China and I have had a strange relationship. Having missed two opportunities to visit the country, I was convinced that the universe didn’t want me there. Work presented a third opportunity, but not without visa blues. I was about to give up, but thankfully, I got lucky the third time.
We arrived at Hangzhou Airport on 10 September. The weather forecast was cloudy with likely chances of rain, which prompted me to pack an umbrella and raincoat. On the contrary, Hangzhou was sunny and hot like Mumbai is in May, minus the humidity, of course.
Not just that, the air was smoggy, just like Delhi's. I was expecting to see people wearing masks, but it turns out people in Hangzhou are pretty unbothered about the pollution. And so were we.
Built along the Great Canal that connects directly to Beijing, Hangzhou has been a historically important city. It was one of the seven capitals of ancient China – naturally a centre for trade, culture and art. We didn’t get a taste of these, as modern architecture has taken over most of the city’s urban landscape.
However, despite the modernism, Hangzhou remains distinctly Chinese with its tall, overpowering and magnificent buildings replicating its dominance in the global economy.
They also represent the best possible marriage of Chinese and Western architecture.
Hangzhou is also home to Chinese tech giant Alibaba, our hosts and also the organiser of the TaoBao Maker Festival — the focus of our four-day trip to this part of the Yangtze River Delta.
Thanks to the time difference and the body clock of an employee who works the night shift back in Mumbai, I was late to arrive for the bus to the Boiler Factory, the main venue of the TaoBao Maker Festival. But I was not alone; the entire gang of Indian journalists who were also staying at the same hotel stayed true to the Indian value of not being punctual.
With 400 makers and 1,000 exclusive products catering to food, culture and technology, and the latest trends in fashion and design, the TaoBao Maker Festival has emerged as a platform for young makers in China to take their designs and concepts directly to Chinese millennials. And this is not a statement out of the official press release, but the actual truth.
"The goal of the festival is not to sell, but to give makers a platform to build a following, combining the online retail business, that is, TaoBao with an offline experience of products, the festival," says Chris Tung, chief marketing officer of the Alibaba Group.
Tung informs us that each of the 400 makers – all first-timers except a few repeats – are selected through a rigorous multi-stage process, bringing out the best of the TaoBao online marketplace to an offline experience zone. The festival is also Alibaba’s largest experiment in what it calls “new retail”, where the online shopping meets the offline experience — another example of this is its chain of FreshHippo stores and the grab-and-go store More Mall.
Some of the stall operators were still giving finishing touches to their booths when we entered the venue. We were greeted by the replica of a rocket at the first courtyard and a space-themed McDonald’s Cafe designed around the remains of an actual rocket which has been to and back from space, borrowed from the government.
At the McDonald’s Café, we came across a special waste recycler, which compresses PET bottles into tiny bits of plastic, which are then used to make key chains and other plastic products.
Designed as a food dispenser, this recycler could be easily placed at railway stations, schools and airports – something India could use to solve its plastic wastage problem. What I really liked was how this single innovation was teaching people the importance of recycling without being preachy, as is the case with most anti-plastic movements, programmes and ads.
Our next stop at the TBMF, which was now turning into a maze of sorts, was GreenMonday, a Hong Kong-based company which offers OmniPork, a plant-based lab-grown vegan pork.
You heard that right – vegan pork.
The company has but one goal: Make China vegan. The same country which is the world’s largest consumer of pork.
A tall aim, but they are confident.
Will they succeed? Only time will tell. I have never tasted pork, except once by mistake, which is now just a blurred memory, but all those who tasted OmniPork swear by its similarity to the original. I found the pork meatballs juicy, though slightly off for my Indian palate, but I have to admit OmniPork is exciting and offers a lot of promise, especially to the environmentally-conscious non-vegetarians who are open to newer flavours.
Besides, seeing that a fever in Africa has already cut China's pork supply, the time is ripe for OmniPork's debut in mainland China.
To perk up the OmniPork, I turned to a mechanical robot nearby, for a refreshing cocktail.
An interesting highlight was C-Exoskeleton Technology, a maker of hybrid wearable devices known as exoskeletons that enhance one’s strength. Though inspired from Iron Man, the suits are more like a backpack and come with a mechanical spinal cord and arms.
By strength, they aren’t talking about weightlifting inside a gym, as I tried, but dead weights like concrete blocks that could be very useful in the construction industry as well as in disaster management.
You can also use it to lift your car, in case you don’t have a jack. Though the jack will be easier to hide in your car and won’t require two extra hands to unscrew the wheel, an exoskeleton will give you superhuman capabilities that a jack simply can’t.
For those of you who want a dog as a pet but don’t have the time or energy to take care of it, you will love the robo dogs. For fans of Lego, there is DUH1, which sells sports shoes made of Legos. And considering the maker is an official partner of Nike, be assured that you won’t be buying cheap knockouts.
While strolling around the venue, I came across a vendor who was offering spiced Chinese wine. Those who like an extra kick in their liquor will enjoy this wine; the chilly-flavoured one was my favourite.
There was also VIST, a niche ice-cream brand serving liquor-flavoured ice-cream. After the spiced wine, I wasn’t ready for more, but I am told the vodka flavour is a star there.
There is a lot to see and experience at the TaoBao Maker Festival, and the three hours that we were given was just too little time. At the venue, not knowing Mandarin also turned out to be a huge setback.
At one point, I had the strangest conversation with one of the stall operators selling toys, who didn’t speak English. He ended up gifting me a sticker and pin when I asked using Google Translate if I could get one of the toys delivered to India, perhaps to just get rid of me.
We went back there a second time, and once again, time just flew by. The day before we were about to leave Hangzhou, we visited Alibaba's campus, experienced its More Mall, its concept Flyzoo Hotel where the check-in is automated and a robot collects your laundry and plates.
Unfortunately, we experienced Hangzhou mostly from inside vehicles. During our rides through the city, I found myself in awe of Hangzhou's architectural landscape and the attention given to every detail in ensuring public convenience — a separate lane for bikers and pedestrians, sloped corners to allow bikers to move in and out of pedestrian areas, cycles on rent at every kilometre, bus stops which aren't nightmarish like in Mumbai, and roofed stops for bikers at every signal.
Just as I began falling in love with Hangzhou, I witnessed a glimpse of ‘the art of hiding things'.
Green barriers line various portions of the city, which while adding a "green" tinge to its landscape also hide the dirt and garbage piling up.
But China is known to hide uncomfortable truths. For example, the Uighur Muslim problem. Beijing has time and again “denied mass detention of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in its Western Xinjiang region”, instead terming these centres "boarding schools".
We won’t talk more about that, since Hangzhou falls in the Zhejiang Province in Western China, which is parallelly opposite to the Xinjiang Province in the East, where the Uighur Muslims are “detained”, but you get the point.
One day I hope to return to Hangzhou, not as a journalist but as a tourist, to explore its architecture and the TaoBao Festival with no one to time my stay or to remind me that I am running late again!