Thirty-five years before and after

Wong How Man
Suzhou, Jiangsu Province – 26
July 2009

1974 - The Grand Canal at Suzhou"Above there is heaven, and below there is Suzhou and Hanzhou.”
For centuries, this adage has circulated widely, reflecting the two cities’ serene beauty.

I first visited Suzhou in 1974 and again in 1977, 1986 and 1988. I am back again after a 20-year absence. In 1988, I was disappointed at the fast-changing scene which dulled many of my earlier memories of this unique city with its myriad canals and bridges.

This time, I was totally disillusioned by the emergence of a new city that seems to have erased all traces of its cultural past. I mustered the courage to visit a few places that boasted of the scenic beauty of an ancient city; I was dismayed by the commercialism and their overrated beauty. The few remaining stretches of ancient houses are used as shops and restaurants, with occasional exhibits and boutique museums that again are quite commercial. The innumerable red lanterns hung out in day time and lit at night added only crude touches to its touristy image.

The former outskirts of the city with rice fields, canals and bridges is nowhere to be seen. In its place is the new IT and industrial town with modern buildings and facilities. Even with a bird’s eye view from the high floor of the 23-storey Kempinski Hotel where I am staying, one cannot see even a tiny glimpse of any farm. Emerging modern Suzhou has totally replaced the ancient city I once knew.

In those early days, I used to visit numerous historic gardens and had written many articles introducing such architectural and landscaping wonders to Western readers. Back then, the local community and its architecture were a complement to these gardens. Today, the gardens remain but the neighborhood has been transformed.

Shi Zi Yuan, or Lion’s Garden, was part of the family property of famed Chinese American architect I.M. Pei. In it were rock decorations which resemble countless lions in various postures, at play or at rest.I.M. Pei’s Museum in Suzhou The constant flow of tourists flooding these sites makes it difficult to appreciate the peace and tranquility for which these gardens were originally designed.

The only consolation to Suzhou’s former architectural beauty is perhaps IM Pei’s latest creation and modern interpretation of the nearby vernacular buildings with white walls, geometric lines and black-tiled roofs. It is reflected fully and gracefully in the Suzhou Museum which he designed. Above all, as an exception to the highly commercialized Suzhou, the admission to the museum is free. Beyond this experience, my impression of Suzhou is best left to memories from over three decades ago.