Monthly Archives: December 2014


Cars are becoming ever more popular in China, and most of the cars we see are shiny and expensive.  There is even a Ferrari/Lamborghini dealer in town and on occasion we have seen these and other very high-end vehicles around.  Owning a car here is expensive, but it is also an essential marker of attainment, and of course, it is just plain convenient to get around in. Less expensive cars are often highly personalized with what I believe are peel-off stickers

panda carDSC00220


Interiors are often cute and themed.


Our first real estate agent had a full pink Hello Kitty theme in her car, from the floor mats and seat covers to little frills to fill the ashtray slots.

Some car owners are even more playful with their cars, dressing them in a rainbow of color


Or masquerading as an American cop car, as seen in the movies (although with a rather creepy twist).


And of course, as everywhere, parents warn us of their precious cargo.

baby on road

The relative novelty of cars means that many car-related practices remind us of those in the U.S. in our childhood.  As we are nearly run over in a crosswalk, or when we see a car driving down the bike path honking at the bikes daring to use it, we are reminded of Mr. Burns on the Simpsons, calling out “I’m a motorist, out of my way!” There are no parking meters, and parking rules, as best we can tell, are almost never enforced.  Cars park every which way, in crosswalks and bus stops, and well well beyond 6 inches from the curb.  However, once you get used to the fact that all cars turn right on red without stopping or slowing down, you find a way to share space with them, and once or twice we’ve even had a ride in a colleague’s car.


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Urban Village

In teaching the first year intro to urban planning and design, I realized that the term “urban village” has at least three quite distinct meanings depending on what country you start from.  In China, urban village refers to an slum area created when a rural village is swallowed by an expanding city.  This is an area with poor infrastructure and low-quality buildings, and a high density of population, particularly poor migrants.  Andy just participated in a workshop in Guangzhou focused on a large, complex urban village there (and I will do my best to get him to post about it).  They are less common here (largely because of different ways of managing urban expansion and compensating villagers, I think), but there is at least one small urban village in Suzhou.  As I have mentioned before, I am working with colleagues on an app to guide students through several cultural landscapes of Suzhou.

Lu Jia Village

Lu Jia Village

Lu Jia village, an urban village just across the eastern boundary of SIP, in the shadow of the elevated road, is one of the sites that we are guiding students to through the app.

5 roofs

Lu Jia village is a small patch of housing surrounded primarily by worker housing.  As you can see from the view of the roofs of Lu Jia village looking north, its buildings are at a much smaller scale, and using more traditional materials, than the workers housing and commodity towers and villas around it.  The buildings of Lu Jia Village were self-built, in narrow east-west rows with at least one courtyard area.  The alleys between the buildings are very narrow, keeping sun from the lower stories, and leading to the term “handshake buildings” because you can shake hands across the gap.

7 narrow6 entrance

A courtyard within Lu Jia village

A courtyard within Lu Jia village

Buildings also push out over the sidewalk between the village and the road, expanding into any available space.

This building extends well into the sidewalk.  Its unusual siding suggests that its builders used whatever material they could salvage or buy cheaply to make it.

This building extends well into the sidewalk. Its unusual siding suggests that its builders used whatever material they could salvage or buy cheaply to make it.

This ebike repair shop also extends well over the sidewalk and its roof shows evidence of informal building practices.

This ebike repair shop also extends well over the sidewalk and its roof shows evidence of informal building practices.

As you can see from these photos, there are many signs that these buildings, in spite of their regular layout and relatively standardized form, are probably self-built and at the least heavily modified by users who do not follow building regulations. In addition to the extension over the sidewalk, patchwork roof, and unusual building materials, narrow and poorly planned access ways, including the staircase below, attest to the informality of building practices.

9 stair

Residents of this village are largely poor migrants, for whom this dense, sub-standard housing allows a chance to live affordably in very easy reach of both downtown Suzhou and SIP and in a well-connected site next to a bus stop and near to the subway.  There is evidence in the site of residents making money through collecting recyclables, running small businesses, and the sex trade, as the village serves as a red light district.

Piles of scavenged materials

Piles of scavenged materials

An apparent depot for metal recycling

An apparent depot for metal recycling

A small shop within the village.  The recycled wood will probably be used as firewood, perhaps for a sweet-potato vendor.

A small shop within the village. The recycled wood will probably be used as firewood, perhaps for a sweet-potato vendor.

Restaurants and other businesses along the front of the village, facing the elevated road.

Restaurants and other businesses along the front of the village, facing the elevated road.

A plaza area in the front of the village holds several businesses and serves as a place to park and repair vehicles.

A plaza area in the front of the village holds several businesses and serves as a place to park and repair vehicles.

Young women waiting for clients

Young women waiting for clients

I am very much an outsider in this place and felt myself under scrutiny.  Some of these photos were taken by the student research assistants who helped us with fieldwork for the app project; although they are from a very different background and class position from the residents here, their ability to speak Chinese, their youth, and their boldness allowed them to more easily walk into the village and to talk with residents there.

This village is a perfect illustration of the idea of the slum, overcrowded, dirty, and full of people in the informal economy.  But it is also a place for new migrants to potentially gain a toehold in the city and to begin to reinvent themselves as modern Chinese city dwellers.

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Times Square

There are many many many malls in China, in spite of the fact that every time I ask someone where to get anything the answer is Taobao (online emporium).  New ones keep opening, each with their own name brand or special store, few with enough of a population of users to make me think they are financially viable.  They may be largely created for real estate flipping/investment rather than for retail per se, just as housing is built for investment, not to live in.  In any case, we do go to them for various necessities and indulgences both.  When we moved here there were two main malls we dealt with — InCity and Times Square.  Since then two new large malls, Harmony City and Link City, and a small mall, Vanguard Living Plaza, have been added to our regular circuit, recently supplemented by the Pheonix Mall.  More have opened within SIP, and more are under construction, including a huge Aeon mall right next to kiddo’s school, and there are several others that have been there all along (Rainbow, Global 188) but we just don’t visit.

So last weekend, kiddo and I went to Times Square in search of ginger (as I mentioned last week) and also toys and new clothes for kiddo. Times Square is a big signature high-end mall, with associated office buildings and even its own subway stop.  Unlike most of the others, it is a largely open-air mall, built along a canal, and organized into four blocks liked by bridges across the canal and lit-up canalside underpasses below the street that runs through its middle.

pano times sq



One of the blocks contains a large shopping mall/department store unto itself, with lots of designer clothes, restaurants on the top story, and a grocery store in the basement with lots of foreign food of all sorts (especially Asian).

Sushi galore in Fresh Mart, in the basement at Times Square

Sushi galore in Fresh Mart, in the basement at Times Square

Another block used to have buildings with furnishings and with kid’s stuff but is now mostly empty, except for Toys R Us, now in a ground floor location, a big electronics store, and some restaurants (including both a nice place we have often gone for fancier dinners for work and B’s favorite, a self-serve frozen yogurt place of the sort that litters every main street in America (but this is the only one we know of here)).


Toys R Us is Toys R Us, except of course the US brands are paired with their less expensive Chinese twins here.


Ben likes all kinds of awful combinations of treats on his frozen yogurt at Kiwi Craze

Ben likes all kinds of awful combinations of treats on his frozen yogurt at Kiwi Kraze

The other blocks have clothing stores, including Uniqlo, where we get half our wardrobes, and a range of others including super-expensive Crocs; reasonably priced restaurants, including the now nearly ubiquitous Secret Recipe, with good cake and Laksa; and lots of places to get coffee.  The reasonably priced restaurants get a lot of action on weekday lunchtime from the office towers nearby and from others, including taitais.  When I first visited Suzhou I went to lunch at Secret Recipe one day and ended up meeting two Americans who worked in two different factories further out into factory land in SIP where there were no restaurants.  The restaurants offer a nice variety of prices and of styles of food, including Shanghai, Korean,  and Thai.  There is also a business offering virtual golf, billiards, and bowling which can be fun to go to. Because they use the same equipment as most American bowling alleys, the bowling area feels remarkably familiar, down to the decorations on the walls and the 10 year old celebratory graphics for a spare and a strike.  For littler kids, there is also a junior adventure playground, but B hasn’t wanted to try it.


He does like the various kinds of scooters and other vehicles available to try nearby.  For some reason, they never seem to have the scooter he likes in stock.

ben racing scooter

Times Square’s claim to fame is the world’s longest TV screen, mounted across two of the blocks in a sinuous curve.


The curve that looks like an elevated road on the left is the TV screen. The wedge-shaped building on the right is the department store.

Shopping in the shade of the giant TV

Shopping in the shade of the giant TV

The TV is pretty cool when it is on, but there isn’t much created with that aspect ratio, so it mostly has the same video of a dragon or else tiles of ads or the Suzhou promotion piece that ran in Times Square, NYC, a few years ago.

Times Square is a place that I feel like I’d like to go to, but in truth there’s not all that much reason for me to go there beyond Uniqlo and Toys R Us and occasional bowling.  As competition rises and I can now go to Secret Recipe and Starbucks just a block from home, any given mall is less compelling.  You can see the result of this competition in the large areas of Times Square undergoing renovation, or simply sitting empty.

shops under renovation, I hope

shops under renovation, I hope

But it is still an interesting place, in spite of a design that doesn’t fully take advantage of the opportunity to connect with the canal at its center (a problem students in our final year urban design studio engaged with last year).  And it is always fun to see what they come up with for Christmas. This year the tree is purple and made of fake flowers.


Inside there is a “Princess Dream Garden” complete with Santa and giant patchwork reindeer.


For the last two years, they had a fake lego town that somehow seemed a little more connected with Christmas, in its color scheme if nothing else.

santa live

lego elf bar

If purple flowers don’t say Christmas to you (and they emphatically do not to B, who is a bit of a traditionalist and not a girl, no matter how pretty he may be), another block offers Christmas with alien Doraemon cats


They seem to have arrived on a cross between a UFO and a muffin.


After unsuccessful battles with the Great Firewall, I am happy to finally be able to post. More shopping landscapes, Chinese landscapes, and adventures of all kinds to come in future weeks.

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Searching for Ginger

Today B and I went to Times Square, a mall on our side of the lake, in a fruitless attempt to find powdered ginger to make Christmas cookies.  Fresh Mart in Times Square and Enjoy City in Harmony City, the newer mall across the street, were the fifth and sixth stores where I attempted to find ginger.  As I had already started the gingersnap batter based on the mistaken belief that the spice I had bought at Love’s Bakery (a baking goods store on the other side of the lake) was ginger (not a crazy belief as it had a big picture of ginger on it) (from the smell I think it’s some sort of presumably gingery curry powder) I really wanted to find some ginger.  The closest I came was “gingerbread spice” which included ginger, but not as the first ingredient.  I did my best with that, some crushed brown sugar-ginger candies, and a bit of ginger-infused honey (a Korean “tea”) and made gingery cookies, if not exactly ginger snaps.

photo (3)

I know that I have it easy here; there are several foreign food stores, I can buy fresh milk in a shop just outside the compound, and there are an increasing number of delivery services that will deliver foreign foods to my door.  I have read an essay on living in China years ago and the near impossibility of finding butter.  And yet, when I want to make Christmas cookies and go to 6 stores in four different neighborhoods without finding the spices I need, even when they are ones that are usually in the Chinese groceries (unlike cardamom, which I had to buy in Germany), it gets very frustrating.  While foods are available, they are not reliably available.  For a while, we could not find any salt (we eventually figured out how to recognize Chinese packages of salt, and then all was well).  There was also a spell when the only peanut butter available was Chinese and quite horrible (we now keep a stock). And the first time we made Pennsylvania pot pie here the only potatoes I could find were purple. Expats here become hoarders; it’s the only way to be sure we will have what we depend on when we need or want it.  Spottings of weatabix (which I find about as tasty as cardboard, but which are a favorite of a couple of friends’ kids) or of cranberry sauce or other special items are quickly communicated.  We have multiple boxes of grape nuts because their availability is fleeting. Experiences like these are reminders of my foreignness and of the potential precariousness of our expat existence. Nothing can be taken for granted.

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