Soochow on film

Soochow, half an hour by train from Shanghai, my weekend getaway from the CSE programme. Of course I don’t mean that Suzhou is just a weekend getaway. It’s an ancient water city that is over 2500 years old and actually where my surname (吳) comes from. I have always been interested in traditional Chinese culture more than my peers, and I studied Chinese literature in high school. The saying that Suzhou (Soochow according to the local language) and Hangzhou (Su-Hang) are the paradise of the human world (while there is another paradise for angels and saints up there) was ingrained in me and I always fantasise living in a water city with the rivers and bridges and I can write or read poetry in one of those wooden houses next to the stream. Such scenery unique from other inland Chinese cities definitely inspired ancient Chinese poets to write their most beautiful lines.

But another thing about Chinese poets is that they also drink a lot (when they write). They might have exaggerated a bit with their descriptions. Not only did this leave me with a “Paris (Soochow) Syndrome” when I arrived, I now also believe that if they were to visit Su-Hang again today, they would need a lot more than a few shots because they would be shocked how much Su-Hang has unreasonably changed !

I had only an afternoon to walk around, so I just visited the main street and one of the traditional Chinese gardens. Both places left me with the same emotion – sympathy. It seemed like the all the houses, trees, lanterns, bridges and gardens were silently crying at me because they are losing their history and ability to communicate with the people who live there and the people who visit there, decade by decade. Ravaged by money-making governments who only cared to shove them onto some UNESCO world heritage lists, and visitors who only cared to visit because of those lists, the city’s old architectures spoke to me with stains and disrepair. As a passer-by, there is nothing I can do to them, but I hope at least these instant photos tell their exact feelings.

Wushi Train Station

16 Jul 16 2PM
Wushe Train Station

The first time I was on a Chinese train and I missed my stop because I was too tired and slept over. The train service was fine (but not the ticket service, it was an absolute nightmare) and the platform staff kindly allowed me to take the train back to where I was supposed to go.

Suzhou Leqiao Street

16 Jul 16 3PM
A street outside Guanqian Jie, Le Qiao

Exiting the underground station, this smaller street leads to the main street of commerce in Suzhou.

Suzhou Leqiao

16 Jul 16 3PM
Le Qiao Park

Seemingly calm but uninteresting, I entered the main street from these steps.

Suzhou Guanqian St

16 Jul 16 3PM
Guanqian Jie Main Street, Le Qiao

Guanqian literally means “in front of the Guan”, a Guan (觀) is a Daoist religious architecture, an Daoism is one of the four main philosophies of traditional Chinese culture. This street is situated in the city centre, so it has been a centre of commerce for more than a century now. I guess the western equivalent will be the “high streets”. I don’t quite understand why they decided to build a commercial street (150 years old) in front of a religious place (1300 years old) where people are supposed to find calmness and relief, not desires to shop and lavish in snack stalls. Needless to say, shops there are pretty much all western brands today.

Suzhou Temple

16 Jul 16 3PM
Yuanmiao Guan, Le Qiao

This is the back of the Guan. Minimal separation with the outside commercial activities, just some trees and stone structures.  

Suzhou Yuanmiaoguan

16 Jul 16 3PM
Yuanmiao Guan, Le Qiao

Literally no one cared about going inside. On the left there is a stall to help you be more civilised, on the right there is a shop called “Oscar”. Not sure if the ancient Chinese poets will be able to understand that.

Suzhou Trees

16 Jul 16 3PM
Yuanmiao Guan, Le Qiao

On the other side of Yuanmiao Guan there is a public square. It was quite interesting to see people just sitting there chilling, playing with their smartphones and smoking. Just like they would in any other public space.

Suzhou Lingerie King

16 Jul 16 3PM
Guanqian Jie Main Street, Le Qiao

And on the other end of the street there is a shop claiming to be the “King of underwear”. Haha.

Suzhou Bridge

16 Jul 16 4PM
Guangji Qiao

I then took the underground to the other spot, the Lingering Garden. This was what I imagined Suzhou to be like, and I was grateful I finally got to see it with my eyes. This scene best describes what the poets have written – families next to the river with a bridge at the end of the “street”. However I had to edit this photo because the brightness of the afternoon sun over-exposed and in real life it appears as only black and white. In my opinion this was more like what I felt at that moment of the day, sadly romantic.

Suzhou Lingering Garden Road

16 Jul 16 4PM
Liuyuan Road

Walking to Lingering Garden. I guess one thing I like about the more remote areas of a Chinese city is that they still try to plant some trees on the roadsides. Just imagine how much CO2 and pollution this crazy nation would have produced if not these trees.

Suzhou Lingering Garden 1

16 Jul 16 4PM
The Lingering Garden

The Lingering Garden was built as a private garden of a retired government official in Ming Dynasty (1593). This is the main structure – covered area in the middle, an multi-directional extended platform to connect with the lotus pond. Yet the main building is not completely in open space, rather sheltered and backed by trees, allowing privacy and openness under the same roof.

Suzhou Lingering Garden 2

16 Jul 16 4PM
The Lingering Garden

I wonder, are these boats meant to be used, or are they decorative ? I don’t imagine the owner drinking with his friends on the boats because they are so tiny, also there is not a pier (some steps) near the boats. They could also be the boats the maintenance people use. I am wildly guessing and may be completely wrong. Nonetheless, they look good by the short building, giving some feeling of mobility for the windows that have open holes but aren’t really meant for communication.

Suzhou Lingering Garden 3

16 Jul 16 4PM
The Lingering Garden

Here I imagine to be a very private spot of the garden, maybe even a solitary spot. Compared to other buildings, the open window is very small and the back completely disappears in trees. Sadly I have already forgotten how was it like looking outside this window.

Suzhou Lingering Garden

16 Jul 16 4PM
The Lingering Garden

On these bridges (where you are supposed to walk, as there is no resting benches) every step you make changes the scene in front of your eyes. Either you see the same building from a different angle which is equally beautiful, or you see different buildings dominating your view, creating a different picture of the garden. Of course, if you really want to rest or be buried in the garden, there is a small resting “hall”. On TV dramas, people usually play chess here because of the quietness and privacy it offers. (Haha)

Suzhou Lingering Garden Bins

16 Jul 16 4PM
The Lingering Garden Bins

The rubbish bins made me laugh. They were trying so hard to blend in.

This post has taken me so long to write because uni started and I was procrastinating I just don’t know how I should feel about what I have seen and what should I write about. Back in Hong Kong, we were moving and I found my father’s travel diaries from the 70s when he was my age. He travelled around China after graduating university and he had also been to Suzhou. Although the city was much poorer and more miserable at that time, he had only appreciation for the untouched heritage (before anyone in China knew how the whole tourism thing works). He repeatedly told me that that trip influenced his sense of belonging and identity, and he became more connected with traditional Chinese culture.

Meanwhile as uni started, I am taking a course on French imaginings and representations on the Orient. The great travellers and writers have written something so much more interesting in their travel diaries. This made me think about my blog and I realised that most of the things I have written in the past are still not very readible because I don’t know enough history of the place I have visited, and I don’t reflect enough about my experience there. For this post I have certainly did more research and thinking, and I want to publish it only when I think I will want to read it 5 or 10 years from now. For those who have been reading my posts and are reading this now, please tell me what you think.


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