The first thing you see when you arrive in Xitang is a 6×3 foot poster of Tom Cruise. He is wearing a black, special agent uniform and his face is fixed in heroic reverie. He is smouldering. In the background are traditional red lanterns and stone bridges synonymous with the famous Shanghai water towns, a network of 15-20 ancient villages connected by the old imperial canal system, just hours outside of the city. Xitang’s unique claim to fame is that it was chosen as the backdrop for the final sequence in Mission Impossible III. In this 2,000-year-old village Cruise looks comically out of place.
But Xitang is not the only water town to shake off its old bridle and embrace modernity. Further East in Jiangsu province is Tongli, a Chinese village with a special attraction. Tongli has its own sex museum. This is cultural education at its most risqué, especially by Chinese standards. Tongli is one of the smaller, less populated of the Shanghai water towns and the exhibits – a medley of ancient and modern erotica – add a hilariously unexpected twist.
At the other end of the spectrum, is Zhujiajiao. Large, with a population of around 60,000, its age-old buildings, narrow lanes and wood-beamed houses are among the best preserved and picturesque in this region. Every weekend they attract crowds of Chinese tourists, on- and off-season. But in recent years, they have also attracted world-class musical talent.
Grammy-award winning Chinese composer Tan Dun’s enigmatic music show, “˜Water Heavens’, opened at the Zhujiajiao Concert Hall in 2011. Tan, who wrote the score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, coordinates a blend of music for strings, water, pipa and voice – what he calls “architectural music”, and a variation on a traditional theme well worth looking up.
Other water towns connect to modern life in a more literal sense. Qibao is a 30-minute metro ride on Line 9 from the centre of town, making it the easiest to reach. You might not feel the impulse to take photos every second, but Qibao nonetheless has all the core ingredients of a quintessential water town: traditional teahouses, picturesque arched bridges and slab-stone paved alleys, as well as a vast array of traditional Shanghainese snacks, including glutinous rice balls filled with pork (tang tuan) stock and caramel coated red bean pancakes (hai tang gao).
Taking a trip to these Shanghai water towns is all about stepping back in time. However, pick the right place and you’ll get an unexpected slice of modern life thrown in for free.
Header image © Twang Dunga/Flickr
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Written by Charlotte Middlehurst