Communal fun Chinese style
3-3-3 Tour: Day 9
I arrived in Suzhou after a little over an hour’s ride on the high-speed rail from Nanjing. The weather had cooled from the previous week’s mid-30s sweatfest. A light breeze was blowing as I sat overlooking a small square next to the Waicheng River in the south-west of the city.
I was in another rich city of China’s central east coast. While the provincial capital Nanjing was busy transforming itself from aspiring player into 21st century metropolis alongside big brother Shanghai to the east, here in Suzhou, though still relatively small to be competing in the big leagues just yet, there was forward-thinking and an embracing of the economic good times evident all around.
Suzhou has always, historically, been a prosperous town. The completion of the Grand Canal led to the city becoming a centre for shipping and commerce during the Sui dynasty and, just like Hangzhou to the south, the merchants arriving via this new trade route contributed to Suzhou flourishing during its early heyday. By the 14th century, the city had become China’s leading silk producer. Scholars, aristocrats and high officials made their home here, constructing gardens and villas to complement the canals, many of which can still be seen today.
Though the canals and old town are undoubtedly the main draw for most people visiting Suzhou, there is no less enthusiasm from the city’s present officials for building a Suzhou that can compete with the best that China can offer in terms of economic clout. Much like Nanjing, there are skyscrapers are being proposed and constructed at a credit-stretching rate. Industrial parks are being built and transport links improved. There is even the controversial new Gate to the East – a 66 storey construction that is said to resemble not the “iconic gateway” that was anticipated, but a giant pair of Spongebob’s square pants. While the city outside the canal-bound old town continues to thrash about wildly in the throes of developmental ecstasy, however, the historic centre of Suzhou remains relatively high-rise-free.
I’d had the briefest of run-ins with that history as I’d walked down to the river on this first journey out. I’d crossed a canal or two and seen the slightest glimpse of what may have been a pagoda, and as dusk began to fall, I was overlooking that same river wondering if Suzhou would live up to its “Venice of the East” billing in the couple of days to come.
The lights on the bridge had come on and the swallows had been replaced by bats. The square was already busy with dog walkers parading. Kids in rollerblades, padded and helmeted, were falling flat on their faces then promptly picking themselves up and laughing. A few bikes passed slowly through while two guys in Persil-white tai chi suits limbered up on a wall next to the river. It was Monday night and the square was filling.
Suzhouans had turned out in their shirt sleeves and dresses. Sunday best seemed to take no notice of day or occasion here, at least for the women. The men folk, typically, had made rather less effort. Though some were dressed for it in their own casual summer way. A white cloth had been rolled out on the wall for all to sit on while a woman carrying two large speakers on the back of her bike had arrived and proceeded to set up her equipment – the speakers attached to a cd player; a stack of cds next to that. She pressed play and before long the square had become a partner-spinning, shoe-sliding, skirt-twirling mass of dancing, all to the sound of Chinese pop and the general hubbub of a good time being had by all.
This was communal fun Chinese style. It’s something I’ve noticed is typical of the Chinese during my travels – the getting together of the neighborhood and passers-by in these seemingly random but no doubt implicitly scheduled bouts of street-side entertainment. It is something I couldn’t imagine happening back in the UK even if the weather were made for it. Maybe it’s the nature of our towns and cities and the lack of such communal spaces. Where once town squares acted as a focal point, these days, there is more likely a Sainsbury’s or more unoccupied “luxury” apartments in their place. Or maybe such impromptu displays of civil togetherness is just not in our Anglo-Saxon nature, and the thought that summer evenings could be enjoyed in such a way instead of in a beer garden, could never cross our minds. Either way, as the bass pumped out and the boats sailed past, the joy of the height of summer was all there and jiving in the Suzhou evening breeze.