Ancient Water Town by Night. Suxi, China. Photo by the author.

In Suxi,

dusk greets me

with a seepage of skin sensations,

present and absent tickles,

like the grit-grit of gravel

underneath my sandals

from the impending store fronts

under construction

next to the artist compound

where I stay.


Laborers work tirelessly

in the summer heat

to revamp

the ancient architecture

of the house

into a future

retail destination.

A mix of classic Chinese design

– white plaster walls,

gray roof tiles,

wood window trims –

and shiny glass and neon

features perfect

for the endless stream

of Shanghai’s hip day-trippers

to snap

their WeChat Moments,

reveling in the beauty

of over 2,000 years of history,

while they escape

the rush-rush-rush

of their modern city lives.



China’s ambitions for expansion reach

even into the distant past

of small Suxi,

popularly known

as an “ancient water town” by day,

down to the sunset

that drains the stone streets and arched bridges

until no one but the proprietors,

their families,

the retirees,

and mosquitos remain.


Gone is the press

of sweat and flesh,

the peppery scent

of pickled chilis

infused with fatty fry oils.


Gone is the strange bouquet

of “stinky tofu’s”

sweaty gym sock

odor mixed with

candy-sweet bubble tea

and roasted coffee beans.


No longer do I hear

the melodies of a thousand mouths

conversing cheerily

in a language I don’t understand.


Deftly, the Suxians reclaim

their town spaces.

As the final tourist stragglers

leave the car park,

a group of middle-aged men and women

in bright, baggy clothes

form evenly spaced lines

on the asphalt,

ready to twirl their wrists

and step their feet

to the peppy tones

of a C-pop song beat,


an instructor at the front.


“Square dance,”

“For exercise,”

Yaoxian – my guide and interpreter – says,

on our way

to our favorite Shaokao stall.


Lit paper lanterns sway

at Mr. Lee’s tea shop

where patrons enjoy

a peaceful cup of smooth,

fruity green tea,

as the last fishermen cross

the waterlily-decked lake

to the wooden dock

in front.


The motorized purr

briefly drowns out

the off-key squeal

sang merrily

by some elderly women

to a Mandarin rendition

of Celine Dion’s

“My Heart Will Go On”

(I do recognize that!)

at a nearby karaoke parlor.


Yaoxian waves and greets a friend,

tucked in the back

of a little grocery store,

between shelves of colorful fruit

and vegetables showcased

under radiant fluorescent light

and a muted TV,

snug with her daughter

doing homework.


The neighbors next door

chat over a bowl of rice,

bamboo shoots,

and lotus root

on rickety stools outside

atop Suxi’s famous

herringboned-patterned street,


by their yappy dogs

cavorting along the canal.


Once darkness falls,

only the pungent perfume

of food decay

– sweet, musty, a dash of licorice –


pregnant plumes that stick

to our bare slick arms

as we pass the big, green dumpsters

with their slide-off

black plastic lids

lining the street,

their bins bursting

with fruit peels,

half-empty packaging containers,

plastic bags,

and defective

personal items.


They’re idle reminders

of the hot summer day.

Just like the gravel

that gritted underneath

my sandaled-clad feet, when

I set out on my walk

through Suxi to eat

and passed

the two impending storefronts,

akin to the missing front teeth

in a six-year-old’s grin,


but for the spilled plaster rubble.


of time past

and passing.


Minke Nouwens is a PhD student with the Center of Digital Creativity at Aarhus University (DK). She is a passionate explorer of the spaces where art and anthropology overlap.

Cite AsNouwensMinke. 2023 “Traces” In “Flash Ethnography: Dusk” Aaron Hames and Derek Pardue, eds., American Ethnologist website, June 20 2023