For Instants, hotelier-writer Marie-Christine Clément shares her travelogue in six exquisite, “unforgettable moments” across China, exploring the land’s traditional crops and culture. For the fourth leg of this journey we meet a guide in Nanjing who seems to have come straight out of the 1930s.
I follow her through the internal streets of Yihe Mansions. We wander through this maze of Minguo-style buildings. Opulent-looking houses built for rich high-ranking officials during the first Republic of China; houses with grandiose western-style entrances with tall white colonnaded rotundas to shelter their front steps, and dark wood interiors. The stairs creak. Below, in one of the small squares open to local residents, some Chinese seniors are playing mahjong. A rickshaw is waiting to take me on a tour of Marble Tree Alley, where time seems to stand still beneath the interlocking branches of the plane trees. I see her again on a glass painting in one of those little museums on Yihe Road. This time, she’s wearing a blue jacket. Two white chrysanthemum flowers adorn her head like a plume. She’s younger this time, perhaps. But still the same dark pupils illuminate exquisitely tapered almond-shaped eyes. Together we’ll walk the high walls of the old city, make our offerings at the Buddhist temple of Ji Ming, and leaf through some books at the Avant-Garde bookstore as we listen to Bob Dylan. I see her again in a photographer's window. Her waist is tightly enveloped in a long embroidered silk dress slit at one side. Her leg is exposed. Her hair is beautifully waved. She’s the heroine in a Wong Kar-Wai film. We talk about Kun opera and Biluoshun tea, the spring-green tea silkily rolled like tiny strands of silver hair. That evening, after a meal of soft turtle soup and freshwater shrimps in vinegar served in a private dining room, a small lidded black bowl is placed in front of me. Beneath the lid, a kind of sea anemone spreads its countless arms in a golden broth. At its center is the red eye of a goji berry. A Chrysanthemum flower imprisoned. A Chrysanthemum flower revealed. Its taste is melt-in-the-mouth and as neutral as it should be. The block of soya from which it was created was cut into 98 strips, turned and then re-cut once more into 98 new strips. Not one more, not one less. It seems that the young chef Wu Wen excels at this extraordinary cutting technique, which he performs with no hesitation and in just a few minutes. In her tight black uniform, Veronica - because that's her name today - explained to me that this dish was served at the table of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. The only difference is that, for him, a few orchid flowers were added to the broth. After dinner, she walked me home and, before leaving, slipped a gift into my hand. A small round box containing a new brand of Shanghai cosmetics. On its lid, I saw the languid pose struck by the great beauties of 1930, the yellow-faded colors and timeless frown of my Nanjing Lady.