My Suzhou


Originally published in International Schools magazine and aimed at teachers considering a move to China.

The classical gardens, first. Master of the Nets is my favourite: small, but it has all the elements. Not gardens in the Western sense, but homes for the well-to-do, built around a central pond. In a classical garden, art and nature melt into each other. Every doorway, every latticed window, every view down a bending corridor or around a corner, frames a picture as carefully designed as any work of art. I love to imagine the owner, retired after a difficult career of public service, spending his days sitting in a pavilion overlooking the pond, gazing out at the Taihu rocks and—walled off from the surrounding city—basking in the peace of a vast imagined wilderness as he sips his tea, smokes his pipe, and writes poetry in the beautiful characters he mastered so long ago.

Once you have visited some gardens, go to the Suzhou Museum—not so much for the contents as for the buildings and grounds, which were designed by the world-famous I.M. Pei as a modernised, stylised classical garden. Pei’s uncle actually owned one of the gardens—the Lion’s Grove—and Pei played in the Taihu rock labyrinths that delighted my own children when we first arrived in Suzhou. (Taihu rocks are giant pieces of limestone, soaked for years in the waters of Lake Tai, the result a twisting, perforated greyish-white monolith that may seem to be a woman, a lion, or a distant mountain range.) Bring some fish food, offer it to the goldfish, and wonder at the swarm of colours as they compete for the morsels falling from heaven.

Suzhou’s gardens and many of its other treasures—not all—survived the Cultural Revolution thanks to the easygoing resourcefulness of the Suzhou people. To protect precious bas-relief sculptures, I am told, they plastered over them and wrote “Long Live Chairman Mao” on the dried surface. Though the Red Guards knew what was underneath, they dared not destroy those words. As a result, the old city centre retains much of its look and feel from ancient days—which is not true of many, perhaps most Chinese cities today.

Go to the Taoist temple in the middle of Guan Qian Jie, the ‘walking street’, or to the Buddhist temples at West Garden or Hanshan, and burn some incense, or have your fortune told. (The Taoist fortune tellers, in my experience, are more accurate.) If you go to Hanshan at the western edge of the old city limits, don’t miss your chance to walk over and gaze awhile at the huge barges going up and down on the Grand Canal, which stretches (at least in theory—not all of it is navigable today) from Hangzhou, two hours south of Suzhou by car, to Beijing—a public works project that vies with the Great Wall, though it is perhaps less picturesque. After that, stroll into the little shopping street where real artists have their studios, intermixed with the usual shops selling tourist curios. My favourite is the man who creates amazingly detailed paper-cut art, some of it kitschy, some jaw-droppingly beautiful, in sizes to suit any budget.

Back in the city centre, take a Sunday afternoon to see a Kunqu Opera performance at the Kunqu Museum. For 30 RMB (about US$5.00) you can sit in the tiny theatre and marvel at the art of these singing actors whose every movement—down to the last fingertip—is exquisitely precise. You won’t understand a word, but it doesn’t matter. (Even most of the Chinese members of the audience need to read the lyrics on a very untraditional LED display over the stage, because the actors’ words are in ‘Suzhou hua’, the local Suzhou dialect). Kunqu Opera delighted one of the emperors on a visit here, and he imported Kunqu performers to the capital, where they contributed importantly to the development of Peking Opera. Kunqu, to my ears, is much more pleasant than its northern cousin. I like to sit on the side near the musicians, where I can watch them play in perfect harmony with the actors: cymbals, drums, dulcimer, and several stringed instruments. Amazing, humbling talent.

Modern Suzhou is . . . modern! A brand-new 21st-century subway system just opened its first line last year. Shopping centres selling absolutely anything you could ever want are lit up at night—along with the rest of the city—like the Christmas decorations of drunken Dionysian revellers. Although prices have risen shockingly since I arrived in 2004, you can still taxi wherever you need to go on a teacher’s salary, and once you master the buses and subways—or buy an e-bike—transportation is very affordable indeed.

Suzhou lies in the vast Yangtze River delta. The weather is wet and grey, the landscape similar to Holland, canals included, windmills (usually) not. Rainy springs; hot and humid summers; glorious autumns; and cold, wet winters with an occasional sprinkle of snow. The air quality is much better than Beijing, but much worse than Vancouver. If you are asthmatic, like me, invest in a good face mask; if you suffer from depression when deprived of bright sunlight, consider other destinations.

As with most places, if you eat locally, you can live quite cheaply, but if you want to eat just as you do at home, be prepared to pay. You can buy just about everything here that you could in London or Los Angeles, but at roughly twice the price. As for all those stories about food adulteration, yes: it is a problem. But the truth is, millions of people here eat pork, fish, shrimp—and everything else—on a daily basis without ill effects. Much more dangerous is the traffic, which works on different principles than you are used to; let others do the driving until you acclimate.

Suzhou is the perfect place, I think, to experience both old China and new China. I would not trade my decade here for anything in the world.

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