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Watertown to push your buttons

XITANG Watertown in nearby Zhejiang Province is unlike closer-in watertowns - it's tranquil and uncrowded. It also features funky, interesting museums exhibiting buttons, root carving, tiles and Chinese wine culture. Michelle Zhang pays a visit.

I once visited Antico Setificio Fiorentino, the oldest silk factory in Italy, and one of the oldest in the world, housed in an 18th century building in Florence. In a large, noisy room, the finest silks were produced in the most traditional way - woven on a manual loom by experienced workers. The hand pulls a rope, the shuttle slides through and among the threads.

It takes months to produce only enough fabric to make a cushion or a blanket. Royal families in Europe traditionally order fabrics from the factory.

Most recently, I visited the China Button Museum in Xitang, an ancient watertown in nearby Zhejiang Province. Housed in a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) building, the museum has a wide collection of buttons - any kind that you can imagine - from the traditional Chinese knots to the latest ones made from horn, ivory, mother of pearl and bamboo.

Also on display is old machinery used by Xitang people more than 100 years ago to make buttons out of shells.

A skilled craftsman showed visitors how a button is made in the most traditional way. From picking up the shell, cutting out the shape, polishing the button to drilling holes on it - all was done on the traditional treadle machine.

The scene suddenly reminded me of the silk factory and the weavers in Florence: the oldest button factory in China, maybe even in the world, housed in historic Chinese architecture - how cool would that be?

It is hard to believe that this tranquil town, where Tom Cruise shot scenes of "Mission Impossible 3," features a lot of funky, interesting museums.


In addition to the button museum, there's a ceramic tile museum, a Chinese wine culture museum and a wood root carving museum, all housed in well-preserved old buildings known as the heart of Xitang in a section with canals and bridges.

Unlike those noisy, crowded, over-developed watertowns such as Zhujiajiao and Zhouzhuang, Xitang retains a very quiet, natural environment. People enjoy their life and work. Shop owners don't push you to buy. Many were taking a nap behind the cash register when I visited. There is a boutique called Heaven of Matches, in which you can find matches in all kinds of bizarre packages. A reasonably sized boutique selling nothing but matches - can you believe that in the year 2010?

Boats are constantly plying the waterways in Xitang. It costs 100 yuan (US$14.60) to rent a boat (10 people maximum) during the day and 150 yuan at night. The boatman told me that he earns a fixed salary so he doesn't worry much about how many people he chauffeurs a day.

"I'm always happy to do my job, even if there's only one customer onboard," he says.

When night falls, restaurants along the river get busy. Spring is the best time for fresh seafood and veggies. Recommended local dishes include the steamed fresh fish, river shrimps, hairy crabs and eel paste served in boiling oil as well as pork braised in lotus leaves.

Food stalls in the center of the town sell local snacks such as dumplings, multicolored candies, sweet and salty crispy cakes, and globs of molasses on sticks.

For 10 yuan you can get a cup of green tea at one of the oldest tea houses in Xitang, at the entrance of Xiyuan Garden, once the residence of the richest family in town. A band of four old men performing on traditional Chinese instruments keeps you company at night.

Quaint little guest houses in renovated old buildings are all over the town. Many are equipped with modern facilities such as private showers and air conditioning. Some of them also feature cafe-cum-bars in the lobby where cocktails, beer, coffee and Internet services are provided, although I really doubt if you would think of using the Internet in such Zen-feel surroundings.

The official Website for Xitang is It contains information in English. To attract tourists visiting the World Expo 2010 Shanghai, the Jiashan County (Xitang is part of Jiashan County) has launched a 24-hour hotline for tourist information: (0573) 8402-4777.


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