Reclaiming Old China

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“Stop,” my aunt told me. “You’re ruining my fantasy of where you are going.” She said this, one evening, over a very delicious home cooked dinner of Italian food. For her, the word “China” elicited a vision of vast rice fields and farm workers wearing pointy hats. You know, the sort of thing people read about in Pearl S. Buck novels? I had just told her that Changzhou had two Walmarts and several McDonald’s, KFCs, and Starbucks. That made her grimace. This conversation happened in 2013 and before I left New Jersey. I had just signed a contract with a college in Wujin, and I was waiting out the clock and calendar until I departed. Of course, I had been obsessively Googling “Changzhou” in the meantime.

Nothing ever fully prepares you for arriving into the Middle Kingdom for the first time. You can obsessively net search as much as you like. My first impressions of Changzhou were one of mild shock. Here was a huge city that constantly seemed to be under construction, and high rise after high rise apartment building looked the same. Nearly no traditional architecture seemed to be anywhere. Via Facebook, friends and family back in America asked me to describe what I was seeing. I thought of my aunt and replied, “There is a profound difference between old China and modern China.” This was a non-judgmental statement, too. I was more concerned with new beginnings and making a living wage for the first time in my life than being opinionated.

Of course, I made it a habit to go out and look for history as much as I could. I wanted, and still do, to learn more about my new home. This earnest desire to learn history is often shared by Chinese people I meet. The only difference is that they have spent most of their lives here. I haven’t. There is something else to consider, too. Some foreigners tend to think Chinese business people are all about money and nothing else. These are expatriates who hardly leave their homes, their bars, the tables of their expensive western restaurants, and their small circle of friends. They trade in stereotypes, and most of the Chinese people I meet do not fit that narrow worldview.

For instance, there is a man named Kevin Cao 曹克文. A very good friend introduced me to him. Kevin welcomed me into his home as a matter of humble pride. Currently, he is in the wine importation business, and he can afford to live in any part of Changzhou he pleases. Instead of opting for a life of high tech luxury in one of the many new residential developments, he chose to live in a traditional Chinese home dating back hundreds of years.

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This would be in Minyuanli 民元里 in Changzhou’s city center. This area is a restored bit of traditional Chinese architecture tucked into the Future City development next to the Injoy Mall and not that far all the expensive dance clubs are located on bar street. Minyuanli used to be derelict, but now it has been reopened with expensive craft shops, a cafe, a tea house, and more. In the times I had wandered in there, I didn’t know that people like Kevin also called this place home. IMG_20160615_105816

There are three dwellings at Minyuanli, and Kevin’s home is just one. These homes are absolutely nothing to look at from the outside. In Kevin’s case, the exterior modestly hides something he cares very deeply about. He has put a lot of time, effort, and money into restoring the place and making it as authentically “old China” as possible. This means a lot of antique furniture and fixtures. Real antiques have been worked into the decor. Calligraphy and traditional ink brush works of art hang on the wall. Even the stones in the open air sections of the home have been replaced with care. Having a home like this requires a lot of constant attention and a lot of time replastering walls. Something always needs to be fixed, but you can see in his smile how meaningful it is to him.

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As he, my friend, and I sat around drinking tea, I sort of forgot where I was. The peace and quiet of this place was not that far removed the constant car horns, traffic, and bustle of Lanling Road. Outside of his place, you can sometimes hear construction when you are standing in the Minyuanli compound. Here, things were tranquil, relaxed. It was very easy to see why Kevin was so quietly passionate about this place — why he finds solace in caring for it and its upkeep.

 

This was further reinforced after I left. My friend drove me back to Xinbei. I still had afternoon and evening English classes to teach. My friend and I discussed food, heavy metal, roasted Hong Kong duck, and Kevin’s home. In the back of my mind, though, I thought about the dynamic between what people call “old” and “modern” China. Why was I thinking of this? We were stuck in a traffic jam.

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