I really, really do not fancy calling myself a fan of Aaron Kwok 郭富城. But I have to admit that part of the reason I came to Pingyao in Shanxi was because of him.
Yes, Aaron Kwok, part of the “Four Heavenly Kings” 四大天王as they were affectionately known back in the days. He used to be my least favourite out of the four, but recently he has made a strong comeback thanks to his performance in 白銀帝國， a movie about the history of China’s first commercial bank and set in Pingyao, the “Wall Street of ancient China”. What initially captured me about this movie was the fact that this was Taiwanese multibillionaire 郭台銘’s first foray into the movie industry, and it was no small foray to say the least (the company had invested over USD10 million on production). Curiosity then increased as the lead star was named Aaron Kwok. I experienced a disappointment in the casting director’s judgment so great (as I did watching Sammi Cheung 鄭秀文play a Shanghainese woman in 長恨歌) that I decided I should go see the movie to figure out what went wrong in the production team’s thinking process.
What the heck were they thinking?! This Hong Kong actor spoke the worst possible Mandarin and carries no air of a Qing Chinese whatsoever. At least that was what I thought. But I was wrong. His Mandarin was perfect (to the point of being even better accented than a lot of local Taiwanese stars), his acting heart-wrenching (he played the prodigal son of a Pingyao banker who had fallen in love with his English teacher, who then married his father), and most importantly, he looked oh so very good in his Chinese changshan amidst the backdrop of Pingyao’s ancient city walls.
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This trip to Pingyao is a testimony to just what an impact Aaron Kwok has made upon me. We decided to go during Easter, not the best season to travel as Shanxi would often be plagued by sandstorms during this time, but it also meant little tourists, and that added to the mystery of the ancient city. Pingyao, as I later found out, is surrounded by the last remaining Ming dynasty city wall in China, completely intact and running 6km in total. It was a thriving merchant town during the Ming and Qing dynasties when the earliest 票號s (banks) were set up, and rose to be the financial headquarter of China. However, after its heyday the city fell into poverty and without the cash to modernize, Pingyao’s streets remained unchanged. Thanks to this misfortune, Pingyao today is an exceptionally well-preserved Han Chinese city (it was awarded Unesco World Heritage Site status in 1997) and offers a rare glimpse into the architectural styles and life in general of Imperial China. Its many courtyard houses have even been the set for movies including Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern”.
Banks, “biao jus” (鏢局 － the imperial Chinese escort agency – something like an armed DHL commissioned to deliver valuables or escort people), temples and important figures’ old residences littered the streets. Almost every other house you walk past is a monument to Pingyao’s prime. Coupled with the dusty April air of Northwestern China and the city’s genuine age and lack of modernization, Pingyao seemed a little too real to be true, like something that had walked directly out of a history book. An almost ghostly sheath loomed the streets – a stark contrast to what you normally find in the disneyfied old towns of China’s tourist attractions with their reconstituted ancestry.
I therefore found Jin’s Residence, Pingyao’s only boutique hotel, a little out of place in a town like this. Built around the same concept as the Puli in Shanghai, Jin’s Residence is a humble tribute to Pingyao’s iconic 宅院 with its grey brick walls and carved wooden doors. Inside, however, is a different story. “Understated luxury” is the keyword here, and while lines are clean and the palette a selection of simple, neutral tones, the result is a warm yet stylish home away from home. The owner is a Chinese architect from New Zealand, and his complimentary East meets West style is very much apparent in the designs of Jin’s Residence. Chinese teakwood furniture is used throughout, but redesigned to Western standards such as a long table lined with a bright pink table runner and paired with cushioned benches, or the huge coffee table laden with books such as “Van Gough’s Paintings” and Wallpaper magazines. Upstairs from the main lobby is a library come bar with a fireplace at the rear end surrounded by comfortable sofas and a bar table doubled up as an Internet station.
I just hope that Pingyao stays this way, under-discovered, with only one boutique hotel, for at least a while. Anything else would mean Starbucks at the Palace Museum, KFC in Lijiang, bubble tea in Yangshuo and girls in fake embroidered dresses in Xijiang. I silently pray for that day never to come.
Jing’s Residence is at 16 Dongjie, Pingyao, Shanxi (354 584 1000). Rooms from 700RMB/night; suites from 2,100RMB.
The fast train from Beijing West Railway Station to Taiyuan (the provincial capital) takes just over three hours and costs 157RMB. Pingyao old town is then a one-hour drive away. Otherwise, China Eastern flies daily from Beijing to Taiyuan for about 590RMB return.