October 20, 2013
Over the sea grows the moon bright. We gaze on it far, far apart.
There couldn’t be a more opportune time for a night of nostalgia than on a full moon. In Chinese tradition, the moon, unreachable yet inescapable, aroused retrospection, and, especially in mid-autumn, it inspired reunions. How apt then that the moon was a perfect orb on the chilly October night I would rekindle a long-lost friendship separated by distance and a decade.
My one night in Suzhou was my only chance to touch base with Michael Cai, an old friend from my Shanghai days in the early noughties. Mike was my cultural guide who showed, more than told, me his country’s history and heritage. Around Shanghai, the best place to learn and experience China’s cultural heritage was Suzhou, its long history dating back some 2,500 years, but, for some reason, the trip always fell through. It was a perfect twist of serendipity, then, that our reunion ten years thence would take place exactly in Suzhou. It turned out he had moved to the city in the intervening years.
I was billeted at Pan Pacific Suzhou, a five-star hotel disguised as an imperial palace walled in by massive stone fortifications and temple-style turrets. I took a leave from my tour group as Mike picked me up at the pseudo-ancient lobby and drove me to the real historic quarter: the 800-year-old Pingjiang Road. The cobbled alley ran parallel to a portion of the ancient Grand Canal, the oldest and longest canal in the world linking Beijing in the north and Hangzhou, south of Shanghai. Along the alley, graceful willow trees and white-walled, black-tiled low houses lined the canal. It was only past 8, but the alley crowd had thinned out as the canal cast reflections of fading lantern lights.
We settled at Nong Tang Kou, translated as “entrance into the alleyway.” Mike explained that in the old days, teahouses and shops bookended the alley that had now been restored into a commercial, and decidedly touristy, street. The day was winding down, and the restaurant was still open yet almost empty, as was a small platform with a painting backdrop framed by, of course, a moon gate design – there was no escaping the moon that night. Apparently, Nong Tang Kou was a traditional teahouse where people gathered, not only for food and drinks, but for opera performances. The illuminated yet abandoned traditional stage beckoned for photo ops with my soul brother.
Mike and his friend Leo (an anglicized version of his Chinese name I could not pronounce correctly) took charge of ordering food. Even in tourist areas, menus didn’t always provide English translation. Of course, they had me sample local cuisine, mostly the bounty off nearby Tai Lake, China’s third largest freshwater lake. Appetizers came in the form of chicken head rice, actually beans from aquatic plants, and the ubiquitous steamed dumplings and red bean cake. The sole main course was white fish whose flesh was delicate to the bite, hindered only by those pesky tiny fish bones.
We moved to Alley Sunshine Cafe for a nightcap. Mike led us up to the terrace overlooking shingled rooftops around Pingjiang Road and buzzing with the cafe’s young clientele drinking and chatting noisily. All was chill and chilly as the autumn breeze fanned the warmth of friendly conversation over a frothy cup of matcha (green tea) coffee, a tangy blend of tea and cappuccino that eventually grew on me as the night wore on.
Before long, it was time to bid goodbye once more. There was no telling when we would see each other again, but my heart was full as the moon that bore witness to this night of catching up with an old friend and making a new one. As Mike would always have it, the get-together was not just about friendship and fellowship, although that would’ve sufficed; it was also a cultural experience.
This trip was sponsored by China Eastern Airlines which flies daily between Manila and Shanghai. Book flights here or call China Eastern Airlines Manila Reservation at +63 2 789 9125. Suzhou is a couple of hours away from Shanghai by bus.