'Chaozhou warmed my heart'

The city's picturesque Guangji bridge - considered one of China's "four famous ancient bridges" - stands just outside Chaozhou's old city walls.

CHINA - It is probably fair to say that a trip to Chaozhou is not on the itinerary of most tourists to China.

With a population of less than three million, Chaozhou is not a bustling city like Guangzhou, which is located in the same province, a six-hour drive away. Neither does it boast famous attractions like those found in Beijing, Xi'an or Hangzhou.

But none of these things matter if you are Teochew, like me. Then travelling to Chaozhou becomes quite a big deal.

My grandparents hailed from Chaoan, a town located about half an hour from Chaozhou. They were village dwellers who spent most of their time tending to their small plot of land at home, so the rare trip to the bright lights of Chaozhou was just about the biggest journey they embarked on.

That was, of course, before they topped it all by taking a week-long boat ride to Singapore where they stayed for good.

I never saw what Chaozhou was like during their time, even though my grandparents would speak about it sometimes. But it seems like some things have not changed very much.

Bridge with missing cow

For one, the city's picturesque Guangji bridge - considered one of China's "four famous ancient bridges" - is still standing just outside Chaozhou's old city walls.

My grandmother used to recite a phrase about the bridge, recounting 24 pavilions, 18 boats and two cows.

It makes little sense until you see the structure.

Built in 1171, Guangji bridge spans 500m across the Han river and has 24 pretty pavilions dotting its length. Melding architectural style with engineering genius, the centre of the bridge consists of 18 boats linked by chains, which can be unlinked to allow large vessels to pass through.

The two large metal cow structures are the final touches to the bridge, added supposedly as auspicious figures to prevent the river from flooding. Only one cow remains today.

The joke goes that one of them "slipped away" after getting tired of guarding the bridge, but it was most likely swept away during a flood.

Scholar hero

Across the river, the Hanwen temple honours Han Yu, a Tang-dynasty scholar whom Teochews revere. He is generally credited as the founder of Chaozhou, who - after being exiled to this sleepy town - promptly transformed it into a thriving port in only eight months.

Such is his stature that he has also been credited with feats such as taming man-eating crocodiles in the Han river and stopping floods.

These are the little nuggets of history I learnt on my visit. On numerous occasions, I realised just how little I knew about the place of my ancestry.

Teochew cuisine

It took me a while, for instance, to realise that the Han river ("han jiang" in Mandarin) is "hung kang" in Teochew.

For years, my extended family had dined at a Teochew restaurant in Singapore's Chinatown named Hung Kang, and I was none the wiser about the significance of its name.

But these dinners - and years of being brought up by my grandmother's cooking - had familiarised me with Teochew cuisine, which turned mealtimes in Chaozhou into real treats.

I could, for example, buy deep-fried spring rolls wrapped with pork and green bean, a delicious Teochew snack which you cannot buy in Singapore. My grandmother had, sadly, stopped making these for years.

I could also indulge in traditional "or suan" (right), or oysters cooked in a starchy sauce. The dish in Chaozhou was chock full of oysters, compared to the meagre few I tend to get at home when I order the closest equivalent in Singapore - the "or luah" or oyster omelette.

A meal including this and other dishes in Chaozhou old town - which is near the Guangji bridge and city walls - came up to just 40 yuan (S$8) for two people.

Even my hotel's complimentary breakfast of Teochew porridge was delicious.

One morning, we had lotus root and pork rib porridge, topped with pig's blood and bitterground fried with lotus root. Any Teochew would tell you this is the perfect start to the day.

Common language

What was particularly amusing to me was to see young people conversing to each other in fluent Teochew, when in my family, my younger cousins can barely string a few words together in the dialect.

And when locals find out that you can speak some Teochew, their level of camaraderie goes up another notch, and they will gladly chat with you about life here and overseas.

"Lai lai, jiak teh," one eatery's helper gestured to us in Teochew, even though we had stayed past the closing hours of the shop.

Chaozhou may not be home, not in the strictest sense of the word.

But it felt oddly familiar, and that warmed my heart.

GUIDELINES

- Jetstar flies from Singapore to Jieyang Chaoshan International Airport four times a week. From there, buses and taxis can go to Chaozhou.

- For the best views of Chaozhou's city walls, go after dinner. The walls are beautifully lit up at night.

- One of the best ways to get around Chaozhou is to take a trishaw around Chaozhou's old town, where most attractions are clustered. It should cost 10 yuan (S$2) or less to travel around town.

- Teochews are famous for their baked pastries. One of the most popular shops, located in Chaozhou's old town, is called Hu Rong Quan. Trishaw riders will know where it is.

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