Tan Hua Lin Art Village is one of Wuhan’s foremost destinations for anyone looking to spend a lazy day out. But the conservation zone, reclaimed from an old village and transformed into an eclectic enclave of cafes, restaurants and push carts offers so much more than just a languid afternoon filled with pretty Instagram pics.
The idyllic sight of slate-grey, low-rise buildings flanking well-worn stone pathways lulls you into wanting to explore every nook and cranny, an endeavour that will reward you with the reveal of myriad little details – old brass knockers on stately doors; historic plaques declaring the ancestral homes of so-and-so; intricate woodworked window shutters; sun-bleached couplets that mark the entrances of residences.
But don’t think for a moment it’s all drab, grey, old people things. Woven through the historic district are splashes of colour and life in the form of quaint little shops and vibrant storefronts, hawking everything from bbq skewers to bubble tea to tourist souvenirs to home-brewed flower-infused rice wine, packaged in authentic clay bottles.
And therein lies Tan Hua Lin’s allure – there’s everything you need for a thoroughly enjoyable day in your Wuhan itinerary, but it’s never overly aggressive or stimulating, the way theme parks or night markets can sometimes be. Everything is presented just so for you to explore and enjoy at your leisure.
However, there’s another side of Tan Hua Lin that only reveals itself when you scratch below the surface. As you venture further, everywhere you look, you’ll begin to spot hints of everyday living.
A laden clothesline strung haphazardly across overhead wires; a squat, grey-coloured building topped with a bright red Christian cross; a window grille decorated with empty beer bottles; pushcarts hawking local snacks; the cacophony of schoolchildren released for the day…
That’s right, Tan Hua Lin is an actual residential estate that just happens to have a prettied up, tourist-friendly facade. Dare to explore past where the souvenir shops begin to dwindle, and you’ll find yourself in a completely different world, one that may be grimier, but also much more visceral.
Walking down a dusty intersection, with the previous tourist-friendly knick-knacks now replaced by daily sundries – assorted vegetables, their natural vibrant shades contrasting sharply with their gritty surroundings; live fish thrashing about in plastic trays; steamed rice cakes sold by a beaming couple (delicious, btw); trays of spiced, braised meats – I realised with a start that I had stumbled upon an unfettered view of everyday life for people in this corner of the world.
As the realisation dawned, I suddenly felt self conscious. I was undeniably an intruder, taking up space in a busy neighbourhood market as its denizens went about their business. The milling sight might be a spectacle for me, but for them, it’s everyday life. Nothing to see here, kiddo!
But there was plenty to see for someone like me! Unused as I was to the surroundings, I was the swa koo (country bumpkin) here! I resolved to be respectful with my photo-taking, and tried my best not to get in their way. I felt that was the least I could do.
As I wend my way through the market stalls, I saw hardworking folks tending to tedious, backbreaking tasks. I saw families cooking on open stoves, taking turns to feed mischievous, hungry children. I saw neighbours offering each other the best of the day’s picks while trading the latest gossip.
Despite the relative squalor of their surroundings – some stalls had hardly enough light bulbs to chase away the gloom, when just meters away, shopfronts are decorated with rows upon rows of sparkly LEDs – the residents of Tan Hua Lin simply made do and carried on.
The contrast was both fascinating and humbling.
All too soon, the waning daylight signaled it was time for my retreat. Part of me wanted to stay past sundown, curious at the kind of scenes that might show themselves. But my suddenly hungry tummy, my laden shopping bags and the fact that I didn’t have a proper camera (which meant no decent night shots) compelled my surrender.
As I made my way out to the main road for a taxi, I reflected on how even though everything here – from the buildings to the pathways to the rusty shuttered stores – is positively ancient, there’s a palpable sense of purpose, dignity and pride.
Between the young entrepreneurs and their transformation of conservation units into cat cafes, DIY wishing charm stores, American-style bakeries and coffee houses; and just two laneways away, the neighbourhood denizens with their ready smiles and bubbling dinners, the spirit of its people shine brightly through.
I came to Tan Hua Lin expecting little more than a pleasant, slightly bohemian afternoon. But I left with the realisation that sometimes old buildings can give rise to new lives and new hope.