As a young boy, I read voraciously about the place, and was fascinated by and fantasized constantly about Hangzhou. The novel that I have yet to give birth to is set in Hangzhou, during the Southern Song, when the city was capital of the Empire. one of my favourite dynasties. Beijing, with all its imperial glory, is still a relatively young metropolis in the span of Chinese history, with just a measly 600 hundred years of age as a Chinese capital.
Hangzhou as an urban area, on the other hand, was established approximately 2,000 years ago. With the natural beauty of the West Lake, it rose to become the “First District in the Southeast.” Around 1,000 years ago, it became the capital of Song China, after the court fled from Kaifeng up north, where fierce hordes of semi-nomadic Jurchens (ancestors of the Manchus) were all up in their territory.
To any educated Chinese, Hangzhou is still a byword for the elegance and the sophistication of a classical age. The art, the poetry, the literature, all that represented the lifestyle of a bygone era.
Hong Kong high school students forced to endure Chinese history taught by inept teachers often bitch about how militarily weak and emasculated the Southern Song was, and how stunted the map of China became back then after the gloriously expansive Tang Dynasty. “Xinjiang, Tibet, Vietnam and Korea weren’t even under Chinese control, for God’s sake!” The creatively ignorant and misinformed fail to realise that when money isn’t squandered on invasions and war, culture flourishes. Hangzhou soon became China’s political, economical and cultural centre, as well as PARTY central.
Hangzhou is where Nightlife in the contemporary sense started. A thousand years ago.
Speakeasies, bars, ginormous mega-restaurants and nightclubs, any kind of service or entertainment you could imagine sprang up along the West Lake. All the famous classical ci poetry, lyrics of ballads sung by singsong girls and courtesans, came from this era.
And this was where paper money was first issued. You didn’t have to barter for a bottle of wine (most probably a vintage Huadiao) in that bar of Zen minimalist décor (which was first invented and en vogue in Southern Song China before the aesthetic was appropriated by Japan) with your chickens like you’d have to in medieval Europe. You just paid with cash.
Hangzhou was so hot that Marco Polo still raved about it during the Yuan Dynasty when the Mongols took over a few hundred years after its heyday. Fortunately for the Italian traveller, the northern nomads wisely left the Chinese city and its infrastructure alone. However, in the second-tier modern city of HZ, contemporary nightlife just wasn’t my cup of Longjing.
I had taken an RMB11 cab ride to Baochu Road (named after an ancient pagoda close by) and arrived at this insane entertainment complex — all gaudy glitz, chandeliers and neon. I heard Gaga and then that retarded Sean Kingston song (duh duh duh duh danceflo’). Why is that dude so popular? His ditties are absolutely inane.
The clubbers were all brunettes dressed like Taiwanese pop stars. They were all very curious about my faded denim field cap, shiny matte black shirt underneath an oversized denim shirt, aubergine skinny jeans and black sequined FitFlops. But the narrative was completely different from the sophisticated banter I got two nights ago in Shanghai. It was like, in HZ, the clubbers and the clubs all dressed the part, but something was missing.
Nobody seemed to be having fun there. There was no soul; everyone was just participating in this modern charade of self-importance. I guess it was because the majority of them were young pimps and hookers, desperately trying not to look like they were looking for tricks. I remembered our Party Princess Editorial Assistant now Staff Writer, who grew up in HZ, telling me that her hometown’s nightlife is super laidback and chill, and that she used to perform live at a cool bar around the lake (girl can sing, I can attest from our karaoke sessions).
Then I realized that I had basically gone to the Lockhart Road of Hangzhou. Eew. I decided to retire straight to my balcony at the then newly built Four Seasons by the West Lake. Opening my latticed windows, I sat on the elegant wooden balustrade, listened to the soft rain drip from graceful South-of-the-River-style curved eaves, and did absolutely nothing.
A version of this column was first published 21 October 2010 in HK Magazine