Shantang Street

As I mentioned in the last post, Tiger Hill is a very old site.  In 825 CE, it was connected to the city of Suzhou by a new canal, the Shantang Canal, which was paralleled by a new street, Shantang Street (these parallel streets and canals constitute the traditional Suzhou “double chessboard” pattern, two interlocked grids, one of water and one on land). The end of Shantang Street nearest to the city has been turned into an official tourist attraction old street, combining historic buildings with cafés, silk shops, tea, Shanghai Lady cosmetics, paper cuts, and various other Chinoiserie.

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However, Shantang Street is 7 li (2.2 miles) long and most of it, while protected, has not been turned into a tourist playground.

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There are a few grander buildings on Shantang Street near Tiger Hill that have been fixed up and opened to visitors. As I was walking down the street, a few tourists came to visit these in cars with drivers and tour guides, but visitors were few.

Pufu Temple, on Shantang Street

Pufu Temple, on Shantang Street

Inside, there is a garden, a nice surprise.  No one was here except me and a groundsman.

Inside, there is a garden, a nice surprise. No one was here except me and a groundsman.

I do not know the story of this sculpture, inside the garden, but am interested to learn, if any readers know more about it.

I do not know the story of this sculpture, inside the garden, but am interested to learn, if any readers know more about it.

The corner of another temple, painted Buddhist yellow.

The corner of another temple, painted Buddhist yellow.

Most of Shantang Street is residential.  A few small shops and businesses (I saw a barber chair or two) serve locals.  When I went into a shop for a water, the proprietor was working on embellishing a wedding dress.  It was more workshop than shop.

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I just can't resist mops; they are treated with such care.

I just can't resist mops.  They are treated with such care.

I just can’t resist mops. They are treated with such care.

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I saw very few people along most of Shantang Street, and those I saw were mostly elderly, enjoying the sun on a very mild January day.

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Chairs waiting in the sun.

Chairs waiting in the sun.

Even in January, some signs of spring

Even in January, some signs of spring

A few residents enjoyed the sun in front of this large, newer-looking public building.

A few residents enjoyed the sun in front of this large, newer-looking public building.

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As I walked farther along Shantang Street, to the section not near either tourist pole, many buildings were empty and in worse repair.

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Rather than fully renovated historic buildings, this middle stretch saw the traces of old, grand structures fully integrated into ordinary life.

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Just before the tourist stretch of Shantang Street, the street suddenly gets much busier.

Lighting a brazier which sits just outside the door, boiling water without adding smoke to the house.  This one was burning scrap wood, but many use charcoal.

Lighting a brazier which sits just outside the door, boiling water without adding smoke to the house. This one was burning scrap wood, but many use charcoal.

The street becomes a very lively market

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There are a few tourist items, especially stone beads, but mostly this is where people do their daily shopping.

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And if things aren’t too busy, it’s a good place to play a hand of cards or to kibbitz.

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If you search for pictures of Shantang Street, most won’t look anything like these, but the Shantang Street of laundry, handwork, and shopping is probably much more true to its nearly 1200 years of history than the historical fairyland with café latte that most people visit.

 

 

 

 

 

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Wedding Street

During this period between the two semesters, whenever the air, the weather, and my meeting schedule align to allow it, I’ve been doing the final fieldwork for the app I’ve been working on.  The bus line the app is based on (the 146) ends at Tiger Hill, and one of my recent trips was out there.  Tiger Hill is located a couple miles to the northwest of the old city of Suzhou, and has been part of the city and its development for over a thousand years at least.

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Tiger Hill itself is a major, and very old, tourist site, with a history going back, legend has it, to the Wu dynasty (c.496 BC).  It is certainly interesting, but with my cultural landscapes focus on ordinary places, it is other spaces near it that I find most intriguing.

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Tiger Hill Road, which leads north to Tiger Hill, is the center of the largest wedding dress market in China, with over 1000 stores.  Bigger, fancier stores are along Tiger Hill avenue itself, although they share the sidewalk with not only parking, but street vendors selling food as well as dresses, shoes, tiaras, and other wedding-related paraphernalia.

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This woman was beading a bodice as she sold dresses along Tiger Hill Rd.

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Even the trashbins get in on the wedding theme: white, red, and tulle.

Even the trashbins get in on the wedding theme: white, red, and tulle.

The side streets hold smaller shops, with less expensive dresses.

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The strange stuffed animal the one young woman is carrying is likely to be a muff, possibly one that you can plug in to warm up before you go outside.

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The classic western-style white fluffy dress is the most common, not just because it is popular in China (which it very much is) but also because these shops make dresses for shops all over the world.

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Red is the second most popular.  This is the traditional color for Chinese weddings, and in a typical Chinese wedding and the associated banquets, a Chinese bride will likely wear at least one white and one red dress.

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Many of the red dresses are in a more traditional Chinese style.

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Of course, brides are not the only one in the wedding party, so there are also dresses for flower girls and a whole rainbow of bridesmaid dresses.

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And not every member of the party wears dresses.  Suits for the groom, often quite flashy, are available in abundance.

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Not all of these clothes are meant to be worn at the wedding per se.  Some are for picking up the bride, or traveling clothes to leave in.

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And many are for wedding pictures, which are a major industry in China, and one we get to see in every public park and along Pingjiang Lu and Shantang Street (the wedding photographers are centered on one main street downtown; I plan to visit and post about it at some point).  Wedding albums often contain a large number of fantasy pictures with a huge number of different costumes, many of them provided by the photographers.  Clearly these costumes come from Tiger Hill.

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It almost makes me with I had a prom I needed a dress for.

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Where Buddhas are made

My last post was about an ex-village on Tai Lake, one that had been based on aqua- and agriculture.  The other village we visited, Chongshan, is interesting because in addition to fishing, it also houses a factory where Buddhist statues are made for temples in China and throughout the Buddhist world.  Our guide told us that this enterprise was quite old, and certainly the workers were quite skilled, but given the vagueness of the history we were provided and the creation of village industries in the 1980s to make use of surplus rural population, I do not know for sure.

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What is very clear in Chongshan is the centrality of the water and of fishing. Many of the residents of the town live on boats, many of them probably no longer mobile.

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The boat-residences along the lakefront in the village mostly had permanent-looking walkways and fences that extended into the water, making it clear which land (filled with vegetables and chickens) and water (often with ducks and geese) was part of each household.

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More of the boats moored along the canal through the center of the town looked like they are sometimes moved, and several of the people on them were repairing fishing nets.  But they were similarly residential and every little bit of land near their moorings was planted or housed chicken, geese, and ducks.

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This careful use of every bit of arable land makes particular sense because when village communes were abolished in the 1980s many rural households in China were allotted barely enough land for subsistence.  As fishermen, land may never have been as central for the people of this village, but the ethos of growing food wherever possible pervades, both in villages and in the city, as I wrote about in an earlier post.

In addition to fishing and to Buddha carving, this village also has a small factory making plastic pipes and another currently abandoned factory, one of the potential sites for Andy’s architecture students.

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The Buddha factory consists of several shed buildings which could hold just about anything

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and two buildings which were illegally built and never finished, with a first story that is used for open-air storage.

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Most of the Buddhas are carved out of fragrant wood.  We took home a few chips of wonderful-smelling yellow cinnamon root.

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They are carved by in part by machine but largely by hand

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We were told that the artisans who do the carving get quite good pay, and there were a few houses in the town that showed signs of wealth.

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These few houses were not only quite large, but boasted western decorative elements, particularly columns and trim.  However, they showed no signs of a more westernized or “modern” living style.

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Interestingly, several were also incorporated into more traditional Chinese family compounds, hidden behind a high wall and a very elaborate gate.

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Just behind these mansions, older villagers lived in what are probably one-room houses.

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It was quite fascinating to visit this small and contradictory village, and I am interested to see what the students, who come from very different backgrounds from the villagers, propose for it.

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What was once a village

I live in a city and I don’t have a car (or a driver) so I haven’t had much of a chance to see rural China.  But this week we had a chance to visit two villages on Tai Lake that are the sites for Andy’s final year studio this year.

View from the village onto Tai Lake and traps for fish or something else yummy from the lake.

View from the village onto Tai Lake and traps for fish or something else yummy from the lake.

We had as a guide an architect from CSIAD, a large (700 architects, planners, and engineers) local firm.  He was part of a team proposing plans for both villages.

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The first we visited, on Yeshan Island, is actually an ex-village.  All the residents moved to new resettlement housing on the other side of the Island, and the government plans to do some sort of redevelopment, although they don’t seem to have decided what.  While the people no longer live in the houses, they still use the village space to plant vegetables and to keep chickens, ducks, and geese.

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Our guide explained to us that the people who lived in this village are originally from Anhui, and came to Tai lake maybe 400 years ago.  He pointed out that the housing type was different from Suzhou housing.  We could see that it was different, but I need to learn much more to be able to recognize what makes it visibly an Anhui style.

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These railings look like resistors from electrical lines, perhaps they are.

These railings look like resistors from electrical lines, perhaps they are.

The color here is more Suzhou style (white building, grey roof).

The color here is more Suzhou style (white building, grey roof).

Suzhou is in the delta of the Yangtze river and for most of the city, the ground is rich and sometimes has clay in it, but not much in the way of rocks.  But near Tai Lake there are hills, rock, and quarries.  The most prized stones in the rockeries of Chinese classical gardens (the ones with all the holes in them) come from Taihu.  So while Suzhou houses are made of dark tile-like clay bricks, the houses in this village mostly have stone bases, often reusing decorative stone.

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Houses are densely packed within the village, and most are set along this small alley.  You can also see the stone construction.

Houses are densely packed within the village, and most are set along this small alley. You can also see the stone construction.

Stones are also an important element of the small fields on a terraced hillside at the edge of the village.  Stone-lined irrigation channels edge the fields along both sides, and each terrace line also provides a space for an irrigation channel.  This land has clearly been carefully worked for many years.

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I have become somewhat obsessed with photographing walls in China; color and texture and use make them quite beautiful.  In this slowly decaying village, there are all too many opportunities for wall photos.

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The doors were also wonderfully evocative, still bolted, retaining privacy and ownership even as the buildings slowly decompose.

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This village is unusual in that it has been emptied of all its inhabitants, who are now living in apartments with indoor plumbing and many other advantages to these varied and beautiful old houses.  What is not unusual, however, is that even before it was emptied, the young people had already left if they could.  The promise of money and a chance for a better life is emptying the villages of China, except for a few who have found a new life in tourism or a local industry.  Even on Tai Lake, where tourism is common and fish, shrimp, crabs, tea, and fruit are grown, and where residents are linked by public transportation to the larger city of Suzhou, villages are shrinking and aging.

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Air

At this time of year, when the days are short and chilly, what really gets us down is the spike in bad air.

The local air last week according to the more reliable (I think) app.  PM2.5 is the really small stuff and the most dangerous.  PM10 is slightly bigger particles.  I like how this app allows you to see patterns in time, like big spikes of PM10 and PM2.5 usually around midnight, as factories dump bad air.

The local air last week according to the more reliable (I think) app. PM2.5 is the really small stuff and the most dangerous. PM10 is slightly bigger particles. I like how this app allows you to see patterns in time, like big spikes of PM10 and PM2.5 usually around midnight, as factories dump bad air.

The air has become significantly worse since we first moved here, although so far this year has not quite reached the level of horrendousness of last year.  When we first came, all we had to go on was what the air looked, smelled, and tasted like (usually when it’s bad it tastes of coal), but then the government allowed air quality numbers out and apps appeared, so the air became newly quantifiable.  Of course, not all apps agree, and the other one I have regularly has much more positive numbers than the one I regularly use.  My understanding is that any reading above 25 is considered hazardous in the West.  We have never been as low as 25, to my knowledge.air
When the air is bad, mostly we try to stay indoors, where we have air cleaning contraptions (fans with HEPA filters strapped the them, acquired from smartair) in each major room, including our offices at work. Kiddo’s school put in filters throughout the school after the air got really bad last year, and they keep kids in when the air is sufficiently nasty (they have a whole system about which kids (by age) stay in at which AQI reading, and at which point they aren’t supposed to do aerobic activity even inside). But sometimes we need to go outside, so then we wear masks. So far, they all annoy kiddo endlessly, though, so we will keep trying until we reach the right balance of reasonably comfortable to wear and decent filtration.

The air was over 400 last week, but the same stillness that made the air unbreathable made the seeing decent, so Andy decided to do some observing nonetheless (he's built a special mount to mount the telescopes he built using PVC pipe to our balcony railing)

The air was over 400 last week, but the same stillness that made the air unbreathable made the seeing decent, so Andy decided to do some observing nonetheless (he’s built a special mount to mount the telescopes he built using PVC pipe to our balcony railing)

Comparatively, Suzhou’s air is not so bad.  We were just up in Beijing (where the air was in the same ballpark as down here; last year when we visited it was excellent, although typically it is much worse than here), and on the train back, I found I was unable to take pictures of the rural landscape as I had hoped, because of the air quality.  I don’t think we went through the bit that was 869, but the readings on the map (part of the app I use) give some sense of how terrible it was.

Readings from the air quality map as we went through on the train at 300kph

Readings from the air quality map as we went through on the train at 300kph

We were coughing even inside the train, and this was the lovely view.

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This can’t be good for anyone.

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Cars

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

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Interiors are often cute and themed.

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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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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