The Grand Canal sweeps by the writer’s hometown, suffusing him with childhood memories and a vista point to gaze into a country on the rise, observes Raymond Zhou.
Every time I visit my hometown, I go to the riverside and sit there for a few minutes. It has become a ritual of sorts. I walk to the riverbank in almost a trance, never treating it as something I have to do. It’s less than one minute from where my parents live. In the old days, there was a dock for steamboats. That was the only means of transportation for those traveling out of town.
Lianshi, my hometown, sits halfway between Hangzhou to the south and Suzhou to the north. Boats that departed Hangzhou in the late afternoon would arrive here around midnight, and then onward to Suzhou, taking more than 12 hours for the whole journey — the equivalent of the red-eye flight.
When I was attending college in Hangzhou in the early 1980s, my grandmother would be alerted to my arrival by the sound of the horn in the quiet night. Five minutes later, I would be knocking on the door.
The Grand Canal does not flow through my hometown, or it did not before the town got much larger in size. It skirts the east side of the old town.
There is a sharp bend, which, coupled with the narrowness of the watercourse, posed a threat to boat people. So often did tragedies happen, with crew members falling into the river and getting drowned, that the bend became notorious as a curse.
If two boats happened to pass each other around the bend, they’d have to be extremely cautious not to have a collision or sudden swerve.
Now, this section of the river has been widened, with the sharp land protrusion cut, and the bridge not far away removed. Clearly it’s much safer, but also less recognizable for someone like me who spent my childhood here.
A tributary of the Grand Canal does flow into town, dividing it into two parts — north and south. The northern part mostly sourced as potable water to almost the whole town. The water could have been pristine, but I still wouldn’t drink it without passing it through a whole house filtration system.
Like all small towns in this area, there are several stone bridges, and rows of households flank the river. Between the first bridge and the second one lies the stretch of water where my buddies and I used to swim in summer. (To stop you from any idyllic visualization, I’ll add that the river also served as the kitchen sink, the laundry basin and the source of drinking water, after being boiled of course. That was before we had tap water.)
I always envied my buddies who lived right along the river. They usually had the sitting room facing the street, the kitchen in the middle and the bedroom facing the water. As such, they could clean the wooden floor of the bedroom by pulling up water from the back window and pour it onto the floor, as riverbank pillars support this part of the house. The rooms would be so spotless we kids could roll around and get no stain at all.