Cruise along Suzhou, the Venice of China
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". With 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 I.M. 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 meet 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 AD600.
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."
OLD TOWN CHARM
Suzhou is best known for its impressive list of Unesco World Heritage sites - from ancient temples to manicured gardens. The 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 dynasties, have survived the Cultural Revolution and remain remarkably intact.
The Humble Administrator's Garden 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 sq m, 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 1,600m 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.
Do not miss I.M. Pei's Suzhou Museum, located at one end of the street. The free-entry collection features an abundance of porcelain, 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.
TEMPT YOUR TASTE BUDS
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 speciality of the Jiangsu region but those of Suzhou, in particular, are considered the best. Contained within the shell of the 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 perpetually snaking queues. 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 should 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 can 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-like 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, but when I do, this is the first thing that I eat."
THE BUSINESS TIMES