Shunde: Guangdong's Pleasant City of Flowers, Tea, Dragon Boats & Water Snake Porridge

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: May 27th, 2011 | Updated: September 16th, 2014 | Comments

My first and only trip to the small Guangdong city of Shunde was to visit a good friend who had just been released by the Hong Kong police. They had held him and ten others in custody at the 2005 World Trade Organization Ministerial, which broke down in the face of indecision and fierce protests, culminating in the arrest of 900+ protesters, journalists and bystanders on Gloucester Road. I was let out with more than 800 others after less than a week, but my friend, being one of the few Mainland Chinese arrested that day, was forced to stay in Hong Kong — in jail — for a month before he was released. While we were in jail, we shared a blanket because even Hong Kong gets cold in December. I was really broke at the time, so I couldn't afford a train or a plane out to the Pearl River Delta from Chengdu, but honor and loyalty forced me to find a solution. So I took a migrant worker bus from Luzhou in Sichuan across the country, stopping in little villages and truck stops, all the way to Shunde. To see my good friend Wen Da Ge.

Guangdong's City of Flowers

I didn't really expect much when I arrived in town. I figured Wen Da Ge and I would just drink tea and pretend we were tough guys for being in jail with real tough guys for a short stint. But the air in Shunde was rife with slow-floating pollen and I could see a blue sky. Maybe it was just because I was getting off of a 48-hour bus ride through the sticks, but the scene in Shunde that morning immediately put me at ease. People walked slow and smiled a lot. Wen Da Ge took me to his house and we did spend most of that afternoon drinking tea. In the evening he took me to one of his favorite restaurants and I got my first real taste of what the city has to offer. Flowers lined the streets of the city as we made our way down a few lanes in the warm dusk of this delta town. "You might have heard about Guangdong porridge (zhōu, 粥)," Wen said. "But no one does it like Shunde ... you just wait."

Sleepwalking Through Fengcheng (and Eating Well)

Shunde is also known as Fengcheng or Daliang, and the old records refer to such classics like "Sleepwalking through Fengcheng," which describes a man enjoying life here so much it all just seemed like a dream to him. Rumor has it that most Cantonese restaurants actually have Fengcheng/Shunde chefs because no one steams fish and veggies like Shunde chefs and only a Shunde guru knows the secret to Double Skin Milk (shuāngpí nǎi, 双皮乃) or "Water Snake Porridge." The Dragon Boat Festival doesn't get more authentic than it does down here, right by the Delta, in an area of China that maintains old culture like few others. They've been racing boats and partying afterward for centuries here. The next one is coming up on June 6th, so if you're in the area, get a bus out to Shunde, grab some porridge, a few dumplings and watch the boats fly.

Tea and Porridge, Fruit and Flowers

Wen called up two friends of his and they came to join us for a night of mild oolong tea and a vat of thick rice porridge filled with seafood and slow cooked vegetables and some medicinal berries that reminded me of goji berries (gǒuqǐ, 枸杞), but they could have been anything. We ate bowl after bowl after bowl. Shunde rice porreidge is different from all the others, because it's thick like the thickest clam chowder you ever saw. Later that night when we visited Wen Da Ge's Da Ge, an old farmer with bright yellow eyes who didn't say much and just let us in, poured some tea and walked out to his garden. He knew we would grab cups and follow him and that's exactly what we did. His backyard was a flower field that extended out into the night mist. Orange and purple, light blue and cream blossoms swayed to the music and we sat there and chatted about the flower business and how it's the best thing that ever happened to Shunde. "All the other towns around Guangzhou went straight into manufacturing," said the Big Da Ge. "And so did we. But just not as bad as the others. We moved into fruits and flowers because.... " and he just gestured at his fields.

Guangzhou Kung-Fu: Work Hard, Play Hard

And just in case someone might ever want to roll into the Shunde area and start causing stress and strife, the locals have made sure to create and maintain a powerful local gong fu culture. Yip Man was born in nearby Foshan and he learned from the old masters and passed his knowledge on to another local gong fu kid who would one day become a legend, Jun'an native Bruce Lee.

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