Masterful silks, marvelous gardens and modern luxury intersect in ancient city
A half-hour by bullet train from Shanghai, China’s biggest, glitziest, ultra-modern city is steeped in the beauty of old China. Suzhou, praised by Chinese poets and artists for centuries, is teeming with gardens, canals, silk and other traditional art forms.
“Heaven above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below,” says an ancient Chinese proverb. And Venetian explorer Marco Polo dubbed Soochow — its former name — the “Venice of the East,” where a Grand Canal that began in Beijing and ended in Hangzhou sliced through the prosperous city.
China is now easier to reach than ever before. Hainan Airlines’ nonstop flights from Las Vegas to the capital, Beijing, which is only a two-hour flight from Shanghai, began in December 2016, and visas are now good for 10 years. United also has nonstop flights from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Shanghai.
Suzhou is famous for silk-making, and its top-quality silk was once reserved exclusively for the royal court. Its silk embroidery is the most celebrated of China’s four major styles. Upon closer inspection, the “paintings” of beloved Chinese flowers such as peonies or plum blossoms, misty mountain landscapes, peacocks, leopards and other animals turn out to be needlework that’s meticulously sewn with threads as thin as human hair. The glowing colors and shadings are simply jaw-dropping.
Suzhou is like a piece of double-sided silk embroidery, a fabled, local handicraft where each side shows a different “painting.” On one side, is the old city, centered on Pingjiang Road, interlaced with canals, flagstone lanes and humpbacked stone bridges, and lined with teahouses, temples, shops, restaurants and inns. On the other side, is modern Suzhou’s many high-rises and a huge retail, entertainment, hotel, residential and office complex, Suzhou Industrial Park or SIP, right on Lake Jinji. If SIP’s flashy modernity is reminiscent of Singapore, it’s no surprise. Singapore was tapped by the Chinese government for its know-how to help build the complex, which has been expanding ever since.
Paradoxically, there are splendid examples of the ancient double-sided embroidery for sale at the Yao Jianping Embroidery Gallery in SIP, where original works also may be commissioned.
At a workshop at Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute, women do needlework from a photograph or sketch. And at No. 1 Silk Factory, a guide explains about the source of all silk — hard-working silkworms that eat mulberry leaves, spin cocoons of silk fibers and live a short but intensely productive life. There women sorted the cocoons, discarding those not worthy. Machines spun thread from the cocoons, and silk was woven on looms. The beautiful results are sold at its shop, which also sells a wide array of bedding, Chinese and Western clothing, scarves and ties.
The Suzhou Silk Museum delves into even greater detail about silk history. Silk was first produced in China more than 4,000 years ago, and its export spurred the Silk Road. The world’s most enduring trade route introduced silk to Italy’s Roman Empire in the first century B.C. The museum displayed centuries-old silk brocade jackets adorned with dragons, cranes and phoenixes. Silk-making in Suzhou reached its apex during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
That silk tradition and other examples of the city’s culture are reflected in the modern design of the new W Hotel Suzhou, a 38-story, 379-room hotel, which opened last September in SIP. A corridor of folded Chinese jacquard fabrics in a rainbow of colors on the 34th floor leads guests to the Chinese restaurant, Su Yan, which is adorned with vivid red, knotted, floor-to-ceiling textiles. An azure wall hanging of beads, sequins, colorful threads and metal pieces was influenced by the flamboyant costumes of Kunqu Opera, one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera still in existence. Light fixtures inspired by Chinese silk spools decorate the main dining room. All nine private dining rooms showcase a different aspect of Suzhou’s culture, from double-sided embroidery to fans, to opera masks to artworks of traditional musical instruments. Windows with crackle patterns in the private dining corridor resemble the latticed windows in Suzhou’s traditional gardens.
Classical gardens in Suzhou, designed during the 11th through 19th centuries for scholars and retired government officials, include some of China’s most famous: the largest is the Humble Administrator’s Garden, built in the 16th century; the Master-of-the-Nets Garden inspired the design of The Astor Chinese Garden Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Lingering Garden is renowned for its lovely layout and large collection of striking rocks; and The Surging Waves Pavilion is the oldest existing classical garden in Suzhou.
These aren’t botanic gardens typical of those found in the U.S.; Chinese gardens are designed to replicate nature in miniature. Ponds and streams represent lakes and rivers, rocks symbolize mountains, plants stand in for forests, and poetically-named pavilions with distinctively upturned eaves serve as man-made structures.
If you stay in the Pan Pacific Suzhou, whose whitewashed buildings with black-tiled roofs mimic the old town’s aesthetic, the closest garden is right behind it: Panmen Scenic Zone, is a delightfully tranquil space (free admission to hotel guests), which features Panmen Gate, the city’s only surviving land-sea gate, a pagoda and a small bridge.
Whether you go for the arresting gardens or stunning silk embroidery, whether you are drawn to the old or the new, Suzhou’s cultural mecca will measure up.
Su Embroidery Studio