Thursday, December 3, 2009

To Be, or Not to Be – Changsha, Hunan Province, China

 Changsha, China

Our trip started in Changsha, capital city of Hunan province.  I could not wait to explore this city when we arrived in the airport. 
Anticipating the Unknown
How much do I know about Hunan? 

Spicy Hunan Pepper I love their food, spicy and homey.  The most common staples are turned into delicious home-made dishes.  And that’s what I call real good cooking, not the type of cooking with expensive materials like lobsters, shark fins or abalone. 

Hunan food is like an unassuming person that knocks your socks off with extraordinary performance or a woman that does not have much makeup on and yet can talk stuff that amazes you.

Additionally, for those that are into the recent history of China, Mao Zedong was born in Hunan.  As a controversial Changsha Mapfigure, he lead the communist to take over the whole country in 1949.  For many years that follow, China and its people experienced endless political turmoil, including the 10-year long cultural revolution.  In many people’s opinion, he’s one of those that contributed to the country’s stalled (if not retracted) development and the agony in Chinese people’s lives.  (For a more complete account of Mao Zedong’s life, please visit    When the Modern Meets Tradition

Furthermore, one of Hunan’s famous archaeological discoveries is the Tomb of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) at Mawandui, and its well-preserved female mummy from 2,100 years ago.  Can you believe her joints were still flexible when freshly out of the tomb?

Oh, and in terms of its culture, Hunan embroidery is one of the major export products of the province.

All these scattered information, unfortunately, was not helpful in putting  together a reasonable expectation before I hit Changsha.  After all, most of what I know about Hunan was history.  And, after all, I Will This Building Still be Here Tomorrowhave been told over and over, how much change China is going through…

The Exploration…
We did not waste time after checking into our 5-start hotel, Plaza Royale Furongguo Hotel.  With a map in hand, we headed out to a major street in front of the hotel towards the Xiangjiang River.  Xiangjiang is the largest river in Hunan; one that I’ve only heard in songs and seen in articles.  Hang-drying Clothes

Excited at the opportunity to experience the city first-hand, I kept turning my head, eyes wide open.  What I did not know at the time was that, I was going to re-live, in a city other than my home town, the reminiscence of my childhood.  

I exhilarated at the roasted yam and peanut carried by a cart.  The candies and many other snacks being sold in the playground after school came back to memory.Tea at Leisure

I beamed when my eyes met the old buildings, and the clothes being hung high up in the yard.  I remembered the days when we had to rush home to take in the clothes  at the imminent threat of a rain; or the days when the sun finally came out and every one in the community put the mattress out to take out the moisture in the filling.

I realized it’s not just the way life used to be that’s familiar.  It’s the spirit of life.  It’s how people take time to live their lives that resonated with what I had somewhere in my memory. Hot Water Pot and the Tea Set

It’s the people sitting at leisure, waiting for their tea to arrive, at less than $0.50 each…

It’s the ones gathering by Xiangjiang River, playing poker, watching free Peking opera, or being watched playing their instruments…

Free Peking OperaIt’s the open market where the human interaction is not delayed until the cash register.
When all this leisure and time-has-left-us is in the air, I did notice the skyscrapers inching in to the old buildings.  The (“to be torn down”) marks on the discolored walls tell a looming end to them.  
Modern Development – To be, or Not to Be
The End is Looming
We were later told that the residents in those old buildings were going to be moved into modern structures.  I remembered the time when my great uncle’s family was moved out of their house in Shanghai more than ten years ago.

Back then, at the age when I could not wait to welcome modern development with open arms (in fact, I went the extreme and came to the US to pursue the modern life-style), I was happy for them.  I had in mind the convenience of modern amenities that we’d been accustomed to in the US. 

Playing Poker I was happy that they did not have to cram with many other households in one building that’s meant for one family anymore, with no privacy, and climbing up and down squeaky stairs every day.  I was happy that they would not have to share the kitchen with others at meal time anymore.  I was happy that they did not have to leave the house to use public restrooms anymore.  And, I was particularly happy that they would finally have their own shower, heated water, A/C unit, kitchen, and most importantly, privacy.

And yet, my great uncle was not happy.  They were sad, at the thought ofThe Open Market leaving the neighbors that they’d shared their lifetime with. 

Now, sixteen years after I left China, my life does not have to revolve around things like when the rain is coming anymore.  And with everything moving at the speed of microwave oven, or wireless internet, or a blackberry/PDA, I find myself seeking out what I had left behind sixteen years ago.  I start to understand my great uncle a little better…

I have to admit that I can not deny and truly value the modern convenience.  And yet, I wish I’m wise enough to tell when modern development and tradition retention are in good balance.

While it is a large subject, the question that I have to face is that with the old buildings being torn down and people moved out, how much of what I saw today will remain in Changsha and where do I go next to find my childhood memory?



travler1 said...

I like it. Good images and wording.

travler1 said...

It is very difficult to say to be or not to be. People wants to have the modern world's convineient facilities and willing to give up all their owned. Once it is gone, the memory pop out. Isn't it sad?

travler1 said...

When we can see more of your collections and stories behind it?

travler1 said...

What was the red stuff in the barrel? pepper? Must be very spicy!

TheFreeMinder said...

Thank you, Travler1, for all your comments!

To answer your question, the red stuff in the barrel was the hot pepper sauce. People in Hunan are very skillful in incorporating chilli peppers into their dishes.

sanyen said...

Good English write up, Jean, are you a English major graduate? The 1st picture with BOBO sign does not show what you tried to tell people. The picture showed the audience watching the Peking opera, I would shot the picture sideways so that people can see both the opera actors and audience. The picture shows only the back of the opera actors.

sanyen said...

Nice Long Sea picture. I like the color and reflection. It is a closeup picture of mine that posted on Ha, ha

Rachna said...

Really great Posts! I've enjoyed reading through your blog because of the great style and energy, and amazing photographs. I have a blog on travel theme. If you're interested, we would love to have you on as a guest blogger. Please send me an e-mail and I can give you more information. Looking forward to hearing from you.

TheFreeMinder (a.k.a. Jean Huang Photography) said...

Hi Rachna,

Thank you for taking the time to read through my blog and to write the nice comment!

I appreciate the invitation to be a guest blogger and am very flattered. I was looking for your blog and was not very successful at it. Maybe you could send me a link?

BTW, your profile does not have any of the contact info either.

Look forward to visiting your blog!

Happy holidays,