Venice of the East

Canal cruise on traditional boats helmed
by singing boatwomen
Dressed in a bold red, black and white striped Nike t-shirt, Dennis my 6 foot-tall cousin, is standing head and shoulders above the average local men.  I guess he deliberately wore that shirt as it is easier to spot him in the teeming crowd.  With him strolling ahead, my sister and I take time to explore tiny shops that line the stone pavements that border the canals in Zhouzhuang, a picturesque ancient water village also dubbed, the Venice of the East.

For years Dennis, who is based in Shanghai for work, has been asking us to visit him and when we accepted his invite, he came to meet us at Pudong International Airport.  He has a holiday itinerary mapped out for us but of all the must-see places we visited, I especially enjoyed sharing a home-cooked Henan meal with his colleague’s family.  Dennis turns out to be a surprisingly hospitable host and we are delighted to set off on a 2-hour drive from Shanghai on comfortable expressways to spend the day in Zhouzhuang.

“Read the signs,” he instructed from his left-hand driver’s seat and I keep my eyes trained on the road signs along the route.  As we drive through the outskirts of Shanghai in the direction of Kunshan City in Jiangsu province, Dennis tells us a little about where we are going from his research as he has never been there too.  Later I tell him that the Zhouzhuang experience is worth every kilometer of the 70km scenic drive because it’s as if I was transported back in time or into a period movie set but better still, it’s like a living museum where villagers still go on with their almost 1000-year old lifestyle.

Handicrafts that are useful and great as souvenirs

Living Museum

Weeping willows drape over the canals that meander around the village as passing small boats ferrying tourists, gently glide across the placid water.  Just like Venetian gondoliers, the boatmen and women of Zhouzhuang often break into folk songs as they gracefully guide the boats along the busy canals.  

Dressed in traditional sam-foo made from coarse cotton fabric dyed navy blue with white prints, probably to keep warm from the chilly winds and light drizzle, they are a delight to watch and listen to.  

A vendor in a row of stalls selling dried seafood
Dennis went to buy tickets for our canal cruise and while we sailed under arched stone bridges, he followed along the canal edge, capturing candid shots of my awe-struck expressions!

While Zhouzhuang is a popular tourist destination, life goes on as usual for the elderly folks who probably lived here all their lives.  Some sit at their doorstep, chatting and fanning themselves while the entrepreneurs are still doing brisk business, selling religious trinkets and range of dried fish and prawns.  Chinese barbers are so rare now that when I spotted a quaint little barbershop, I’m so charmed by the equally ancient barber that I ask Dennis if he needed a haircut. 

Dennis getting his hair cut by ancient barber!
After reading my Indian barber memories, he is aware of my affinity with barbershops so being a good sport, Dennis agreed that he’s due for a haircut anyway and got into the barber’s chair to have his hair cut!

I love looking at the touristy souvenirs in the quaint little shops and confess that I cannot resist trying on the wide range of lovely embroidered shoes and sandals.  I may be imagining it but almost every pair looks perfect on my feet and I end up not only choosing my own pair but also helping my sister to pick her pair of pretty shoes.  When I stop to watch a lady hand-spinning fiber into threads, she also impressed me with a demo on the traditional art of weaving on a loom.  She has a range of Chinese blouses and smart shorts tailored for sale and while I may not wear this fabric, I can certainly do with a sling bag designed with a patchwork of these fabrics that look cool with casual outfits.

Traditional nutty sweets made by pounding
the mixture with a giant mallet

Traditional Treats

As in any thriving village, there are restaurants, tea houses and food stalls for sit-down meals or takeaways, in almost every street.  The moment my sensitive nose picks up a distinct smell, I watch fascinated by a crowd of stinky tofu fans, queuing to buy this delicacy.  I bravely venture closer for a peek and see the trader serve cut tofu on small cardboard trays to be eaten with bamboo skewers.  I’ve tried it before so I’m content to observe the connoisseurs savouring this delicacy in spite of its overpowering foul fumes.

Vendors of traditional snacks and sweets readily offer samples for tourists to try before buying and I must say this is a very persuasive ploy because it’s not easy to resist after tasting the scrumptious snacks.  While samples are being distributed, sweet-makers show off their traditional skills in making these products.  I take a delicious chunk of mixed-nuts sweet and chew it as I watch how a huge mallet is used to pound the nutty sweet mixture.  Needless to day, after this experience I cannot resist buying a bagful to munch.

Wansan glazed pork knuckles sold
as snacks!
I suffered a bit of a culture shock as I come across several people chewing into chunks of red glazed pork in takeaways and when I asked him, Dennis confirms that Wansan pork knuckles are a popular snack in Zhouzhuang.  I try hard not to stare because it’s very unusual for me to see a couple seated on a stone bridge, each chewing a pig’s trotter from a plastic bag! 

I also see vendors of fresh cucumbers who will wash and peel off its skin for customers who buy it for a refreshing snack.  While it’s also rare to see people chewing a crunchy stick of cucumber as they walk along, I think it’s a far healthier snack than chewing on a pig’s trotter!

Visitor Tips

Try to plan your trip on weekdays and if possible, never on national public holidays as Zhouzhuang is likely to be swamped by tourists.  This water village is very popular with tourists from Mainland China probably because this is a pleasant change for those who live in land-locked areas.  The village can get over crowded on peak holidays and it’s really no fun inching your way through the narrow footpaths.

Spinning threads the traditional way
Wear good walking shoes and be watchful of where you are stepping.  This village is virtually unchanged in almost 1000 years and has minimal modifications to accommodate tourists so do keep an eye on uneven pavements.  Take time to walk the bridges and explore alleys and old buildings that feature deep corridors and peaceful courtyards. 

Be sure the battery in your digital camera is fully charged and there’s sufficient space in the memory chip because the charming sight of Zhouzhuang will send you on a shooting spree.  Also remember to secure cameras and other electronic equipment lest they accidentally fall into the many canals!

Fast Facts

Entrance fee is RMB100 per person and the boat ride is also RMB100 for six passengers.  The entrance fee includes entry into several ancient houses like the Shen Residence, built in the Qing dynasty and Zhang House, built in the Ming dynasty.  For more info, visit:

View of the teeming crowd of visitors from restaurant window

I wandered into a rear courtyard and found these ladies resting here!
Can't resist taking a closer look at these lovely embroidered shoes!
A visit to Zhouzhuang water village is highly recommended!
A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 12 April 2012

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