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Memory of Hangzhou: The floating dancers

Thrilling theatricals staged on the changing waters of West Lake in Hangzhou
Thrilling theatricals staged on the changing waters of West Lake in Hangzhou

My trip to Zhejiang, eastern coastal province of China, was a hodgepodge of humdrum sightseeing and thrilling artistic performance. Its packed itinerary featured visits to the province’s press group, trade city, villages and museums, automotive industries, artificial intelligence (AI) town, media forum that lasted for hours,  as well as an enthralling theatricals staged by dozens of entertainers swaying on the changing but mellowed waters of West Lake in Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang, were tiresome.

Never in my life had I embarked on a five-day trip with four hotel check-ins and check-outs. “Tomorrow we will leave this hotel, do not forget your belongings,” our director would announce on WeChat, a messaging app, after each day outing.

The five-day trip began with a media forum in Hangzhou, where journalists, experts and researchers from Asia, Europe, America and Africa, discussed media cooperation, which aimed at creating mutual respect and understanding in an increasingly integrated and interdependent but complex world.

Zhu Guoxian, a high-ranking official of the Zhejiang provincial committee of China’s communist party, said the forum was an “opportunity to further strengthen exchanges and cooperation with international sister cities’ media, jointly expand communication channels and promote integrated communication.”

Then we began to explore the city with a visit to the National Silk Museum opened in February 1992. There, we were schooled about the state-level museum, which features an excellent collection of relics excavated along the Silk Road to tell the story of Chinese silk’s glorious 5000-year journey. On a chilly morning, we visited Orchid Pavilion, a sacred place of Chinese calligraphy, where a game of poem and wine-drinking were held on both sides of a winding water.

We stopped briefly at the Yellow Wine Museum, where we witnessed wine-making technique after a firsthand village-life experience in Songxi. Here, dozens of tourists swarmed into an enclosed courtyard, joined in the making of Chinese pasta and danced to local music at a drinking joint. Aged men and women sitting in rows welcomed their august guests with cheery faces. I was marvelled at Songxi’s stunning scenery, rich culture and hospitality.

Most of the existing ancient buildings in Songxi were built in the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912), covering an area of 54,600 square meters. Ancient dwellings, though densely built, are in a harmonious layout. The appearance of these buildings change with terrains. The architecture design of fire protection walls and fronts are various, adding vividness into the village. Ancestral halls, enclosed courtyards, traditional Chinese theatres and main halls are delicately carved, painted and sculptured. Mansions of some distinguished families of the Qing Dynasty have the quality of simplicity and elegance with dark bricks, lime-painted walls and dark tiles.

The architectural structures of various buildings are well-designed with exquisite decoration such as shielding walls, gate towels, window carvings, girders, patios and wall paintings, which are known for their style, fine details and craftsmanship. The flagstone roads extend to different directions, winding like a maze. With hundreds of years of ups and downs, these ancient buildings are still well-preserved and form a large-scale ancient architectural complex.

Amid the cultural experience, we were treated to a slap-up Zhejiang cuisines, many of which I was not familiar with despite spending about eight months in China. The experience then switched swiftly to achievements in technological innovations. We toured Hangzhou Future Sci-tech City, where everything artificial intelligence is being experimented, and Intelligent E-valley, which serves as the Internet of Things industrial park that demonstrates the latest achievements of smart city. Walking into the 1,700-square meter Intelligent E-valley exhibition hall, one will truly understand the meaning of ‘smart city makes a better life.’

A relaxing respite came on the last day when we experienced an evening spectacle of music, dance, and stunning visuals christened ‘Impression West Lake.’ The large on-water live-action show featuring a symphony orchestra and dazzling night scenes was entirely staged on the gentle waters of West Lake in Hangzhou, with natural mountains and real water as its backdrop.

Located at the heart of Hangzhou, West Lake is stunning natural scenes, which alternate with the change of China’s four-season weather. In spring, it presents a scene of green willows on which mist floats, with green peach between. In summer, it grows a vast field of lotus with luxuriate and green leaves, which extend to the horizon. In autumn, the bright moon will have its shadow reflecting on the three pools, with the sweet scent of Osmanthus blossoms floating in the air. And in winter, white snow will cover the broken bridge, with red plum dotting the scene like red fire.

West Lake does not only boast of the beauty of mountains and rivers, as well as the mystical charms of deep valleys, but also rich cultural relics and historic sites. All of them combine to skillfully integrate nature, humanity, history and art.

Aged men and women sitting in rows welcomed guests in Songxi Village, Zhejiang Province
Aged men and women sitting in rows welcomed guests in Songxi Village, Zhejiang Province

After a wearying, full-day jaunt, we marched toward West Lake to enjoy the highlight of the city’s nightlife. The ‘Impression West Lake’ was first staged for G20 leaders in October 2016 when the city hosted the summit. It opened to the public in May 2017.

The captivating artistic creation presents the history of the West Lake and beautiful natural scenery as the creative source, reflecting the historical details and Hangzhou’s ancient folklore and mythology. The stage platform lies three centimetres beneath the water surface, creating an illusion that the dancers are floating on water.

The show consists of nine acts and expresses the famous thousand-year-old Chinese poem through a display of music, dance and stunning visuals.

Soon, the stage was set. Spectators settled into hundreds of seats, signature tune blared from loudspeakers and darkness fell upon the scene. In the ensuing darkness emerged a simulated 14th-day moon drifting in the air on a spring night. Shortly afterwards, dozens of young dancers surfaced, bearing round-shaped gadgets flecked with yellow light. The unison oscillation of their legs and hands was greeted with admiration from the spectators.

They performed what they called ‘A Moonlit Night on the Spring River’, a well-known poem of the Tang Dynasty and one of the most popular traditional Chinese songs. The work plays like an elegant scenic scroll painting, depicting a scene with a moon, flowers and a river on a lonely spring night.

While we were still savouring this brilliant masterpiece, a traditional Han Chinese folk song and dance masterfully embellished with poetic flavour and artistic imagery titled ‘Dance of the Tea Harvest’, followed. Tea is a symbol full of connotations to Chinese culture that has evolved from labour into musical form.

Then a romantic moment set in when ‘The Butterfly Lovers’, a tale of Chinese Romeo and Juliet, was staged. A fine and affectionate violin concerto paired with smooth and soft vocals plus innovative blend of multiple art-forms come together to offer a uniquely Chinese romantic expression.

To add fun to the idyllic setting, ballet performers, a group of beautiful damsels were accompanied by magical, fantastic holographic visuals and collectively perform ‘Dance of Swan Lake’.

Other artistic dance forms performed to classical Chinese songs followed one after the next, and after a while, the show reached its end with Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ which featured tight cooperation between vocals and a symphonic orchestra and staged by all the contingents of dancers.

It was drizzling when the show was nearing its end and the weather was chilly. But the thrills and spills of the scenic concert seemed to keep the cold away. Rousing applause greeted every act of this brilliant, masterly-staged performance from the spectators clearly in its admiration.

As I packed my belongings preparing to leave the hotel to the train station for onward journey to Beijing, where I now call home, I paused for a few moments and mused briefly on the trip thus: Travel is exciting. You meet people from diverse backgrounds, experience new culture, taste different foods and explore historical places.

But one day you would realise that your travels have become a routine: you wake up, sight-see, meet other travellers, walk to the next destination, and do it all over again in a new place. Then you become a little desensitised and the excitement fades.

What makes travel exciting is the variety, and this is precisely what the scenic, on-water concert did – offering a respite from my travel routine.

Although my Zhejiang trip had a boring beginning, it ended on a high note, with an enduring memory of a historic land.

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