The past, present, and future of Suzhou in one day

Trip Start Jun 15, 2007
Trip End Jul 24, 2007

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Hi.  Sorry I haven't been diligent in submitting my blogs on a regular basis.  I've been counting on Bobby for blogging the past three days, but I'll do better from now on!

(Photos will be uploaded soon.  Promise!)

Here's one for Tuesday, June 19.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Weather forecast: AC off
Suzhou's past, present, and future
After a traditional breakfast with soymilk, rice dumpling, and small basket steam buns (xiaolungbao), our day began with a stroll in downtown Suzhou.  Compared to the 10,000 people we passed by on Sunday when we visited the same place, at 7 am downtown Suzhou was eerily quiet with a few people practicing Tai Chi on the street. As we walked along the Remin Lu (People's Avenue) to our first destination, however, the city quickly came alive with the eardrum piercing screeching of the brakes from the bikes, electronic bikes, and mopeds, of the impatient horns from cars and buses, and the scolding whistles of the traffic conductor in the middle of the intersections.  Chaos?  Yes, but there seemed to be an understood order of things underneath this all.  The streets were quickly filled with people, cars, noises, hopes, and dreams by 8:30 am.
That's when we walked into the history of Suzhou at Beisita (North Temple Tower).
Beisita is a 9-storied, 8-sided structure overlooking the Remin Lu.  It was an addition to the North Temple, a Buddhist temple first uilt in the 3rd century AD by a wealthy businessman in emembrance of his mother.  The tower was built in the 6th century AD, in the South and North Dynasty (the short period of history immediately following the Tang Dynasty).  Most of what we see today, however, was rebuilt or renovated in the Sung Dynasty (12th century).  Bobby, Ben, and I climbed all the way to the top of the temple, stopping at every level to take a look at modern Suzhou.  On the northwest end of the tower lay an empty patch of land.  It stood out because of the rest of the Suzhou has been well developed.  We wonder what will happen to the land, but we know it will soon be developed, as part of the momentum of the nation's economic development.  We took a picture of it knowing it will likely look different in six months.
On the way up the tower, we did spot an interesting sign featuring the unique "Chinglish."  Along the way, Bobby and Ben did "knock heads" several times, as "instructed" by the sign.   

Our next stop was the Humble Administrator's Garden, which is one of the most famous Suzhou gardens.  Our trip down the history lane, however, was briefly interrupted by the visit to a large security company on the way to the Garden.  There were at least 500 people in the Suzhou Security Company watching the wall-to-wall electronic display of the stocks.  You can sense the excitement and craziness of China's stock market when you stand in the security house for just one minute.  People were standing, sitting, monitoring in anticipation of the next trade.  There were people playing cards with an eye on the electronic display from time to time; others watched the board with quiet nervousness, dangling in their hands a bottle of hot tea securely contained in a clear plastic bottle.  We talked to a couple of older women who were following the ups and downs of today's stocks and found out that both were retirees.  One of them came to the security company every day, five days a week, from 9:30 am to 3:00 pm to trade stocks.  On weekends, she plays mahjong (for more gambling fun!).  The other retiree used to be a teacher.  She came to the security house two to three times a week.  When asked how different the nation is from twenty years ago, she said "Before, we didn't talk about economy; now, everything is about economy."  She smiled and turned to take a quick glance at the board.
The Humble Administrator's Garden took us back to Suzhou's history from the frenzy of the security company.  While retirees of today play in the stock market, the retirees of the Ming dynasty, when they could afford, built gardens!  The garden was built by a retired official who lost favor of the emperor and decided to quit and come home.  Literally translated, the name of the garden, Zhuozhengyuan, means "the garden of unskilled administration."  It is a commentary on his unsuccessful political career.  Like many historic architecture in China, the garden was remodeled and rebuilt by several owners through the years.  Many of the architectural features of the Suzhou garden can be seen there, including the framing effects of different shapes of doors and windows.  More on this later.
Next to the garden is the newly built Suzhou Museum.  It is probably the most recent, and some say the last, project of I. M. Pei, whose family is from Suzhou.  The museum's collection features local history and artifacts, but the jewel of the museum is the architecture itself.  Employing several architectural motifs and techniques, this modern museum displays the connection of the past to the future skillfully. 
One person, however, felt the architecture is out of place.  At the dinner we had with some of the administrators from the Soochow University at night, the Dean of the Overseas Education thought the style was Japanese, instead of Chinese.  Although some of us quickly pointed out that part of the Japanese culture was first exported from China, it didn't dispel his discomfort of seeing the simple, modern lines of the structure that he associates with Japanese designs.
But that was just one of the interesting discussions we had at inner last night.  At a restaurant 3 minutes away from the hotel, the administrators treated us to more than 10 courses of exquisite Suzhou style dishes, including "squirrel fish" (no squirrels were harmed during the preparation process!).  Most of the conversations were carried out in Chinese, so Bobby focused his attention on the food while listening for keywords and figuring out what we were saying (and he was good!).  History and economy were the two main topics at the dinner, and there was a sense of openness in sharing perspectives and opinions.  Ben's perspective on Chinese history and the stock market was obviously impressive; e was even invited to teach at Soochow for a year by the Dean!
The dinner ended with a picture and affirmation by the dministrator of future collaboration.  It was a day full of the past, present, and future of Suzhou.

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