This past weekend, the skies cleared. Wincing at each other in the uncomfortable sunlight, we decided to venture up the road to Hangzhou’s sister city, Suzhou, to make the most of this brief pause in otherwise continual rain. To the Chinese, Suzhou is usually equated with Hangzhou in terms of classical aesthetic beauty. Typically, such praise is really just a coded warning to those who don’t like the taste of tour bus fumes: stay away. But we went anyway, lured by exaggerated tales of meandering canals and peaceful gardens.
Imagine: two hundred years from now, left-over mansions in Beverly Hills and Palm Beach surrounded by parking lots filled with throngs of Chinese tour groups and their hover-craft tour buses. They pay hefty admission fees to elbow their way inside, read placards about the Kardashians’ highly artistic landscaping or Justin Beiber’s use of light and reflection, and get their pictures taken next to every rock and lawn chair.
That’s basically Suzhou today. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the city’s rich salt traders and high-rolling local officials, in keeping up with the Kardashians of their own time, built themselves expansive pleasure gardens to rival any architectural indulgence on MTV’s Cribs. Now that the people rule China, of course, these symbols of opulence and exclusion are open to the everyone, or at least everyone who can afford the admission fees (entrance to one garden can cost about a day’s minimum wage).
The majority of Chinese tourists seemed positively thrilled by the level of artistic accomplishment embodied in the gardens, and even more so by the opportunity to clamber past “Do Not Climb the Rocks” signs in order to get their pictures taken on said rocks. As a product of my own shallow material culture, however, the rocks-and-water landscaping just kept reminding me of good mini-golf courses. Just put a little ski-jump ramp here, a hole in the floor of that pagoda over there, and you got yourself a good Saturday, I thought. That gazebo over there should be selling soft-serve.
Needless to say, I probably failed to fully appreciate the priceless cultural significance of these UNESCO World Heritage sites. Owen, meanwhile, was left somewhat disappointed after hearing of Suzhou’s oft-stated reputation for having the most beautiful women in all of China. While casting about for smiles at the Suzhou Museum (above), one very highly-hair-styled man hogged all the attention. Although somewhat perturbed, Owen nevertheless kept everyone entertained with an old crowd-pleaser: panting on the window and then licking up his breath-fog. The ladies loved it.
One of the more interesting aspects of Suzhou isn’t the ancient buildings, but just the plain-old old buildings. Although a relatively affluent city in the Yangtze Delta, the central district is still replete with crumbling Mao-era apartment blocks overlooking the legendary canals. Many residential areas are accessible only by foot or bike along narrow lanes built before anyone had cars. And outside their apartments, women gather in the cold morning air to do laundry with stinking water from canal-fed wells. These neighborhoods had the feel of what I imagine most Chinese cities in the 1970s were like, before the rapid reforms of the last forty years were unleashed. Where are the Bentley dealerships? Today in most cities comparable to Suzhou, these people would be forcibly moved out in order to make room for gleaming modern development projects. Here, though, they somehow remain—for now, anyway—modern tenants in Cold War-era apartment blocs, on some land with the longest history of urban settlement in southern China.
As the sun went down, never to return again, we finished the day as we began: more wandering, people-watching, and dreaming of mini-golf.