By Amanda Sinclair
In a time and a city that is so intent on moving forward, developing and modernizing, it is so refreshing to be able to slip down a side road and escape into history. The most famous place to do so in Fuzhou, is of course SanFangQiXiang – also known as Three Lanes and Seven Alleys.
Nestled within the centre of the city, it is a magical reprieve that dates back to the Jin and Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Over all this time, it has retained and maintained its traditional urban fabric of lanes and alleys shaped in the Jin and Tang dynasties’ style.
“Nanhoujie” is the main north-south axis of this area – its main street. The three lanes are called Yijin Lane, Wenru Lane and Guanglu Lane and are situated in the west, while the Seven Alleys, called Yangqiao Alley (Road), Langguan Alley, Ta Alley, Huang Alley, Anmin Alley, Gong Alley and Jipi Alley (Road) are in the east. These Alleys and Lanes constitute the fishbone-like structure of the area,
Some of the more notable inhabitants of SanFang QiXiang are Lin Zexu, a Qing official who banned opium trading in Guangzhou around 1840 and Yan Fu, a Chinese scholar and translator most famous for introducing Darwin’s theory of natural selection to China in the late 19th century. Bing Xin is a famous poet, translator, and writer who has translated 10 works including 4 works of Tagore. Her literature has deep effect on Chinese people, if not on foreigners.SanFangQiXiang is for now the largest and best preserved Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties architecture district in China, which has earned it the name of the Museum of Qing and Ming Dynasty Architecture. It has more than 200 well-preserved structures in 159 locations, as well as 28 cultural heritages of different levels, spanning over an area of 40 hectares. It was the home for most of the gentry, literati, authors, rich and politicians since its creation. As such, most of the buildings are now renowned buildings of historical interest, almost like living museums, celebrating its colourful history and the inhabitants who made them so famous.
As you walk down the main thoroughfare of NanHou Jie you are immediately encased by shops, museums, courtyards, stalls, and huge crowds. It is a very touristy area, due to the number of Chinese and Foreigners who have come to explore the history, and as such, a lot of the shops are aimed at tourists, and are slightly expensive, and the area is normally crowded, especially during holidays and festivals.. However, on the positive side, you have within a small area, a collection of everything that makes Fuzhou famous. The wood carvings here are simply breathtaking, and you can wander around the store examining the structures and marveling at the time and dedication it must have taken to create something so intricate and beautiful. You then have a number of clothes stores that will sell you the traditional dress of Chinese men and women, in every colour, length and style. Plus a million different types of scarves, from wool to silk to pashmina, and in a huge variety of colours and patterns.
Then there is the food. Traditional Fuzhou fare, and which Fuzhou is famous for including Fish balls, and then Guobian, the soup with dried fish pieces made in a wok. If I could eat a dish everyday, it would surely be that. Even watching the chef make the food is a delight in itself, before you even taste the dish. This is a sample of what is on offer at the beginning of the street. Of course there are also the cafes, and goo old Starbucks is available here, as well as a number of café-come-bars, which come to life more at night time.
Apart from the number of these enticing shops on either side of you as you walk down the street, all inviting you to go and explore what they offer, running down the middle of it are a number of fixed stalls, which sell small souvenirs, such as beaded bracelets, your Chinese Zodiac signs, whistles, toys and even refreshments and of course a map. However, this street is not just about the shops. It is continuously decorated with hanging red lanterns, lights that come on in the evening, and a number of statues are placed along the sides. Even a part of an original wall has been encapsulated within a glass frame to protect it, and offers an insight into the previously mentioned history.
I would advise though, that if you do not speak or understand Chinese, it does make it hard to fully appreciate the history and the background to the buildings and the area. It will also make it hard when communicating in some shops, as most will not understand English. Despite this though, everyone is so helpful and friendly, apart from the tourist information centre, and will try to help you. Whether it is with buying something, the trusty calculator comes out, and communication pursues with that. If it is with clothes, gesturing is very effective, and do not get insulted if they call you fat, which they are liable to do to everyone who is bigger than the average size 2 here. They will indicate items that they think will fit you, and in which style, before herding you towards a changing room. But this is done in the friendliest of manners, and it is not meant offensively. If you are liable to take offence, don’t go clothes shopping, instead go to one of the local jewelry stores, that sells all types of bold, beautiful and hand made items. Some of these include bird feathers, or the famous stones, that you can then make into your own bracelet of your own design. You may also be able to by the usual suspects of the perpetually fat and happy Buddha, a Beijing Opera Mask, a Chinese fan, some calligraphy, or else the more unusual fake passport titled ‘terrorist’ or a slingshot. Everything and anything is sold here.
As this is a tourist area, when you are buying something, don’t forget to bargain. A lot of places do not like this, but the ones that just pluck a number out of thin air need to be brought down, especially as the prices are higher than anywhere else in Fuzhou due to the number of tourists that it receives. Also if you are n obvious foreigner, the price, like everywhere else, automatically rises. If the item has a price tag on it, or displayed you can’t barter, but no price tag, this normally means you are going to be practicing your basic Chinese. So start now. This is part of the fun of shopping though.
Aside from all the gift shops, NanHouJie also offers a Watson, which is a life saver for anyone, who like me, likes to know a product before using it, as I generally cannot read Chinese nor the ingredients. As many people have allergies this is vital. Therefore head on over to Watsons and stock up on a number of known products, but be careful of all of the whitening!
As previously mentioned, there are a number of restaurants, café-come-bars and bars along and near NanHouJie. The most obvious and
recognized, worldwide franchise is Starbucks, and it doesn’t fail to disappoint with the universal décor, and the menu. Whilst offering more Chinese drinks, such as a green tea latte, which isn’t found back home, it is a good place to go when you are craving something friendly and recognizable, which after a while on this street you may need. There are also other venues such as Chav Bar, Italian Restorante and more traditional Chinese places. The majority of these, are open and busier later in the afternoon and evening. They close later than the shops, so you can always prolong your visit to SanFangQiXiang until later into the evening. The street is always lit up so you can still appreciate the beauty.
At the end of NanHouJie, either way you go there will be entertainment on hand. Turn left and you could go to Jazz and Blue’s Club, Turn right along the river and you come to more café’s and an open air opera stage, which hosts traditional theater and opera weekly. Go straight a head, and again if you turn left you come to a cluster of clubs and bars, or right, then there is Ned’s, an American bistro, bar. Even ahead of you, illuminated in white light is WuShan, the mountain and scenic area.
When I talk about Museums, they are slightly different from what I expected. They aren’t like the British National History Museum, but more like private residences that have been frozen and preserved in time, and then a summation of the inhabitant’s life and achievements been put on display. Or to what we can relate, when you parents refuse to change your childhood bedroom, so every time you go home it is like walking into 1990 again, with your trophies on display and all your certificates. Not that this is a bad thing, it is just very nostalgic, but a sure fired way to make you appreciate and understand the person fully. You can walk around the premises and explore the courtyards, take photos of the statutes, or photos of yourself with the statues, as seems to be a popular thing to do. However, after the first couple of museums, and no English translations, just you trying to invent a story, things begin to look and feel the same. The houses are the same, as it was part of the design, and it starts to lose some of its initial charm and appeal. I would therefore suggest taking a Chinese friend along with you to translate. At least then you can understand what you are looking at.
Also along Nan Hou Jie are a number of art galleries and auction rooms. The main art gallery is a shop, studio and gallery, so you can buy your own art materials, talk to a real artist and view some of the pieces that are on sale at the time. The art that is on display is normally very Chinese, with beautiful brush strokes, beautiful Asiatic landscapes or flowers, even some people, and you can take some home and hang it up. However, this is not art like we would know it at home. It isn’t framed, it isn’t painted on a canvas always, but normally it is painted on a long, narrow piece of paper, mounted onto a material background, and then rolled u like a scroll. This is a very traditional way to display and produce art within China.
If you can not find something that takes your fancy there, you can always return to the art auction, which is held later on, in late afternoon to evening time. This is held in a small room, open to the public, and numerous pieces of art are individually displayed and bid upon. Again, to partake in this I would suggest learning Chinese, or else taking along that trusty Chinese friend who can help you.