I recognised his smile and boyish haircut which hadn’t changed for twenty years. What bothered me was that his photos were there behind the restaurant’s reception desk in Xitang, a small water town on an easy day tour from Shanghai.
“Mission Impossible 3 was recorded here.“ said my colleague “On the roof of the restaurant.”
I left the UK with billboards at the airport splashed with Ethan Hunt aka Tom Cruise and to come a thousand miles away and to face him again was definitely ‘wow’. I am not a fan of the Mission Impossible brand and I only liked Tom Cruise in “Eyes Wide Shut” but that wow factor made me finish my lunch very quickly, taking my camera and moving to the roof of the restaurant. The day was clear and even though it was high season there were not many people around. I took hundreds of photos enjoying the peace and tranquillity of Xitang and I would probably have carried on if we didn’t have to follow a very tight schedule. Our day trip from Shanghai was unplanned and we chose Xitang as it was fairly close, not commercialised and not very well known in the UK.
This November the visit to XItang was on my list and I was looking forward to spending some peaceful time here, far from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai. The characterful entrance with its distinctive female dragon and baby under her feet on the left and the male dragon with the earth under his feet on the right, was the same, locked in time. Instead of walking we decided to take a leisurely cruise on one of the typical small boats so often found in this part of China and used as a mode of transport or for fishing for one of the local specialities – river crabs. The skiffs are great fun to explore the water towns on but they are very unstable and any sudden move can be fatal. They are usually covered to protect you from the very strong sun, open on each side for better views and equipped with a local skipper, a retired fisherman from the area. Sliding slowly through the canals we were in easy reach of local life and I tried endlessly to take a good photo even moving from one side of the boat to the other, making our old skipper angry. The photographs looked nice but always with an extra, unwanted feature – a person, cable, advert….We disembarked in the middle of the town and started our walking tour. The narrow streets suddenly became narrower with huge numbers of the people doing exactly the same. The good thing was that we all walked in the same direction like one way traffic. My brain was going into overtime thinking that maybe today is a national holiday when the whole of China moves at the same time. But there was nothing around the 14 November to make all these people visit Xitang and there was a considerable number of westerners trying hard to stroll around and record local life with their cameras.
The nicely decorated shops looked like ones from Oxford Street, not a small water town easily accessible on a day trip from Shanghai. The last time in 2006 I bought a small very fragile Chinese teacup from the local antique dealer hidden in one of the side streets and this time I couldn’t find him. Instead there were shops selling scarves, tea services, pens, tea flasks all nicely decorated in very bright colours and with prices much higher than in Shanghai. We come across the restaurant where the famous movie was made and I went straight to the top hoping for nice photographs only to find a zillion people upstairs thinking the same. Outside the restaurant there was a night club and the pizza place, the signs of how much Xitang had moved on since my last visit. The Xitang I knew had disappeared and progress with the help of Tom Cruise moved in, in the shape of nice bright colours and high prices. Someone said it would be nice to stay overnight now that hotels had arrived too but I doubt that I would be enjoying tranquillity with music from the local night club blasting away. Slightly disappointed we went back to Shanghai.