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A Letter From China

The Wonders of China - Part Nine

The Grand Canal

By Cynthia Muak

Wonders 9- The Grand Canal
(awaiting part eight)

Though I had read a lot about the Grand Canal, and seen many pictures and videos of it. I have never actually sailed on it.
So, with my son having just left home for Uni in Melbourne, I planning to leave Hong Kong the following year, and my visa for China still good, I thought this was a good time to give China one last hit.

I telephoned Lee A M (Annie to me) in Hefei, informing her I planned to fly up to Hangzhou in a fortnight, and wanted to know whether she would like to join me there. We could go 'crab crawling' along the fresh water lakes by the Grand Canal from Hangzhou up to Zhenjiang.

Annie was a girl I met in 1992, when I was in Hefei for business with my Swiss boss, Mr H. She was a receptionist in the hotel we were staying in. She had been most helpful (especially with computer and photocopy machines early in the mornings), from the minute we checked into the hotel, until the moment of our departure five-days later.

Since that first encounter, I had been back to Hefei five times on business, and had met her family on countless occasions. Her father worked for the Waterworks Department, her mother at the Agricultural Department, and her younger brother at one of the local government's electrical subdivisions. Talking of having all your essential bases covered. This family had them: housing, food, water, and electricity! I am not joking about food. Whenever I was in Hefei, Mrs. Lee always managed to find the sweetest locally grown strawberries, and have Annie deliver them to me first thing in the mornings. If I was already out at Hefei Factory, she would leave them in the fridge in my room. Absolutely wonderful; 'salt-of-the-earth' people.

That time I called, Annie and her family were planning to visit Huangshan. They were waiting for their train tickets. Autumn was a good time to travel. With National Day holiday so near they were afraid they might not be allocated tickets. Mr. Lee held quite a senior position in his department, but not senior enough it seemed, when it came to ticket distribution for important holiday jaunts by his Human Resource unit.

"Annie, forget Huangshan this year. Get the family to Hangzhou. Tell your papa and mama to go for hairy crabs this year with Auntie Mak."

So it was all decided. I met the Lee family at Hangzhou railway station 10-days later, and we made straight for the wharfs. Mr. Lee had managed to contact an old Hangzhou classmate, whose brother was running some kind of barge up and down the canal. We were to make some kind of sweet deal with him directly. This barge, with no name - just numbers painted all over the sides - was surprisingly roomy, now that all goods were offloaded, and clean. The owner was known around the canal as Old Soo. But I simply could not think of him as Old Soo - you see, Old Soo in Mandarin sounded like 'rat'. No one looked less like a rat than Old Soo with his happy Buddha smile on his pleasant round face. I decided to call him Mickey and his Mrs Minnie (after Disney's characters. If he didn't have such a belly paunch I would have liked to call him Popeye and his wife Olive), and I told him to me, he was Mickey and his wife Minnie. He was okay with this.

I told Mickey what we wanted: a cruise up the canal, from Hangzhou up to Zhenjiang, stopping at all the major lakeside ports for hairy crabs and when necessary spend the nights at some local inn.

"What about Yangzhou? Beautiful old town. I believe you looking for some old world charm. Yangzhou is also tops with culinary skills."

"Sure, why not. I love Yangzhou fried rice. How long will it take? Its okay for me but the Lees have a time frame."
Mickey looked at Mr. Lee and asked, "Old Lee, 2 extra days okay for you?"

"Come on, Mr. Lee. Say yes. After all I don't know whether I'll be back this way again after I leave Hong Kong." Very persuasive point because soon we were on our way, enjoying the busy canal traffic and thinking of the crabs we would be having at Chongde, our first stop along Taihu, the lake famous for its crabs.

Though the roe of male crabs tasted better, only female crabs were available that time of the year. The crabs at Chongde were small in size, but packed full with roe. Baskets full were being loaded onto barges similar in size and style as Mickey's. I was told these would be delivered to the inland towns along the lakes' minor network of canals and waterways. The water along the network was not deep or wide enough for the larger barges. Crabs could be found in the lakes further inland but crabs from Taihu were in great demand. I was enjoying my crabs and ginger tea and could hardly believe what we were charged. Maybe the stall owner was a good friend of Mickey or what. There were seven of us, averaging five crabs each; we carried off another 20 live ones in a basket. We paid RMB 500 for the whole lot including packets of ginger tea if we wanted to steam the crabs for supper later.

I kept my big mouth shut not daring to utter 'Unbelievable' when the bill came. In Hong Kong RMB 500 would give me HK$ 380. With HK$ 380 I would only be able to get about seven of the same size crabs, but definitely 30% less roe and not so fresh. At Chongde we got 55 crabs plus 4 other vegetable dishes! I could see this trip was going to be paradise.
After Jiaxing, another harbour along the canal, where we binged on crabs again, the novelty of sailing up the canal soon wore off and we began delving into the history of the canal and the engineering feat it accomplished with its locking devices.

The Grand Canal is the world's oldest and longest canal, far surpassing the next two grand canals of the world: the Suez and the Panama. The Suez being sea-level and 100 miles long (75 miles of which was excavated), joining the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. It was built between the years 1858 and 1869 by French engineers.

The Panama, only 48 miles long joined the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea. The same French engineer designed this canal and began work on it in 1880. By 1893 all work on the project was abandoned. He could not continue because the project was beset by many problems he did not foresee or take into account: diseases killing a high number of his workers, natural disasters like earthquakes, etc. etc.

Americans took up the project again in 1904 after they succeeded in designing locks to allow for water storage at different elevations. When they completed this project in 1914, the Americans claimed this engineering achievement one of the 7 wonders of the modern world ... That was because they had not before seen the Grand Canal of China.

The main natural rivers of central and northern China flowed from west to east. In the 5th Century BC, the Chinese ruler wanted to break with nature to provide a more efficient and central grain transportation network so he suggested a north to south waterway and tasked his court officials to build such a way.

The building of the oldest parts of the canal dated back to 486 BC. It was extended during the Qin Dynasty, and later the various sections were combined and extended by Emperor Yangdi of the Sui Dynasty, during 518 - 610 AD, and the Qing Dynasty.

The canal is officially 1,804 km long, with 24 pound-locks, and some 60 bridges. If one took in the offshoot canals connecting Louyang to the North-South Canal, the total length of the Canal would be more than 2,000 miles.

At one point the Canal must ascend the mountains of Shandong at a summit of 42m. Ships in this Canal did not have trouble reaching higher elevations, after a system of the pound lock was invented in the 10th century during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), by government official and engineer Qiao Weiyo. The first such system of pound locks was built in 983 AD to control a network of feeder lakes and lateral canals, which were being constructed. The different sections of the Canal traversed five rivers: the Hai, the Yellow, the Huai, the Yangtze, and Qiantang. Thus, the Canal represented a remarkable achievement in hydraulic engineering for imperial China.

For our trip, Mickey told us we would make about 600 km. This might sound like a short distance but with stopovers and sometimes changing over to smaller boats, to visit the surrounding narrower maze of canals that serviced the main canal, it seemed like we were forever on a waterbed.

All the towns we passed or stopped at looked the same - ancient. Rows of narrow, grey-tiled roof, white-washed wall old houses lined the banks. Hawkers were all over the place, tempting all and sundry with their wares. Seated around the makeshift tables were customers busy talking and hardly eating, without a care in the world. There were some very bright spots. Pots of beautiful, colourful sweet smelling roses, flowering, and fruiting pomegranate trees sat on the flat surface of the canal bank walls. It was hard for me to imagine the brutality of the Cultural Revolution of the '70s against this peaceful, laidback and relaxing backdrop of village life.

I looked towards the back of the barge. Annie's younger brother, A T (Tony to me) was quietly studying the English books he had brought along. He was going to sit for another TOEFL paper in a few months. He did one last year but he was hoping for higher grading this time.

Everyone seemed to have something to do. Mrs. Lee, Minnie and Annie were huddled together deep in discussion, enjoying pine nuts with their Dragon Well green tea. Mr. Lee and Mickey were in the steering cabin enjoying tea and keeping an eye on canal traffic. I decided to lie down on the long bench, which had doubled up as 'bed' when Mickey said it was not necessary to waste money on inns. There were enough bedding and blankets on the barge. "Wait till we get to Suzhou" he had said.

By late afternoon of the 2nd day, we arrived at Suzhou. After Mickey paid some docking fees and collected his receipt, we transferred to another small boat (sampan to us people from Hong Kong). The boatman, a friend of Mickey, rowed us through the narrow waterways away from the main canal. Round little bends and under two arched bridges, he deposited us at some stone steps, which led to a small inn about 30 meters away from the riverbank. Lots of rowdy welcome greeted us; obviously, Mickey was a special friend of the innkeeper. After some hush-hush talk, we were taken to our rooms. The three men shared a room; the three local ladies shared a room. I was given a room all to myself. I felt bad but only put up some feeble objection out of good manners. To be honest I was relieved I did not have to share my room.

After a quick shower, we went for crabs again. Tell the truth, we were getting sick of crabs, but no one in his or her right mind would refuse hairy crabs while in Suzhou. Crabs sold in Suzhou supposedly came from the famous Yangcheng Lake. I was more interested in their air-dried sausages, which were hung out to dry in front of dwellings, or any easily accessible and available space. I bought four whole cartons of sausages and waxed duck and pork meat; the lady thought I was going to buy up her entire stock. She didn't know my shopping was done - I would have enough gifts to pass around in Hong Kong.

Now, we would attack the crabs. Mr. Innkeeper had arranged a crab feast for us at his place. Four of his friends were invited to join the party. As we were jollying on with eating, drinking and singing, I suddenly realised what was going on. It was obvious to me that the 'friends' were invited along to have a 'lookover' at Annie and Tony as prospective in-laws? I didn't blame them one bit, if indeed that was their intention. After all, Annie was quite a beauty in a conservative, subdued Chinese way. Maybe considered a little old as she was about 30/31, but well educated.

During China's early days of 'openness', you were considered well educated if you could communicate in English. Tony was a good-looking lad of 26, hard working and ambitious. From the table talk I found out, he was a table tennis champion at his work place. I could tell these people were impressed, especially when told Annie worked for the best hotel in Hefei frequented mostly by foreigners. That was how she met Auntie Mak. During the past 2 years all my Swiss engineers only stayed at her hotel, whenever they were in Hefei to supervise the installation of or check on our machinery at Hefei Factory.

Sometimes our engineers would stay at her hotel for as long as a month. And when they probed Tony with more questions, his parents simply told them that their son had dreams of emigrating to USA. The parents were oblivious to this 'getting to know you' party, and happily accepted it as a generous gesture from Mr. Innkeeper. If something good came out of this for Annie, I would be most pleased, as these 'friends' seemed like very decent and cultured folks.

A few hours after leaving Suzhou, we made a quick stop at Wuxi to pick up some fresh crabs, and a huge pot of Wuxi stewed pork. We then continued on to Zhenjiang, where I bought a carton of Zhenjiang vinegar that Mickey had ordered for me earlier. Mickey also recommended we try the crabs sold here. They came from a little-known man-made lake on a tiny island on the Yangtze estuary, at the north-eastern end of Zhenjiang. The crabs were reared in fresh-sea water from the estuary, giving the crabs an unique taste. Because the annual quantity reared was not large, these crabs fetched a very high price, and there were never enough to be sold beyond the precinct. Wow! must try, especially with Zhenjiang vinegar.

Four hours after leaving Zhenjiang, we finally arrived at Yangzhou, a city surrounded by canals, waterways, lakes and photogenic gardens. The place and buildings looked ancient and typical Chinese, naturally - mossy stones and rocks; the buildings with curved orangy coloured roofs and the usual vermilion coloured pillars. The streets were lined with ginkgo trees, their leaves no longer green but had turned to a very attractive yellow. Mickey packed us onto an open truck he happened to espy in front of a noodle stall by the river bank. He took us to see his 'boss', a Mr. Jin, who had been shipping goods down to Nanjing, Shanghai, and Pearl River Delta, using Mickey's transportation service for the past 33 years. When Mickey was still an apprentice learning the ropes of the trade from his master, Boss Liu who had since passed on and left the business to Mickey. He was happy to meet Mickey's family from Hefei and friends from Hong Kong, and insisted on taking us out to dinner that night.

I thought I would like to try the real thing in Yangzhou, so I asked for yangzhou fried rice. Mr. Jin suggested I should try something special, rather than the very common fried rice. Tofu was the big thing in Yangzhou. Tofu sliced very thinly and delicately, and then manually, with knife, shredded until they resemble thin noodles. When my bowl of tofu noodles came, I couldn't make myself mess up this 'bowl of art'. Another dish I thoroughly enjoyed was huge beef meatballs, which had been slowly steamed in water for 2 hours to get rid of the fat. After that, the meatballs were transferred to a serving pot containing delicious chicken soup. Eat this with the tofu noodles and you'll never want to eat other types of noodles again.

Tasty, smooth, yet non greasy; and Yangzhou's steamed crabmeat dumplings are out of this world. The dough pastry wrap is so thin it's unbelievable that it can hold a colourful mixture of crab meat with minced tofu, mashed carrot, and topped with a generous dollop of crab roe inside, without splitting. Of course, fried mandarin fish with special pickled sauce, scallions, ginger topped with pine nuts was another Yangzhou specialty. In the end Mr. Jin relented and ordered special Yangzhou fried rice for me.

All good things must come to an end. Mr. Jin insisted we spend the night at his ancestral home, rather than checking into a local inn. I wasn't too keen, but since the others did not mind, I went along. I could accept the washing facilities, which was usually, water drawn from a well. But toilet -yuck! Squat toilet - and I already had my fair share of the 'squats' along the canal towns. My room in the Suzhou inn had a seat toilet that was why I was reluctant to leave it. Annie told me that was the only seat toilet in the whole inn. What face for me! And I thanked her and Mr. Innkeeper for it.

Mr. Jin also had a large shipment of ginkgo nuts for Mickey to deliver to Nanjing. Because of this, Mickey insisted we travel along with him to Nanjing. Our original plan was to sail back to Zhenjiang with Mickey where we would board the train for Nanjing. We would spend a day together in Nanjing, then the Lee family would continue by train back to Hefei and I would take a plane out of Nanjing back to Hong Kong. With this change in plans we could now enjoy an extra 1-1/2 days with Mickey, which was fine with us.

I insisted that Mickey and his wife leave his barge and join us on land in Nanjing. He took us to a hostel specially used by party members. With his, Mr. Lee's and Mrs. Lee's membership cards, we got the rooms at greatly discounted prices.
At the end of the trip, Mickey refused to take the money we had agreed upon. He told us this was the first holiday he and his wife had taken in 20 years. And they had enjoyed our company and the trip immensely. On top of that, he didn't have to spend even one yuan.

We had paid for all expenses incurred on the trip. And taking us along to meet his customer-friends had given him a lot of face. When I insisted, he graciously took a nominal sum of 200 yuan to cover cost of gasoline. I felt really bad about this and finally got him to accept at least 500. We almost came to blows over this. (Minnie Soo didn't realise it yet, but I had left a carton of Suzhou sausage and waxed duck and pork meat for them at the back of the barge.)
Can you beat that? I had a feeling this trip was going to land me in Paradise. It did. Mickey was a 24 carat golden contact. Mr. Lee was smart to have gotten in touch with his university classmate in Hangzhou who put us in contact with his brother who really made our cruise an experience I would never forget.

Over time, and with so many engineering developments causing topographical and environmental changes in China, some parts of the canal have gone dry; some parts, not being deep enough, only good for smaller boats to ply between simple jetties. But there is no denying this canal is the life-line for millions and millions of Chinese people be it transportation, trading, job opportunities and communications.

Today, the Grand Canal, a historic and economic transportation network, has evolved into a major tourist landmark and attraction. Canal cruises offer tourists an excellent way to see China by boat. One really has to be sailing on the canal to really appreciate its grand scale in engineering achievement!

During this trip I was constantly bugged by a stone in my shoe. Why had it taken the UNESCO World Heritage Centre people so long to grant World Heritage Site status to China's Grand Canal? (Only granted in early 2014, I think). After all, it is more than 2,500 years old. It would seem to me these people could not believe China had the engineering genius and skill to come up with the elevation locking device solution, to harness and store water above sea level, as earlier as the 10th Century - more than a thousand years before the Americans succeeded with the Panama Canal!!!


If you believe in Happy Endings, please read on:
In 1995 when I was living in Australia, I received wedding invitation from Annie. She was to marry the elder son of Mrs Yang, one of Suzhou Innkeeper's friends who was at 'the' crab party. Annie's future father-in-law had been working in a Chinese restaurant in a Tokyo hotel for the past 30 years. He decided to retire and return to China to open a restaurant in Suzhou. He wanted his son and Annie to run the establishment. I couldn't have been happier for the young couple.

As for Antony (Tony to me), Annie asked me to look out for work opportunities for him in Australia. I went to see a Mr. V whom I was recently introduced to as the head of Immigrants' Affairs Liaison Office in Shepparton, Victoria. This town had a very large Italian community, plus other minority groups: Filipino, Indonesian, Greek, Eastern European and an emerging illegal group of Mainland Chinese labourers. Mr. V complained to me that he was having problems with these labourers. They were very hard working and asked for very little in return: just a place to lay down their heads at night, 3 simple basic meals a day and low wages.

Of course, the owners from the area's fruit orchards loved them, but the Australian workers had lodged several official complaints with him. I suggested maybe he could use the help of a Chinese man to handle this problem: there would be no language problem, he could help these labourers apply for residence permits and he could arrange for them to attend trade training classes, etc. If Mr. V could arrange for Antony a study-work visa and a place to stay in Shepparton, all other problems would be taken care of. Antony would bring with him some money so there would be no financial hardship initially. And he would soon be earning with study-work permit. Antony finally arrived in Shepparton in 1996 and before I left Australia in 1998, Mr. V told me Tony was working out very well and was already a full time employee on his staff list. Mr. V wanted me to talk with Tony to make sure he wouldn't be tempted away from Shepparton. Mr. V never wanted Tony to ever leave Immigrants' Affairs Liaison Office. If it was Tony's wish, he would help him secure Australian citizenship. Hallelujah!

That's it for Cynthia's most interesting Wonders of China.

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Cynthia Muak and Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference link back to this website.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from this work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

The views and recollections expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of those of China Expats. Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.

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