Suzhou Literary Festival Roundup

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This past weekend was spent in the very lovely Suzhuo at the Bookworm bookstore, partaking in the Suzhou Literary Festival activities.

I especially want to thank everyone who came for the talk on street photography in China, and hope that we all walked away with a clearer idea of the genre and a few new perspectives next time you hit the streets. Participants in the photo walk seemed like they had a great time and I was very impressed by the keen eye many demonstrate, I myself learned a fair bit from all of you.

Also, many thanks to the organizers and inn-keepers of the Suzhou Bookworm for the great event! The Suzhou Literary Festival is a gem and I hope more folks in Shanghai consider a trip to enjoy interesting authors and the city next year.

Speaking of which, the old city is lovely.

I had met up with a friend from Suzhou, a born and bred native with an affinity for history. As we drove around, he pointed out a few interesting landmarks in the city. One of which was a compound called Tongde Lane (同德里) along Wusa Lu (五卅路) that once belonged to Shanghai’s greatest  gangster Du Yuesheng (杜月笙 or nickname ‘Big Ears Du’). He had conveniently housed his two Suzhou concubines there and would visit when Shanghai proved too hectic. It was subsequently occupied by Lin Biao (林彪), a Communist general who died fleeing after what appeared to be a failed coup to oust Mao Zedong in 1971.

I’ve always enjoyed the minimalism of Jiangnan (江南)-styled houses with their white and grey hues, elaborate roof gables and intricate stone carvings. Walking in the quiet back canals, it is always a treat to find the random pavillion and convenient stone bridges to carry you back to the din of noisy cars and shops.

I finally visited the touristy Pingjiang Lu (平江路), a pedestrian stream of preserved Jiangnan-styled houses occupied by galleries, cafes, tea-houses and hotels. Some may scoff Pingjiang Lu to be a little too scrubbed up and Disneyfied, but I thought that it had modernized more organically than reconstructed shopping shikumens (石库门) in Shanghai, whose natural inclination is to Westernize everything from decor to cuisine.  My preference would be to have Suzhou’s traditional tea houses evolve with corresponding Taiwanese and Japanese influences of hominess and simplicity.

For camera-philes, a Leica store is opening up by Pingjiang Lu, a hallmark of gentrification and creep of upscale shopping. A quick chat with the owner says the store opening is slated for mid-end April with an exhibit by a Canadanian photographer.

At times, the city centre feels as if it’s choking on both traffic and people. As the skies darkened threateningly with rain, I watched the hordes clamour onto a public bus like it was the only way out of a war zone.

Urban planners are struggling to cope with the flood of migrating residents, and the battle for sustainable preservation of heritage architecture. I hope city planners strike a good balance, because outside of the old city, Suzhou has fast become a cookie cutter landscape, a far cry from the idyllic town it once was.

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