Growing up, I disdained reading stories with sad or tragic endings. So, I formed the habit of reading the last chapter of a book first. If a happy ending was not assured, I would not commit my time to reading the front part, thus saving myself time, emotion, and a few tears. But today, I cry even reading a comic. Every book I read is like a sad story, bringing tears to my eyes. With any reading that extends beyond twenty minutes or so, my eyes automatically start watering, an annoying byproduct of ageing, at least in my case. So, it is with such strained eyes that I review photographs I took in 1977 in Hangzhou, now stored as low-resolution images in my computer. But this time, tears came to my eyes both from age, as well from my sweet and beautiful memories being abruptly taken away.
I have taken over a quarter million photographs in China since first visiting the country in 1974. The only time I would recall those nostalgic images would be when I revisited a place and wanted to compare the then and the now. So here I am, from a budding explorer to a seasoned one, revisiting Hangzhou after forty years of absence.


As the Chinese saying goes, “Above there is heaven, below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou,” a parody about the beauty and serenity of the two cities of coastal China. So, it is quite appropriate that, from the northern capital of Beijing, Qianlong, the most powerful and literarily sophisticated emperor of the Qing Dynasty, made six tours south of the Yangtze, each time stopping off at Hangzhou for extended stay. Thanks to the courtesy of a dear friend Betsy of New York, who was celebrating her 75th birthday with relatives and close friends, I stayed at the posh Amanfayun Resort, directly adjacent to the most famous Ling Yin monastery in the suburbs of Hangzhou. We were treated to banquets with special performances. I felt particularly honored that all her guests had been friends of hers for decades, whereas I was a relatively new friend, yet also included in her very select guest list. Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, gave a lively address, and I was also given the opportunity to share my experiences in China. As guests of this expensive resort, charging the likes of Rmb7,000 per one night stay, we have the small privilege of visiting the neighboring monastery anytime without entry fee. Otherwise, any visitor, pilgrim or tourist, would have to purchase a ticket for Rmb75 (USD12) to enter. Such an admission fee has become commonplace in China as the country has gone fully commercial. Even monks are becoming mercenaries.
“Ling Yin” literally means “spiritual and hidden”. Today, the monastery is hardly hidden, and certainly has compromised its spirituality by charging a fee to the large flow of supplicants who would otherwise be glad to make substantial financial offerings anyway. Busloads upon busloads of people arrive throughout the day. It is only 7am in the morning, and I venture to make a quick circuit walk around the periphery before exiting, as busloads of visitors are already arriving. But before the exit, there are several shops decked out with Buddhist memorabilia and mementos for visitors. While most are tourist trinkets, some items, especially cut glass or carved statues, command exorbitant prices. I suspect that such shops are commissioned to outside venders bent on cashing in on the goodwill of the pilgrims. While tourists flood every famous site around Old Town, the West Lake, and religious or historical locations, our group is entertained to a most selective, choreographed visit, no doubt the best of what Hangzhou has to offer today. Despite the large number of cruise boats, large and small, on the West Lake, our pavilion of a boat allows us to sail around the lake in a leisurely manner with tea and other niceties served on board, prepared by the Four Seasons Hotel. But the view, with all the car and foot traffic along the bank, is a far cry from that of 1977, a time barely at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Then there were few cars, none private, and only a few public buses, but lots of bicycles.


I remember seeing young men with push carts around town, and propaganda murals and posters depicting Hua Guofeng, the successor of Chairman Mao, as well as the downfall of Chiang Qing, disgraced wife of Chairman Mao. Today private cars, including all of the best-known brands, are choking up traffic. For the common folks there is a joke that normal people all use BMW - Bus, Metro and Walk. It takes us over an hour on a tourist bus to get from the West Lake to a specialty restaurant for lunch, as traffic comes to a stall during the weekends. Parked outside the restaurant is a full-gold Lamborghini. Some guard cones are set to protect it in case other cars might inadvertently scathe it. I remember a joke, possibly a real event, that I read some time ago. A Saudi prince was sent to college. He wrote to his father, “Dear Dad, Berlin is wonderful, people are nice and I really like it here. But Dad, I am a bit ashamed to arrive at my own college with my pure-gold Ferrari 599GTB, when all my teachers and fellow students travel by train.” The father wrote back, “My dear loving son, 20 million USD has just been transferred to your account. Please stop embarrassing us. Go and get yourself a train too.” Alibaba, one of the highest valued companies in the world, has its home in Hangzhou. Its new-gained wealth must provide the Gennie in answer to the wishes of many of China’s nouveau riche class. I have a most educational visit to Hu Qingyutang, an old Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) store founded in 1874. The architecture is exquisite, with carved motifs throughout the large premises.


The German apprentice who introduces the concepts of Chinese medicine to us has been studying here for eight years. His systematic explanation provides the most basic, yet comprehensive, understanding for us. Despite our group being mostly westerners, they learn to appreciate the long tradition of Chinese medicinal knowledge, including how it complements modern western medicine. There was museum display of the history of TCM as well as rooms with specimens of rare animals traditionally used in Chinese medicine, though these species are now endangered and no longer available in the open market. Visiting the dispensary and observing the pharmacists in action is perhaps the highlight of our visit. Hung above is a framed photograph of Xi Jinping visiting. It seems to ensure the correct dosage and portion are dispensed. During a sumptuous dinner banquet, we are entertained to a performance of the Sichuan face-changing act. The solo actor performs a rendition to the awe and applause of the audience, as his smooth and precise movements change the mask on his face within milliseconds, with a swing of his sleeves or a subtle turn of his body. In today’s world, it seems such a skill could be very useful in a figurative sense. Though for me, I ponder in my mind whether symbolically Hangzhou can be given such a facelift to the days in the 1970s, when serenity reined and people were simple yet contented. My friend Betsy Cohen from New York chose faraway Hangzhou for her 75th birthday celebration for a very obvious reason - her respect and affinity for Chinese culture, certainly not the city’s modern glamour.


Her son Daniel who organized the event is Chairman of a New York bank that Betsy founded some years ago. Besides being an executive of the first order, his PhD is in Medieval Chinese Linguistics. Historically, Hangzhou has been home to some of China’s literary greats, the likes of Su Dongpo and Yufei who wrote some of the most memorable classic poems and prose of all time. Today’s Hangzhou has gone through a major transformation. With prosperity, it seems that things are marching forward for the better. But perhaps it is also time to pause and think about returning Hangzhou to an epoch of the city’s literary past. A renaissance in the 21st Century would be very timely.

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