The first time I visited Venice, Italy, I was 10 years old. The feeling of being in a foreign place was still new to me. It’s a lot to take in…all the new sights and huge crowds. Didn’t mind taking in all the food, though. Pizza, pasta, gelato, bread…I was always looking forward to the next meal. It was dizzying hot that summer, as I’m sure it gets every summer. All I really wanted to do was jump into the canals. And I almost did when we took one of those gondola tours. Until I peered into the water and realized that it was dirty as hell.
As we rode through the canals, I found myself marveling at a place so far removed from the modern hustle and bustle of the city that it felt more like a boat ride back through time. But as we passed by houses along the canals, the rising water levels became increasingly noticeable—a half-submerged door here and there, buildings deteriorating at the base. A slow death, for sure, but it was only a matter of time before the whole city went down. The thought haunted me the rest of our time there. In a way, the city seemed already dead…a mere tourist attraction that would only kill itself over time. Later on, I would read about more and more hotels being built to accommodate the increasing flood of tourists, even a plan to build an underground transportation tunnel. The city was going to be hollowed out before it breathed its last breaths.
Still, Venice remains one of the most beautiful places that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. For a city lying on its death bed, it’s amazing how much magic and wonder you’ll still find as you wander around. St. Mark’s Square is still humming with life, and as you walk through the square towards the water it overlooks, over the bridges of the beautiful canals that conceal this place’s fate so well, the million-dollar question always seems to be: “Will this be my last time here?”
Fast forward 14 years.
About 5 months ago, I took a trip to China. We started off in Shanghai and visited a couple of other cities here and there. Despite the 11-hour flight, Shanghai really just seemed like a fancier next-door neighbor. I had expected to be inundated with culture and a glimpse of the past. But the area that we wandered that Friday seemed even more modern than my Silicon Valley hometown. Fancy architecture, super tall high-rises…the Dong Fang Ming Zhu tower that used to be the main draw of Shanghai’s waterfront is now just an afterthought. It’s been dwarfed by the new towers that came after its time.
Every few blocks we’d find another shopping mall. God knows how my aunt keeps track of them all. Each one is at least 6-7 floors—a good 30-40 vendors on each floor. I don’t even know how they have so many brands. And with the amount of people that flock to these malls, you can’t help but wonder…is this really all there is to do in Shanghai? Besides the food, of course. At least the food has stayed consistent over the years– the only thing nowadays that seems to hint at the rich culture lying beneath all these new city developments.
Anyway, that was day one. My uncle had a special place in mind for day two. “Zhu Jia Jiao,” he replied when I asked him where we were going. I had never heard of the place. Maybe it was a mall, or another new modern district that was recently developed. My expectations were set quite low. About 30 minutes into the drive, I looked out the window and realized that we had just about completely left the city behind. Older apartment buildings came into view. The high-rises disappeared, as did the crowds and the frantic, rushed pace of the city. Time seemed to slow. Another 20 minutes passed and it now looked like we were driving through a small village. The views out the window were becoming more and more mundane and rural, but I found the change in scenery extremely refreshing. When we finally got to our destination—this mysterious “Zhu Jia Jiao,” I couldn’t wait to get out of the car.
Turns out, Zhu Jia Jiao is an ancient water town—established about 1700 years ago along the outskirts of Shanghai. The place is absolutely stunning. It was also surprisingly empty. Compared to the crowds you see in the city, this place was like a ghost town. For such a beautiful place, I definitely expected more people. Why would you wander a shopping mall when you have a place like this less than an hour away?!
We took a boat ride through the town—a trip that lasted about 25-30 minutes. There was something eerily familiar about the place. It wasn’t until we passed by a sign in English that I realized why. “The Venice of China,” the sign read. Can’t say I directly associate this place with the Venice of Italy, but I do see hints of similarity. Not in terms of appearance, though, not at all. Both are beautiful in their own regard—reminiscent of different worlds and times of the past. I think the similarity lies in the emotions these places evoke in their visitors. At least for me. I left Zhu Jia Jiao feeling strangely sad, very much like how I felt when I found out Venice was going to be submerged in water someday. But at least Zhu Jia Jiao isn’t sinking.
Even so, Zhu Jia Jiao also seemed dead. A different kind of dead—dead in the past, frozen in time, left behind as the rest of Shanghai modernized. I guess that’s why this time capsule of a city is so remarkable. If only more people realized this place existed! Compared to the city I had wandered the day before, the difference was night and day.
So I guess I’ve been to two Venice’s. One of them, dying—sinking, actually—as everyone tries to experience a piece of it before time runs out while the other, not yet dying, is sitting, left forgotten. What a world we live in.