A Chinese view of Savannah

April 19, 2012

A recent New York Times story about high-end U.S. retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany marketing directly to wealthy Chinese visitors reminded me of some of the extreme Chinese shopping I’ve witnessed in Europe. Stopping in the Zurich airport branch of Sprungli on my way home from Davos, I saw a Chinese man (who spoke no English at all) spend $900 on Swiss chocolates. Offered a free taste by a saleslady as a courtesy for buying so much stuff, he waved it off. Apparently he was not actually a chocolate lover but just buying gifts for some lucky friends. On the tube in London I saw Chinese women en route to Heathrow with the most enormous Louis Vuitton shopping bags and clocked the resentful glances of their fellow passengers. It reminded me of how Americans abroad used to be rich and universally loathed.

While Chinese tourists in the 1 percent may be living large, for those in the 99 percent travel is often less luxurious. Evan Osnos’s clever piece in the New Yorker last year described his trip on a tour bus with a group of Chinese rushing through Europe and eating Chinese food. A Chinese friend once admitted to me that she regretted missing out on Italian food during an organized tour through Italy; in Peru a tour guide told me that the Chinese were famous for bringing their own food. Clearly there is an opportunity here for a canny tour operator, and based on my last weekend in Savannah I’d like to suggest that Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans be added to the list of must-sees for the nouveau Chinese tourism market.

After my trip to India with my parents last November went off mostly without a hitch, I was ready to travel with other people’s parents. So when my young friend Dandan announced that her mom – who teaches at the Shanghai Maritime Engineering College – would be making a maiden voyage to the U.S. in time for Dandan’s graduation from Columbia, I invited them both on a girly weekend I had planned with Nguyen To Hong Kong (another Columbia student I spend a lot of time with) as a last treat before the two young women graduate and leave the U.S.

The ladies took an energetic approach to Savannah sightseeing, and we went through the guidebook at a rapid pace. No stone was left unturned, including the carriage tour of the stately, tree-lined squares, the tours of the old houses and the torpid alligators in tanks at the Crab Shack (too lazy to even open their mouths to eat the “treats” offered by tourists).

Adding to the amusement was the homespun commentary provided by Dandan’s mother and translated by Dandan as her mother does not speak English. (Dandan’s mom is named Hong, but is no relation to Hong Kong.) Hong’s name means red, and her sister was named “blue.” “My parents have no imagination,” Hong said, explaining that her enterprising sister changed her name to “intelligence.”

Here are some of Hong’s views on the Savannah highlights she enjoyed:

Breakfast grits at Goose Feathers Express Café & Bakery: “My congee is better.”

A long wait for lemonade at the landmark Gryphone Tea Room, which is housed in a gorgeous old pharmacy lined with wood shelving and now owned by the Savannah College of Arts and Design and staffed by its laid-back students: “Just like the Cultural Revolution. The service was so slow then.”

Fort Pulaski, which was filled with locals dressed in Confederate uniforms and ladies in hoop skirts and where you can see the cannons being fired on Saturdays at 3 p.m.: “Like the Great Wall of China. but flatter.”

The pan-fried whiting at Sisters of the New South: “Pass the hot sauce, please.”

The tour of the 18th century Green-Meldrim mansion designed by New York Architect John S. Norris for Mr. Charles Green, who arrived in Savannah in 1833: “He started with only $2, and he became rich. I like this independent American spirit.”

When we arrived at Wormsloe Plantation, which is famous for its driveway lined with oak trees dripping with hanging Spanish moss, and took a three-mile walk in the woods, Hong’s reaction was: “How much did the tickets cost? In China only senior officials would be able to walk in such a big, empty place with fresh air.” She was surprised that admission was free and intrigued by our system of using taxes to help fund our national parks.

Arriving at the beach on Tybee Island, Hong gasped: “So clean and quiet. Chinese beaches have so much litter.”

Coming from a big and bustling city, Hong loved the parks and the fresh air. She was impressed by the unhurried pace and the friendliness of the Savannahians, who kept asking us where the women were from and whether they were enjoying their hushpuppies. Coming back to crowded and dirty LaGuardia Airport on Sunday was a bit of a letdown, and we all agreed that, apart from the abundance of fried food, Savannah was a wonderful place for a weekend getaway.

“Such good manners. In Shanghai everyone is always rushing,” was Hong’s final verdict about her trip to the American South.

PHOTO: Entrance to Wormsloe Plantation, Savannah, Georgia/Nguyen To Hong Kong


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Savannah is my hometown. I appreciate the travelers’ candor and appreciation for what is wonderful and what needs a boost in this beautiful corner of Earth.

Posted by SandyTraub | Report as abusive

How about this, stop telling the Chinese to come to the Southeast US because we don’t want them there! It is people like you that are selling out our country to foreign powers and we will hold people like you accountable one day too.

Posted by CountryPride | Report as abusive

Wow, lighten up! I’ve always wanted to go to Savannah…

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

Memo to CountryPride:

Don’t you want foreign (or for that matter, other American) tourists coming to the Southeast and dropping oodles of money on local restaurants and shops? What’s wrong with that?

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive