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The other side of Suzhou

THERE'S another side of Suzhou, a side far away from the gardens, bridges, temples and old houses. And it's just as entrancing as the Suzhou many know and love. Tan Weiyun takes a stroll through some backstreets

For many Shanghainese, Suzhou is too close, too familiar and perhaps too cliched. Those stone bridges, pagodas, temples, old houses, Taihu Lake, and ah yes, those famous private ancient gardens where I often got lost. "There's nothing more," I thought to myself before my latest trip to the neighboring city in Jiangsu Province.

This time, however, a casual walk-around changed my stereotyped images of Suzhou and revealed another side of the city, the beauty hidden behind those exquisite gardens, bonsai trees and old houses.

A museum can be a city's soul and essence, preserving its past -- my mother told me this when I was little. I've been to Suzhou many times, but never to its museum, which I thought would be a boring place full of old stuff, lengthy introductions and hard-to-understand archaeological jargon.

This time I visited the museum first as I tried to piece together my scattered memories and images of the city.

With white-washed plaster walls, miniature buildings with dark gray roof tiles, the Suzhou Museum is in harmony with the nearby Prince Zhong's Mansion (Zhongwang Fu), the most complete historic architectural complex of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom from 1851 to 1864, the Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan) and the Lion Forest Garden (Shizi Lin). Enriching each other, they've become an historical and cultural complex.

Not too high, not too large and not too jarring: the museum's design is in strict compliance with the ancient Chinese philosophy of "the golden mean of the Confucian school" -- the perfect compromise.

When you see it up close, you find the museum is a combination of tradition and modernity.

The roof is made of gray granite, but modern steel has replaced the traditional wooden beam structures. Metal sunscreens with wooden panels instead of wooden carved lattice windows have been introduced, making the museum feel more sophisticated.

In the museum, I felt I was venturing into a world of pure lines, triangles, squares and symmetry -- the geometrical thinking of its designer, the world-famous architect I.M. Pei who spent his childhood in Suzhou, can be seen everywhere.

Though I'm a complete layman in architecture, I was really surprised by the 92-year-old's design. The museum itself is a work of art.

Symmetry, or balance, is one of the very key elements of Chinese architecture and Pei is superb in including this in his design -- the four-petal windows in the coffee shop, the courtyard, the two wings in the west and east, the huge pyramid-shaped ceiling in the main hall.

The museum is "a gift to my hometown," he said at the museum's inauguration ceremony in 2006.

Covering an area of 2,200 square meters, the two-story museum hosts more than 30,000 cultural relics and ancient artworks in its collection.

Most are ancient paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, crafts, archaeological finds and revolutionary mementos and 247 items in the collection are ranked first-class.

It also stores more than 70,000 books and documents, and over 20,000 rubbings of stone inscriptions.

The paintings and calligraphy include masterworks from the Song (960-1279) to Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

The collection features pieces from the Yunyan Temple Pagoda on the top of the Tiger Hill, a symbol of Suzhou. There are stone sutra cases, sutra rolls, bronze and stone Buddhist statues, bronze coins and mirrors.

Bamboo, wood, ivory and fruit stone carvings are other highlights of the museum. In ancient times, they were the ideal accompaniments for men of letters who appreciated the delicate brush holders, brushes, water-pots and snuff containers.

I was swept up by the museum and its contents all morning and realized almost too late it was time for lunch.

After some twists and turns along the narrow lanes in the city's old district, I ventured into Wu Yue Ren Jia (Wu's Family), an old-style bistro.

The restaurant features Ming and Qing-style furniture and beautifully carved wooden art pieces and it offers authentic Suzhou cuisine, like deep-fried perch with tomato sauce, stewed bean curd with tea water, fermented glutinous rice dumplings and other tastes, which were not foreign for a Shanghainese like me.

What highlighted my meal was the Kunqu Opera performance delivered by a 16-year-old in a pink silk dress with beautifully colored makeup. When the show was over, I was surprised to find that the performer was actually a shy young boy, who played a role of a sentimental girl perfectly.

The afternoon was fine, so I decided to explore more of Suzhou's old district.

My cab driver suggested that I visit Taohuawu New Year's Painting Studio.

The art studio, half-hidden among rows of dilapidated-looking apartments, was hard to find but with the help of some friendly locals, I finally spotted the shabby front door.

Master Wang Zude, a 72-year-old artist, works by himself in the studio, which is packed with rice paper, ink brushes and completed and nearly-completed paintings.

Wang was happy to see me and talked enthusiastically about his art.

With rich themes, elegant patterns and bright colors, the 400-year-old folk art form is very popular. It's the sort of paintings that you can see on walls and doors during Chinese New Year.

In the past, as the festival approached, each family would clean its home and courtyard and paste new year's paintings on the windows, doors, walls and stoves and in the Buddha altars, hoping for good luck in the coming year.

Men Shen, or Gate Gods are put on the doors as guards of the family and there should be a main gate god, a secondary gate god, a back gate god and a wing room gate god.

There are also new year's paintings of the God of the Stove, the Village God and the God of Wealth. In the Spring Festival, the various paintings are spread through the house and courtyard.

"Some remote areas keep the tradition alive today," Wang says. "It was an annual ritual before, but now it is a dying folk art form."

Not many artists paint this style nowadays which is a loss for modern people. I think I understood what the master didn't say.

The one-day walk was now near its end as it grew dark. This time in Suzhou, there were no tours of classical gardens, no Taihu Lake boat rides, no shopping in the souvenir street. But I saw more of the city.

What to know

China Spring Tour recently launched one-day trip packages to Shanghai's neighboring cities, such as Suzhou, Hangzhou and some of the watertowns. English service is available. A one-day tour to Suzhou on the third Saturday of each month costs 99 yuan (US$14). For more details, check

Where to stay

With the opening of The Towers Wing, the new wing of the Sheraton Suzhou Hotel & Towers, last month, tourists to Suzhou can enjoy both traditional Jiangnan (regions south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River) living and contemporary luxury state-of-the-art hospitality in the city.

The four-floor Towers Wing has been designed by the acclaimed Singaporean architects, Palmer & Turner Co.

Balancing classical with contemporary designs but reflecting the overall theme and aesthetics of the main hotel, the property has a unique architecture linking ancient Chinese grandeur and the exquisite features of Suzhou gardens.

Its sophisticated corridors embody a classical Jiangnan atmosphere with nostalgic undertones with a view across the busy river and the picturesque Ruiguang (Auspicious Light) Pagoda.

To preserve the cultural scenery of Suzhou, the Sheraton has removed a number of guest rooms so that tourists can enjoy stunning views of the pagoda.

The pagoda is part of the Panmen Scenery Area, one of the cultural heritages of China. Guests at the hotel have free access.

The area is an outstanding example of the country's architecture, with the Chinese saying -- "After visiting the Great Wall in the North, you must visit the Panmen in the South" -- emphasizing the historical and architectural importance of the Panmen.

Customers can arrange conferences or weddings at the Panmen.

Sheraton Suzhou Hotel & Towers

Address: 259 Xinshi Road, Suzhou

Tel: (0512) 6510-3388


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