Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Zhang Yimou and Hangzhou

HANGZHOU, China - These days, Zhang Yimou is known chiefly as the show-biz whiz who staged the spectacular opening and closing of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In fact, he has had a long and varied career, directing operas and making justly acclaimed movies such as "To Live'' and "Raise the Red Lantern'' with the exquisite actress Gong Li.

When Zhang was warming up for the Olympics, he put together an imaginative and entertaining multimedia show in this east-central Chinese city, called "Impression West Lake.'' The show includes many of the elements - light, music, movement - that captivated a worldwide TV audience during the Olympics, if on a smaller scale. It has run for several years and is staged right inWestLake, the premier attraction for visitors in this old city, China's capital during the Song dynasty. I saw it last year and was taken by its luminous qualities. At under an hour, "Impression West Lake'' doesn't tax the patience; even the camera-carrying tourists and texting spectators paid close attention most of the time.

This year, it rained hard at showtime, so I didn't attend a repeat performance. However, in the grand, show-must-go-on tradition, it was staged despite the elements, with spectators donning raingear and gamely enjoying the show. The reason I say it is staged in the lake is because dozens of performers float by on slightly submerged barges, creating the illusion that they are gliding on the surface of the water. Recorded New Age space music plays and the light show glows and glimmers throughout the nighttime performance.

Spectators sit outside on bleachers in the lakeside park, located a couple of hundred meters from the hotel I stayed at, the Shangri-la Hangzhou. The hotel itself, built in the 1950s and 1960s and managed since 1985 by Hong Kong's Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts, was one of the first 5-star hotels in post-revolutionary China and has been upgraded several times. It is known for its lush, spreading grounds and is located at the foot of a swiftly rising hillside on the road that rings West Lake. Big camphor trees more than 100 years old grace the garden.

The plant Hangzhou is best known for, however, is the tea plant. Hundreds of years ago, traders brought tea bushes from India and farmers have turned the plants into reliable producers of China's most famous and probably best green tea:Dragonwell tea. Independent growers typically live in modern houses in front of small, terraced hillside fields where the plant is grown and leaves are harvested by hand. I was taken there on my recent visit by a local guide who doubled as a taxi driver and seller of ginseng and furniture, surely an unusual combination. I didn't buy any ginseng or furniture but I enjoyed the rich brew of hot dragonwell tea. On a previous visit, another driver-guide took me to her family's house, where I observed a worker with one gloved hand roast green tea leaves in what resembled a very large wok. I later sipped tea in the fields where it was grown and bought some directly from the farmer to take home.

Such are some of the attractions of this old Chinese city, now swollen with a population of 5 million, with misty, manmade West lake serving as its liquid heart.

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