when the PRC engaged in regular shelling of the island, that Jinmen was the frontline in the battle for China’s identity. In fact it still very much is at the frontline, and it was there I concluded that the walled off sections of tunnel I noticed were for defence purposes and the voices coming from them must have been those of real soldiers. All over the sleepy island of Jinmen there are reminders of how close it has come to invasion and bombardment – the traffic roundabouts have concrete camouflaged pillboxes installed in preparation for invasion, the ports are scattered with sandbags and sea defences, and little Taiwanese toy soldiers are the most popular tourist souvenir.

Curious wedding photos adorn the walls of the tunnels at Mount Lion Cannon Fort.

Curious wedding photos promoting Jinmen tourism adorn the walls of the tunnels at Mount Lion Cannon Fort.

Descending the tunnels again, the cacophonous cannon presentation fading in my ears, I heard an arresting female voice barking orders coming up ahead and strained to tell if it wasn’t just another recording in one of the war history exhibits. When it became frighteningly loud, around the corner came about 12 uniformed troops marching towards me in formation. Hastily I put my camera away, abandoned the path down one of the long side tunnels and waited for them to pass. When I emerged from my self-imposed exile, the soldiers had stopped in formation a little way up the tunnel, facing back towards me standing alone in the tunnel. They began repeating another aggressive volley of chants as I retreated. Well aware that photographs of the military aren’t usually approved souvenirs, I dared not retrieve my camera and continued calmly towards the fortress entrance, allowing myself one furtive glance back at them as I descended. The tunnels were otherwise empty, as was the war room where I had chatted to the friendly locals, their paper and crayons hastily put away. I wondered if an invasion was under way.

The 32km-range Howitzer cannon at the Mount Lion fortress on Jinmen.

The 32km-range Howitzer cannon at the Mount Lion fortress on Jinmen.

The mystery was solved as I waited outside in the museum cafe for a cab to take me the 6km into the principal town of Jincheng. The friendly grandmother walked in saying “Hi! You missed the demonstration firing of the cannon!”. Distracted and unnerved by the ambiguous nature of the museum & fort, I’d missed the main event, the daily ceremonial firing of the Howitzer cannon.

A pagoda in Zhihui Park, a seaside garden near the western port of Shuitou on Jinmen.

A pagoda in Zhihui Park, a seaside garden near the western port of Shuitou on Jinmen.

The eastern side of Shuitou town, near the departure port for Xiamen and the PRC, has a collection of houses built in the Peranakan style, by a Jinmen businessman who migrated to Indonesia and made his fortune in the early 20th century. Peranakan, or Straits Chinese, culture developed in what is now Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as more and more Chinese migrated from Southern China and settled in South East Asia before, during and after the explosion of European trade in what was then known as the ‘East Indies’. There the Chinese, a great many from Fujian province, opened businesses in trading ports like Penang, Singapore and Jakarta, cities that were ‘melting pots’ centuries before the term came into common use. They formed large communities and kept their customs and dialects, but a culture all its own emerged under the influence of the Arab, Indian, European and native Malay trading society around them.

The eighteen-house Peranakan complex in Shuitou, with its distinctive defensive tower.

The eighteen-house Peranakan complex in Shuitou, with its distinctive defensive tower.

Many returned with their riches and built complexes for their families back home like the eighteen-house cluster in Shuitou. These particular Peranakan houses now form a low-key museum that celebrates the South East Asian, particularly Indonesian, Chinese culture. Peranakan dresses hang where the wardrobes would have been and the upstairs dining table is laid out with models of ‘baba nyonya’ dishes, the distinctive cuisine of the Straits Chinese. After the more confined and garishly-adorned local Fujian houses, walking into those airy hardwood spaces felt to me like slipping into a familiar pair of slippers. The furniture made of dark polished hardwood with intricate inlaid pearl designs, the high ceilings and dishes with the words “sambal” and “satay” recall a more laidback, tropical world than wintry, windswept Fujian in February.

Peranakan wall tiling and teak furniture in Shuitou, Jinmen.

Peranakan wall tiling and teak furniture in Shuitou, Jinmen.

The Peranakan houses, these curious South East Asian artefacts transplanted to Fujian by an unwitting pioneer of globalisation, are fascinating to the smattering of mainland Chinese tourists who manage to make it over to Jinmen. And it was these tourists who joined me in the departure hall at Shuitou port, and on the comfortable, half-full ferry back to the PRC and Xiamen. There’s an irony in the truth that Jinmen, this bitterly-contested outcrop on the eastern edge of Fujian, has preserved its precious heritage through the wars and bombardments, while relatively peaceful cities like Xiamen and those on the Taiwanese coast have had much of their heritage erased, not by conflict, but by development. So Jinmen* makes a refreshing way to spend a day away from the the crowds and traffic of Xiamen. It opens the eyes to a world that has stayed quietly hidden away, sedate and unchanged behind the rapid pace of the Chinese economic miracle that has in some way affected every one of us over the last couple of decades.

Examples of the ornate roofs of the traditional native Fujianese houses, well-preserved clusters of which exist all over the island of Jinmen.

Examples of the ornate roofs of the traditional native Fujianese houses, well-preserved clusters of which exist all over the island of Jinmen.

*Once on the island it’s almost exclusively called “Kinmen”, which is only an alternative way of sounding the first syllable, the Chinese word for “gold” (金 jin/kin)

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Quanzhou & Xiamen cont’d

Kaiyuan Pagoda

The 44m high West Pagoda, one of two at Quanzhou’s Kaiyuan Temple complex, a Buddhist temple first constructed in the year 686 AD. The temple stands at the west end of Xi Jie (West Street), a bustling thoroughfare recalling the China of the past, of tiny ramshackle businesses, chaotic congested streets, honking buses and outdoor food stalls.

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A monk trains a young boy in the yard at Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou.

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Door handles on the East Pagoda at Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou.

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A doorway on Quanzhou’s Xi Jie. The city seems to be awakening from a tourist slumber, cleaning up the old parts of the town and erecting plaques in English and Chinese explaining the history of the area.

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An egret on Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

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A family walking along the western edge of Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

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The food markets near Xiamen’s pedestrian shopping street, Zhongshan Lu.

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Seafood cooked in its shell in the streets around Zhongshan Lu. Xiamen is famous in the rest of China for its seafood.

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Xiamen’s south-west shore in the distance, as seen from the highest point on the nearby island of Gu Lang Yu. Gu Lang Yu has historically been the preserve of foreigners, working in embassies and living in ostentatious villas, giving the island a colonial European atmosphere that helps make it a top-3 destination for Chinese domestic tourism.

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Workers unloading construction materials from boats on Gu Lang Yu, an island that is practically free of vehicles.

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This means that bricks and sand and cement and everything else gets pulled by men using handcarts like these.

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A dapper man in a suit jacket on a sampan sorts his catch for the day on the eastern shore of Gu Lang Yu.

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Because of its quaint architecture and scenic locations, the island is hugely popular with local newlyweds, who often eschew the black-and-white traditions we’re used to and go for colourful dresses and hipster vests.

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Back on Xiamen itself, a tour group prepares for a photo in front of the 280mm German-built cannon at Huli Shan Fortress on the island’s southern shore.

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The fortress occupies 13,000 square metres and has a collection of cannons, of which the 280mm, with its 7km accurate range, is the largest. It claimed a Japanese destroyer in 1941 and has a large feature about that event. More recent hostilities have been with the nationalist-controlled Taiwanese island of Jinmen, to the east of Xiamen. Whether those events are less important, or just that they don’t fit neatly into the Chinese national myth perhaps time will tell.

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Quanzhou & Xiamen

The Guandi Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province in China. Quanzhou, about 45 minutes on the train from Xiamen, was once a bustling traders' town at the end of the maritime silk road. The temple stands next to what is left of a 1000 year old mosque, built by the Arab, Persian and Indian traders.

The Guandi Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian province in China. Quanzhou, about 45 minutes on the train from Xiamen, was once a bustling traders’ town at the end of the maritime silk road. The temple stands next to what is left of a 1000 year old mosque, built by the Arab, Persian and Indian traders.

Reminders of another significant part of the region's history, opium pipes for sale in Quanzhou's markets.

Reminders of another significant part of the region’s history, opium pipes for sale in Quanzhou’s markets.

Ornaments for sale in the markets near Quanzhou's 1000-year old mosque.

Ornaments for sale in the markets near Quanzhou’s 1000-year old mosque.

Ornaments for sale at the markets near Quanzhou's 1000-year old mosque.

Ornaments for sale at the markets near Quanzhou’s 1000-year old mosque.

A bridge over the Yundang Inner Lake in Xiamen, Fujian province, China

A bridge over the Yundang Inner Lake in Xiamen, Fujian province, China

Sunset view of the south shore of Xiamen's Yundang Inner Lake.

Sunset view of the south shore of Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

A girl and her father fishing on Xiamen's Yundang Inner Lake.

A girl and her father fishing on Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

Three egrets on the rapids of the inlet to Xiamen's Yundang Inner Lake.

Three egrets on the rapids of the inlet to Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

An egret on the rapids at the inlet to Xiamen's Yundang Inner Lake.

An egret on the rapids at the inlet to Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

Egrets lined up to swoop for fish in the rapids at the inlet to Xiamen's Yundang Inner Lake.

Egrets lined up to swoop for fish in the rapids at the inlet to Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.

Flowers in Xiamen's Huweishan Park.

Flowers in Xiamen’s Huweishan Park.

A rock carving at Xiamen's Nanputuo Temple.

A rock carving at Xiamen’s Nanputuo Temple.

Kids at sunset at Xiamen's Nanputuo Temple.

Kids at sunset at Xiamen’s Nanputuo Temple.

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21 October, 2013 · 21:09

A Hotel Review

Big Hotels are stuck in the past. They are vast bureaucracies that deliver large amounts of what we don’t want (gym, spa, mini bar) and struggle to provide us what we do want when we’re travelling (wireless internet, the will to live).

A block of apartments near the Pan Pacific in Xiamen, China

A block of apartments near the Pan Pacific in Xiamen, China

I grew up in a business traveller’s city (Singapore) in the golden era of the business traveller (the 80s). As an adult I’ve rarely chosen to spend my own hard-earned on them, but the chain hotel still occupied a kind of heavenly place in my mind, and I would look enviously at those folk who could afford to stay in them.

The chain hotel flourished in the shrinking world of the 1980s, when the cost of international air travel fell within the orbit of growing multinational companies. The companies would send their hard-working men (mostly men) away to far-flung places to win work or find suppliers, and usually these men wanted nothing more than to be back at home. The hotels couldn’t replicate home, so they didn’t even try – at great expense, they provided a kind of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for adults – all the things he couldn’t have or wasn’t allowed at home: an array of tiny bottles of top-shelf liquor, a fully equipped gym, heated swimming pool, buffet breakfast, endless pornography… They promoted their brands as luxury items. Like expensive watches and German-built cars, they alone could make you feel good about yourself. If you stayed at the Sheraton, or the Hilton, or the Intercontinental, you’d made it. Every little added comfort was at extra cost, but these men weren’t paying, so they didn’t care. They drank in the self-worth without any of the cost, and the companies shelled out to keep them happy.

Hong Kong from the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui

Hong Kong from the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui

Today we’re into the second decade of the 21st century and the 80s are a distant memory. The 5-star hotel chains still advertise in patronising soft-focus black-and-white in the Economist magazine, and their neon still lights the skylines of global cities. But stay in one today and it’s impossible not to get the feeling that they’ve been left behind by the rest of the world. Drop your bags on the bench and look around the room and it’s not the mini bar you’re interested in, or the quality of the complimentary stationery – you’re looking for a power point to charge your phone and a wireless network to check your emails. And 100+ room hotels that have been around for decades are uniformly woeful at providing either of those. Where are all the power points? Did people not need electricity in the 80s? Worse still, many of them take pleasure in charging premium daily rates for an internet connection far less reliable than your own $50-a-month plan at home. You open the fridge to survey the mini bar and speculate that there’s nothing in there that can’t be bought at the 7-11 across the road for literally a fraction of the price. You pick up the glossy hotel pamphlet and see the smiling faces on gym machines (you know the gym will be dark and airless), the 24-hour room service menu (how often do you need a ham sandwich at 3am?), and the list of pay-per-view blockbusters on offer (you’ve already got all the new movies you want loaded onto your laptop or iPad). The ubiquitous telephone is still there too, stalking you next to your head at night. But it’s only for emergencies – if the hotel is doing everything right, you won’t have a single use for it.
In fact, the only truly modern things that seem to work well in these hotels are the electronic card locks. But they’re not there for you, they’re there so reception can lock you out after 12 noon with the push of a button.

The Hong Kong skyline from the Avenue of the Stars on Kowloon peninsula

The Hong Kong skyline from the Avenue of the Stars on Kowloon peninsula

Placed alongside boutique hotels and Airbnb-style private rentals, the chain hotels, regardless of how many stars they think they are, leave travellers feeling cold and unsatisfied. The guests are herded like cattle and stacked like battery hens, the reception desks are staffed with overworked smiles, the pools attended by bored gentlemen with sullen faces and your complimentary cocktail is served by a costumed kid who doesn’t even drink. All you really want from them is a clean comfy room, a decent Skype connection, and someone who can tell you where a good restaurant is, and the small hotels and private-leased apartments do a far better job of that. With companies still sending their people enmasse to stay at these dinosaur chain hotels, these days it’s the businessmen who are envious of the rest of us.

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