GUARDIAN I wouldn’t normally associate a haunt like Xitang with the toothy gleam of Hollywood royalty. It’s hard to imagine high-octane players like Tom Cruise kicking back in an ancient Chinese water-village and much easier to picture the place filled with decadent opium dens and people idling on sampans. But incontrovertible proof was there to see: up on the wall in a restaurant – and it will soon be seen by many more on silver screens worldwide.
It takes about 90 minutes to drive down to Xitang from Shanghai; from a 21st-century megalopolis to an altogether dreamier slice of history. This Ming and Qing dynasty backwater is achingly photogenic – a quality not missed out on by the producers for Mission: Impossible III. It was rumoured locally that they’d stumped up 100 million Yuan to film in this tiny village for a few days – a shade over £7 million – but it’s possible for the casual visitor to get the picture on a somewhat more modest budget. A ticket for you or me to enter town costs about 40p.
To call this lovely water-village an oriental Venice would be wildly over the mark, yet it shares similarities with its more famous Italian counterpart. Canals dissect twisting narrow lanes and pathways, rendering the community traffic-free and boat friendly. Worn stone steps lead down to the waters and hopelessly pretty bridges span them. But Xitang is on an altogether smaller, happily domestic scale, and no matter how hard it tries, tourism is mercifully still in its infancy.
Even though the place is small, it’s chock-full with museums, temples and places of historic and cultural interest. This is all the more amazing since Xitang suffered badly during the Cultural Revolution. Some of the permanent exhibitions seemed a little eccentric: the anorak within me was particularly taken by the Root Carving museum and the Brick and Tile Display Hall. The Drunk Garden – so-called after the intoxicating effect its views are alleged to have on those visiting – is gorgeous (although I remained sober) and the West Garden, famed for its poetical connections, is a classical baroque tumble of stones, pagodas and pools.
I noticed that the guidebook boasted “some old residences exhibit stone-inscriptions of celebrities”. But I’m willing to wager that it’s not Tinsel Town’s glyptography they’re bragging about, but those of long dead dignitaries.
Rustic wooden pistols seemed to be the toy of choice in the scattering of tourist shops signposted with scalloped flags. They also flog bric-a-brac and are only worth a cursory once-over. But the minuscule noodle and dumpling stores and local inns are well worth seeking out.
Guesthouses cost 100-150 Yuan a night for some of the most romantic rooms I’ve come across. Pierced screens and paper walls surround exquisite carved beds with marble inlays; they are begging for secret trysts or idle nights. The views through the geometric windows across tiled rooftops to the canals below are unbeatable. At night, red lanterns dotted along the eaves reflect in the water, doubling the prettiness, but I don’t think Tom and his famously betrothed girlfriend, Katie Holmes, succumbed to these simple charms.
Like Venice, Xitang is a place that does washing – a bunting of knickers and vests was strung all over the place. Skipping is the preferred exercise, and half-a-dozen jumping women did their utmost to dodge the laundry.
Fishing junks are still in everyday use – easily identified because they’re covered in cormorants – and jostle alongside the myriad tourist boats. They’re the source of local delicacies, including Fenhu Lake crabs, shrimps, eels, clams and turtles. Legs of pork hung in an open shed, were ready to be steamed on lotus leaves and served up with trotter sauce.
One of the better places to eat is at the Qiantang Hotel in the centre of the village on a junction of three waterways. The veranda houses a simple bar and eating area with antique curved seating that allowed women of a bygone era to repose gracefully. It also housed the photographic proof of uber-stardom. A grinning Mr Cruise can be seen grappling with the rather po-faced owner.
I also spotted Meryl Streep on the Qiantang Hotel wall of fame. She, too, was hugging the proprietor. Meryl came as something of a surprise as she’s not featured in the movie. Perhaps Xitang is where the triple A-listers go to chill out of the limelight.
Even though Xitang is small, it’s something of a centre for the arts. In summer, traditional folk operas, concerts and a local cinema play by the waterside in the open-air. And all year-round, young artists from the cities come to paint the alleyways and canals.
Local legend has it that a walk with your loved one over the Songi Laifen bridge increases fertility. Inevitably, Tom and Katie couldn’t resist the stroll across it.