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ASK a Singaporean about Suzhou and invariably, "industrial park" comes to mind. The Suzhou Industrial Park marked one of Singapore's largest economic investments in China; and its fluctuating fortunes and controversies are now public lore. Such a preconception does no justice to a city that has been regarded as a "living paradise" by the Chinese since the Tang Dynasty. Suzhou lives in both the present and the past. As one of the hub cities of the Yangtze Delta of eastern China, it draws its economic clout from Shanghai to the east, Taihu Lake to the west, Zhejiang province to the south, and the Yangtze River to the north.
Like most historic cities, Suzhou boasts an old centre of town, but its "time capsule" is uniquely criss-crossed with a network of rivers and canals, earning it the epithet "Venice of the East". Over 2,500 years of existence, Suzhou has seen dynasties wax and wane, but it continues to thrive in terms of prosperity, the arts, and fine living up to the 21st century.
Wu Guanzhong, the great contemporary Chinese painter, immortalised its beauty in his earlier artistic journeys, while IM Pei monumentalised its cultural brio in his almost Zen-like black and white museum.
The city is undergoing a rapid facelift like all its other first and second-tier cousins in China. At both ends of the city especially, contemporary residential and commercial lifestyle meets rampant industrialisation with the usual consequences.
But the locals in the old town centre are fiercely protective of their cultural pedigree, passing down arts and crafts in a city that has been the silk capital of China since 600 AD. Silk embroidery, woodcarving and fan making also flourished, and even today, one street (Xi Bei Jie) is dotted with cottage factories making fans by hand. Jeanny Hu, who works for an international hotel chain in Shanghai, says: "I spend almost every weekend in Suzhou with my family and I come here often, even bringing overseas friends. In fact, I just bought a hand-painted fan."
Suzhou is best known for its impressive list of Unesco World Heritage sites, from ancient temples to manicured gardens. Suzhou-style garden design is renowned for its delicate classicism, and considered one of the greatest landscape arts of China. Many gardens built by aristocratic and wealthy families, especially at the peak of the Ming and Qing periods, have survived the Cultural Revolution remarkable intact.
The Humble Administrator's Garden, for one, boasts unique design and ethereal beauty. Originally a private garden built around 1509 as the retirement home of a government administrator, it was divided into eastern, central, and western sections as well as the living quarters for the owner. Today, the Unesco site spans 52,000 square metres (five hectares), making it the largest classical garden in Suzhou. By day, visitors can take in the delicate architectural details of the structures, while at night, the effervescent culture of the Jiangsu region through music, dance, and opera comes alive on stage. Despite its touristy ambience, the performances are not perfunctory but executed with charming, earnest dedication.
Immerse yourself in the charm of the old town centre by strolling down Pingjiang Road, an 800-year-old thoroughfare that runs through it. The walk of 1,600 metres opens up a vista of sightseeing, shopping and eating, while the grid-like narrow lanes are perfect for poking around in. A canal with hanging willows and little bridges flows along the cobbled path. Boat rides can be had, and even a Chinese aria or two by the paddlers for an extra yuan or two.
Don't miss IM Pei's Suzhou Museum, located at one end of the street. The free-entry collection features an abundance of porcelain, and most notably celadon, handicraft, calligraphy, and paintings from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Established to celebrate the theme of "Design for China", the museum combines modern exhibition halls with classical garden architecture on its 19,000 sq m location.
The old town is home to some of Suzhou's not-to-be-missed foods. For first timers, the Suzhou mooncake is an eye-opener; unlike the sweet mooncakes available once a year in Singapore, these are savoury and sold all year long. The mooncakes are a specialty of the Jiangsu region but those of Suzhou, in particular, are considered the best. Contained within the shell of classic flaky pastry is a generous scoop of aromatic pork and preserved Sichuan mustard fillings. There are mooncake vendors in every corner of the city, but look out for Zhang Fa Xibing with its perpetual snaking queue. This bakery chain also offers western-style pastries but make a beeline for the makeshift counter that is always outside the shop front, where the freshly baked mooncakes are sold.
Next on your list must be the local pan-fried dumpling, of which Yaba Sheng Jian, or "mute man fried dumplings", is an institution. The founder, who is mute (hence the shop name), started selling the buns, made from his own recipe, just after World War II. The lines again might be daunting whether you're eating in or taking away, as the shop attracts not only Suzhou dwellers, but also customers from nearby cities for whom the dumplings make popular giveaways.
The ultimate stop for the foodie is perhaps Tong De Xing, which even the locals vouch for as the champion of Suzhou noodle sellers. Inside its shop in a two-storey building, diners select from three variations of their white noodles - "white" soup, "red" soup, and onion-infused oil. The feng zhen darou mian, or white soup noodle with braised pork belly, is its calling card.
Every morning, long queues form just for this noodle, which usually sells out before noon. The pairing of the "tofu" softness of the pork belly and the savoury milky broth works exceptionally well with the thin wheat noodle. Adam Si, a resident of Suzhou who migrated to London six years ago, offers a glimpse of the city's allure for its inhabitants: "I don't come home often; if I do, this is the first thing that I eat!"
Humble Administrator's Garden
178 Dongbei Street, Suzhou
Jiangsu, China 215001 Tel +86-512-6751-0286
204 Dongbei Street Tel +86-512-6757-5666
Zhang Fa Xibing Suzhou moon cakes
108 Lin Dun Lu Tel +86-512-6727-8107
Yaba Sheng Jian pan-fried dumplings
12 Lin Dun Lu Tel +86-512-6720-8077
Tong De Xing braised pork noodles
13 Gunxiufang, Canglang Tel +86-512-6516-5206
Jiangsu Province has adopted pro-green measures, especially in public transport, in a big way. Travelling around Suzhou is cheaper than you think. In fact, it can cost you next to nothing if you know how to ride a bicycle. Get a special bike card and you can pick up a bicycle from more than 753 pick up/drop off points around the city. For the first 60 or 90 minutes, it is free of charge, depending on the area in which you bought the card. When the time is up, just return the bike and pick up another. This way, there is no penalty. Check out sipbike.com/map.asp. or whatsoninsuzhou.com.cn/Maps.asp for more details. The card can also be used in cities such as Nanjing, Yangzhou, Wuxi, Chanzhou, Zhenjiang, Yancheng, Nantong, Xuzhou, Huaian, Lianyungang, Taizhou, and Suqian.
Visitors can now rent an electric car in Suzhou for 20 yuan (S$4.40) an hour, or up to 150 yuan per day. The car has a range of up to 150 km when fully charged. There are six charging sites in the city. You need a rental card, which can be booked via the mobile phone app and picked up at high-speed railway stations, terminal subway stations, scenic spots, and large supermarkets, among other locations.
In August this year, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide debuted its first Element brand in the Asia-Pacific with the opening of its flagship hotel in Suzhou. In line with the Chinese government's commitment to the pro-green movement, Starwood's eco-innovation lab has created the Element brand of hotels that meets the demand for sustainable programming and nature-inspired room offerings. That means eco-minded design and a commitment to innovation, reflected in minute details such as dispensable shower cream and shampoo to cut down wastage. Element Suzhou Science and Technology Town has 188 rooms and suites. Guests can work, play, or relax in the spacious, smart and modern guestrooms, all of which offer oversized windows for natural light. Each room comes with an energy-efficient kitchen; the signature Heavenly Beds; spa-inspired baths; and separate rain showers and all-natural bath amenities.
Brian McGuinness, senior vice-president, specialty select brands for Starwood, says: "As we continue to expand our portfolio, we're constantly looking for innovative ways to redefine the traditional hotel experience." Adding to the portfolio, three more hotels will open by 2019; they are Element Chongli (2017), Element Sanya Haitang Bay (2018) and Element Tianjin Beichen (2019).
Element Suzhou Science and Technology Town
77 Wuyishan Road, Suzhou, Jiangsu 215163