Monday, August 29, 2011

Zhongshan: Guangdong and Her Famous Son

Sun Yat-sen (or Sun Zhongshan, as he is more commonly known in China) is a big hero of mine. He rose from fairly humble beginnings to become one of the 20th century’s most notable statesmen, completely changing the lives of a fifth of the world’s population and forming Asia’s first modern, independent republic. He also laid a lot of blueprints for later Chinese progress, which came to fruition in the 1950s in Taiwan and in the post-Deng era in Mainland China. If Sun was around today, he’d likely be nodding in approval (a certain other Chinese leader, one from Hunan Province with a famous jacket, would not be so approving). I admire him for his nerve, his innovation, and his steadfast beliefs. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of his methods, I also think that he started a huge change in the way not just Asian countries set their goals, but also in the way the West and Asia interact. He’s flawed, but he’s a cool guy.

Sun Yat-sen. This image is in the public domain in China.
He was also born and raised quite close to where I’m staying, in Cuiheng Village, now part of Zhongshan City – they named it after him posthumously. The village still exists, although in a much different form, and the family house that replaced Sun’s birth house during his own lifetime is still there, now surrounded by a park and several museums in a free-admission complex. There was no way I was not going to visit.

Zhongshan City (中山市) is located roughly 120 kilometers by road to the west of Shenzhen – a hop, skip and jump across the Pearl River Delta and an easily day-trippable distance. It is very much a Cantonese city: unlike Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Zhuhai, Zhongshan hasn’t really received much migration. It very much keeps much of the “ye olde Guangdong” allure: the cab drivers barely speak Mandarin, and the local Cantonese dialect is the language of the street, of the conversation, and even in some cases of officialdom. (Rarity: the bus announcements are in the Cantonese language alongside Mandarin). Besides the Sun Yat-sen complex, Zhongshan is also noted for a minor pagoda and for being a great place to buy traditional Guangdong products.

On Sunday, I went.

Getting from Shenzhen to other cities in Guangdong is pretty easy. Bus travel in China is popular and cheap, and Shenzhen has several huge bus stations to choose from. I got to Futian Bus Station at 7:30am and bought a ticket for a roughly 8am departure. 

Taking the bus in China is an experience. Firstly, bus stations, though more automated than those in America, with security checks and printed, bar-coded tickets, are chaos. Crowds and crowds of people hover around the gates, and when boarding for a bus is announced, it’s a sudden crush to get on board. Secondly, the buses are hugely varied in their clientele, ranging from village people coming back from the big city to the urban sophisticate going back to visit relatives. Thirdly, buses are loud: people talk loudly, and it’s not rude to talk into your cell phone. People are also more outgoing on the bus.

The bus left at 8:05am. I talked with my seatmate for a while – a Zhongshan native who lives in Shenzhen, and was going back to visit his niece for two days. The bus passes first through the industrial areas of Shenzhen and Dongguan, then over the very long Humen Bridge – just over the point where the Pearl River fans out into the sea – then through rural Nansha and north Zhongshan into the city itself. There are mountains and streams and rice paddies and great views en route. For two hours, it’s quite a ride.

On the Humen bridge, looking northwest. 

An agricultural area of Nansha. This is orchard-land.
I got to Zhongshan at 10:00am. The bus dropped us off in an area of the city center filled with tourist shops and a fancy hotel. Zhongshan, despite its relatively “low” status compared to its neighbors, has definitely received more than its share the Chinese economic boom, and is quite prosperous. I saw a lot of construction going on, and this fancy hotel seemed pretty big for somewhere so close to Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Macau. The shops, however, were a cornucopia of good old Guangdong products. I spent close to an hour browsing around for presents. I got some fancy confectionary for my recently graduated friend, and another food gift for someone else. All my presents this trip seem to be food-related. I think I’m going through an “eat your gift” phase.

Then it was time for the park itself. I took a city bus to get there – a forty-five minute drive that took us outside the city proper through several villages before reaching the destination: the Sun Yat-sen Former Residence Park.

The entrance to the park. On the left, one of Sun Yat-sen's alternate names: Sun Wen (Sun Man in Cantonese).
The park is beautiful. It’s well maintained and clean, with trees and benches, stones and fountains. The foliage is lush. The restored village houses and Sun Yat-sen’s house are to the north, while to the west there’s a huge museum commemorating Sun’s life and work. The environment is one of peace, contemplation, and honor. This place is notable as a major pilgrimage site for China’s more nationalist types. It’s also a popular day-trip for Guangzhou and Zhongshan locals, given that admission is free.

My route took me through Sun Yat-sen’s old house, restored houses of Zhongshan village, the park, and then the museum. Sun’s house is quite pretty: it is painted in a mauve and yellow pattern, and has a certain celebratory feel to it: it is bright! The famed tamarind tree that Sun planted on his return from Hawaii is still there, twisted after a storm in 1931. It’s a popular picture spot. The older houses are well-restored, but present an unusually gay depiction of life in a village. It definitely was not that comfortable – I’ve done enough research to know this. A couple of the houses are hard to find. I walked into one and was simultaneously chilled and thrilled by the eerie quiet I found there. I hadn’t heard this kind of silence yet in Asia.

Sun Yat-sen's old house

Inside another restored house. Some of the furnishings are original, some aren't.

Part of the restored village. I really like the windows.
The museum is interesting, but very much plays to the hyper-patriotic expectations of many visitors; someone familiar with China would definitely identify a lot of the phrasing and depictions as fitting into a certain expectation (e.g. the lack of Chiang Kai-shek). What I found interesting was the huge collection of photographs, manuscripts, and artifacts relating to Sun’s life that are maintained there, including his family’s tea set. There are also quite a few modern paintings and depictions of events in his illustrious life. 

The entrance to the museum, with Sun Yat-sen's statue and curtains in  Republic of China colors.

An enlarged version of a 1910-ish photograph of the Sun clan, pretty much taken right where this photo was taken 101 years later. 
I spent almost three hours in the park. By this point, it was 2:30pm, and I hadn’t had much since breakfast – just a bao in the city center. I walked to a nearby village and got some lunch from a local shop: vegetables and rice. I think the owner was a bit surprised to see a tall white guy speaking broken Cantonese; he seemed to be staring at me as I ate. The food was good though.

Afterwards, I took a walk around the village: some shops, a few homes. It seems to be a servicing center for the nearby museum-institutional complex and for the main road passing by it. I walked down the drag for a few minutes, passing by rice fields and locals on motorbikes. Zhongshan has a lot of motorbikes. I also spoke with a local for a few minutes in an awkward mix of Cantonese and Mandarin. He told me that the village was fairly typical until tourism boomed in the capitalist era, when it became fairly well off, along 
with Cuiheng, due to the influx of Mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese tourists.

Walking towards Shimen village.

Shimen village. I ate at the place with the yellow awning.
Then I headed back again through the villages on the bus, after stopping in another village for some tea, 
and took the bus back to Shenzhen. I got back to the city around 5:30pm and to my apartment at 6.

I was really glad I went, even if Zhongshan’s not the biggest or most interesting place in the world. I got to see some really interesting historical sites, and also was able to visit the park dedicated to and birthplace of one of my favorite historical figures. It was also a journey to see “normal” Guangdong-given that Shenzhen is a city of migrants. It was also a great experience to practice my Cantonese. Zhongshan people are really happy when someone tries to speak Cantonese: they’re really proud of the language. I’m also happy with the little progress I’ve made thus far.

Zhongshan is a special place: it, despite modernization, and wealth, and a constant influx of visitors, has maintained a unique identity, and offers a different side to Cantonese culture and history that glitzy Hong Kong does not. It’s definitely a town anyone interested in Chinese history should visit, and certainly a 
place to learn about Guangdong, China, and the way Chinese people view their past – and present.

Greetings from Zhongshan! (Yes, I look like a tourist. But let's face it. I could dress in anything and I'd look like a tourist. Because I'm a tall white guy.)

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