Karaoke and Chinese Gardens

After an epic journey from Beijing comprising of three subways, an aeroplane and a crazy taxi, I arrived at Shangai railway station to discover all the trains to Suzhou were full until 9:30pm – it was then 3 in the afternoon. After six hours sitting in the grubby ‘soft seat’ waiting room with a suitcase and a pack of Mentos for company, being stared at (that’ll be the blonde hair), the train finally came, and it turned out I was taking a sleeper car for the 45 minute journey. I settled on my berth and exchanged a polite smile with the man opposite me. We both opened books, and the train pulled out.

Just then, an overweight middle aged man wandered past our door. He was not wearing a shirt. Shortly afterwards another man walked past, this time without pants. He proceeded to parade back and forth past the door, much to the general hilarity of the cabin next door. I exchanged a bemused look with the man opposite, and he said something to me, but my complete lack of Mandarin left us unable to communicate. He smiled and closed the cabin door.

When we arrived at Suzhou, it turned out my cabin-mate was getting off too. We walked along the platform silently, and he pointed out the way to the taxi rank, fending off the illegal taxi drivers trying to nab the naïve foreigner. As I finally got in a taxi, he waved goodbye.

That was my experience of China – it’s dirty, inefficient and then there’s the horror of squat toilets, but it is also unexpectedly quirky and rather charming, not to mention brimming with cultural gems. I was there to study Chinese gardens for a course run by UNSW every summer. We were visiting and photographing gardens around Suzhou and Shanghai, studying the intricate detail of garden design that has lasted hundreds of years.

Chinese gardens are highly architectural, with screen walls a pivotal element in guiding the movement of people and energy. Walls, pavilions and rockeries are designed to create or limit views, drawing wanderers along edges and towards nodes. The interplay between rocks and water entices varying reflections, creating beautiful, complex and finely detailed gardens.

One of the things that struck me most about the gardens was the relationship between colour and texture and how it impacted on the visitor’s experience. In the Garden of Harmony, a vibrant red tree which reflected in the koi pond was complimented by the fan shaped leaves of bright yellow almond trees, while in the Master of Nets Garden, a pink-leafed tree set against a canvas of whitewashed wall and mosaic pebbles encouraged visitors to move in and look closer. We were encouraged to observe architectural relationships and hierarchies in the gardens, the subtleties of which have remained consistent for centuries, even while the planting has changed over the years.

But the gardens were really only half of the experience. Hours spent in the print shop miming and pointing, sipping tea and red bean soup at a traditional tea house, and belting out Whitney Houston ballads at a palatial karaoke complex with the great group of students (and one of our tutors) all helped us to experience and understand modern China and gain a real appreciation for a culture so different to our own. Despite the pollution, crazy rickshaw drivers and chicken’s feet for breakfast, China was a thoroughly unforgettable experience – educational at every level.