April 6, 2008
Fiona Zhu and I took a taxi to an old Xiguan great house yesterday. The house is now a museum, displaying the lifestyle of rich merchants of the past in the Liwan neighborhood of Guangzhou. The old Chinese home was like something out of a romantic novel, not only to me, but to Zhu Zhu, too; neither of us had ever lived in digs even remotely as elegant as this.
From the main street, you might almost miss the two grand houses tucked side-by-side: a white, colonnaded, European-style building with black shutters, butted up against a gray stone, traditional Cantonese house with a sloping green ceramic roof. The European house was once owned by a British banker, while the Xiguan house was once owned by a Chinese banker – Mr. Chen Qianzhong. Both homes faced a lush courtyard, where a high pavilion overlooked a koi pond, bridge, statues, garden greenery, and a dark, gnarled tower of rock.
The European house was once owned by a British banker, while the Xiguan house was once owned by a Chinese banker.
Inside the stately yet understated exterior of the Xiguan home, the interior was rich and elegant. The house was two stories. Entertaining, dining, and relaxing took place in the downstairs entry hall, living room, and study. Upstairs, bedrooms sat along a gallery overlooking the main rooms below. The kitchen and sewing room were in a separate building across a small courtyard. In the entry hall and the living room, large wooden frames with beautifully carved panels revealed lofts overhead, the main one of which was reserved for ancestor worship.
Entertaining, dining, and relaxing took place downstairs. Upstairs, bedrooms sat along a gallery overlooking the main rooms below.
Every room of the old Chen family home was filled with fine antiques and objects from 100 to several hundred years ago, many of them made from dark hardwoods. The beds had wooden canopies so intricately carved that they looked fit for royalty. In one room sat two wooden boxes linked by a pole, which a street peddler once carried over his shoulder, selling won ton from warm pots inside the boxes.
A street peddler once carried this over his shoulder, selling won ton from warm pots inside the boxes.
In another room stood three nearly life-size mannequins, dressed to represent a traditional wedding tableaux. The bride wore a narrow red gown. Her face was hidden beneath a red silk head covering, both as a show of modesty and to protect her from evil spirits. A sedan chair draped in red silk sat nearby, to carry the bride to the ceremony. A matchmaker was helping her prepare for the big day.
A matchmaker was helping the bride prepare for the big day.
I teased Fiona that the matchmaker was doing the same thing I hoped to do for her. Fiona has said that she’d like to get married, but even though her country has more men than women, she’s not hopeful about finding the right husband in China. “Many Chinese men are still very old-fashioned. They try to completely control the lives of their wives,” she said. I told her that this sometimes happens in my country, too, though perhaps it’s not quite as prevalent. However, I promised her that if she came to stay with me for a few weeks in America, I’d try to introduce her to some nice young men. Her face lit up at the suggestion of dating a Western man, and she put a hand on my shoulder. “Oh, thank you. You are so nice! I would like that.”
Fiona has said that she’d like to get married, but she’s not hopeful about finding the right husband in China.
Fiona said that she admires my freedom, that she wants to travel more and find a husband who shares her interests, “someone who has an open mind and allows me the freedom to live an independent life. But I also want someone who loves me.” Part of me thought she might have to get in a long line, while another part of me thought about how lucky I am to have found those things. Fiona wants a life of adventure; she likes to hike, watch movies, and read books. She seems a lot like me, and I confess I do take an interest in seeing her find the partner she dreams of.
On the other hand: “What if I help you find an American guy and it doesn’t work out?” I paused. “Sometimes offering to help someone is a slippery slope.” I’m not sure she understood the phrase, but I didn’t elaborate. I let the offer stand.
Liwan Lake Park is a lovely place to relax in the midst of this industrial city.
After the museum house, we visited nearby Liwan Lake Park, a lovely place to relax in the midst of this industrial city. The great-house-turned-teahouse that we’d visited the previous day stood at one end of the lake.
The shuttlecock kickers were amazingly adroit as they bounced the birdie from person to person.
We passed a few dozen people gathered in a courtyard in small circles, kicking a shuttlecock like a Hacky Sack. The shuttlecock kickers were amazingly adroit, striking elaborate poses and backbends as they bounced the birdie from person to person. This game is quite popular in China.
I asked Fiona if she liked Yueju. She shook her head, “but my mother like very much. So maybe old people really like.”
In another section of the park, we visited a lake-top pavilion, where a man and woman stood with two microphones and a boom box, singing Yueju, or traditional Chinese opera. I asked Fiona if she liked this kind of music. She shook her head, “but my mother like very much. So maybe old people really like.” Evidently. All the people gathered around the impromptu performance were sleepy looking oldsters. I whispered, “My husband would say it sounds like someone is killing a cat.” Fiona covered her mouth and giggled, her eyes sparkling in naughty agreement.
Families cruise around Liwan Lake in paddle boats.
We continued on, watching families in paddle boats cruise around the lake, under curving bridges, and past bright magenta flowers and weeping willows — Fiona had never heard that name before, and I explained that the trees appeared to lean over the water and cry. She was delighted with the description and stopped to scribble it into the small notebook she always carries. The book is filled with notes from our trip, and with words and phrases she has picked up from me, such as: altar, bougainvillea, when in Rome do as the Romans do, and her favorite, hasta la vista.
At one end of the park sat a tiny amusement park with dull rides for tots.
At one end of the park sat a tiny amusement park with dull rides for tots. Tinny-sounding American children’s songs played over loudspeakers, as a handful of baffled toddlers rode a multicolored caterpillar around a flat track without a single bump, curve, or drop. I sang Polly Wolly Doodle along with the music and Fiona clapped her hands in delight. “You’re too easily entertained,” I said. She found that comment very funny, though she didn’t write it in her notebook.
I mentally wrote in mine: “Chinese woman seeks Western man with sense of humor, or it’s hasta la vista, baby.”