My fascinations with the flowers of China started in 2006 when I went to the small city south west of Hangzhou, Jinhua, on a business trip to see if this town in Zhejiang Province, along with other small cities like Wenzhou, could be included in our itineraries. My preparation for the trip didn’t give me any high hopes – the area was well known for its red soil and bamboo, factories for building materials, and pharmaceutical plants.
The journey via Shanghai and Hangzhou was long and tiring. Equipped with all the props – camera, map, guide books, we set out to meet our local guide, a nice, smiley bouncy chap who spoke perfect English. The first visit on our list was to the Camellia Culture Gardens – a strange starting point for February. There was no snow and it wasn’t cold but to go to the garden when there wouldn’t be any flowers around sounded a bit strange.
At the entrance we were met by the local Camellia expert, a young and shy enthusiast, dressed a very quirkily even by Western standards – woollen trousers, matched with a waistcoat obviously tailor made and a beautiful sparkly tie. Next to him was his girlfriend, Jin, an outgoing person with a big smile, very chatty and unafraid of making mistakes in her English during our conversations. She was the opposite of her boyfriend but also very nicely dressed.
The first stop was the Yuedan Pavilion beside the Lotus Pond. Surprisingly for the time of the year, the pavilion was full of local people enjoying their tea, sunshine, flowers and games of mah jong. The views over the city were breathtaking and after settling down we started to get to know each other. The young camellia expert, Mr Zhang, who didn’t speak English, tried to explain through guide his obsession with these blooms.
“Oh he loves them more than me” – Miss Jin supported her fiancé’s story.
“My father started cultivating them as a hobby and we always had pots around the house full of camellias. Then when he retired he leased some plots around Jinhua and cultivated them there. Firstly for friends and family but then people started buying them and he turned his hobby into a successful business. The camellias flourish in this area as the climate is very favourable and the solid is very rich in iron.”
During the walk around the garden we realised that the shrubs or small trees, rarely large trees, were camellias. And in full bloom! There were more than 300 different types of C japonica, C. sansaqua and C.nitidissima I learned all these names from Mr Zhang and so many other facts about this unique flower. Camellias can live 100-200 years and the oldest living camellia, planted in 1347, can be found in China’s Panlong Monastery in Kunming. China’s native name for camellias means ‘tea flower’ and Camellia sinensis is usually called ‘tea plant’, as it is the most common plant in the world to be used for making tea, usually from young leaves that can be made into the green, black, white, oolong and other varieties of tea.
We walked around the garden, taking photos, admiring flowers, checking the names which were clearly displayed in Latin, English and Chinese. We could have easily stayed all day but we already had a meeting with the president of the Camellia Society in China. Dressed in his dark suit and with a smart business bag, he introduced himself in a hurry, insisting on taking us to his private camellia garden instead of to the institute as was pre arranged. His garden looked like an extension of Homebase, with different empty pots, huge concrete tables decorated with beautiful bonsai trees and the occasional camellia with prices clearly displayed in Euros, pounds and US$. A bit confused, afraid of offending our host, we repeated the same routine as in the Camellia Culture Gardens but on a smaller scale. We took a few photos, stood to admire the garden, touched a few camellias, refused to buy any and then joined the group who was in a deep discussion where to take us next. The shy Mr Zhang insisted on the small local restaurant on the outskirts of the city while the bolshy president with his business bag wanted to take us to the hotel where he had booked a private dining room. As the discussion grew heated, the tactful Miss Jin stepped in and simply said:
“But we have a surprise for them.”
And we went to a small intimate restaurant with no more than 5 tables and joined a group of young Chinese men sitting together and having lunch.
“They are University students. They’re studying Chinese folk singing.” Miss Jin explained while moving a chair closer to me. I noticed that she was dressed very prettily, unusually prettily for walking around gardens. “Jinhua is well known for its folk singing.”
In the middle of ordering food, a young, dashing Chinese boy came to our table and in perfect English asked if we would like to hear them singing one of the most popular folk songs of the region.
When I first heard Beijing Opera some years previously, I hated all that piercing screaming and I even went a second time to make sure there was nothing wrong with my taste, but I simply had to walk out when the main character found out that his wife was having an affair and the piercing screaming went up a few, unbearable notches. This time the whole experience was different. The singing was mellow, still piercing, but somehow gliding into the ears instead of drilling them. We enjoyed it and awarded them long and well deserved applause.
In between cups of camellia tea and a sumptuous, freshly-cooked meal, the three boys dressed in corporate uniforms with matching hats, arrived with huge bouquets for each girl in the group – me, my colleague from the UK, and Miss Jin. I had travelled through China extensively and received lots of presents but never a flower bouquet. Strange but nice. The president, feeling upstaged, made an excuse and left the restaurant with his entourage. And, I don’t know exactly when, Mr Zhang, the youngest Camellia expert in China, overcame his shyness, went down on one knee, pulled a box with a ring from his pocket and presented it to Miss Jin. The guide was translating for us but we already knew what was happening. Through her blushes, surprise, excitement, I think she said yes because Mr Zhang got up and kissed her.
“Oh I didn’t expect that.” declared Miss Jin, her face still flushed, her big smile matching the size of the rock on her finger.
We all had “Ganbei” with the local rice wine, camellia tea and Qingdao beer. As a present and memento of the happy occasion in Jinhua we received a live Black Camellias which Mr Zhang was known for cultivating.
Visit to Jinhua was added to the Garden Tour of China.