A Canadian in Beijing: Suzhou’s Hidden Gardens

I’m tired of being stared at and so I’ve crouched down and I’m writing in here, tucked between two full benches in a room that holds one thousand people, easily. This is one of five waiting rooms at the Suzhou Zhan (train station) where people are waiting for their Labour Day trains to take them away from their lives for a few days. There really aren’t a lot of white faces in this town and mine has received a lot of stares, points, giggles and craning necks.

Today I came to Suzhou on a day trip from Shanghai. It was Jeni’s idea, really, and she even bought me a ticket here and everything. This is the site of some of the world’s oldest traditional gardens and I wanted to see them (or at least one of them) and take some photographs.

Today is Lao Dong Jie, or “Labour Day” as we know it, and it marks the beginning of a week’s holiday for nearly everyone in China. It’s amazing that I was able to get a return ticket back to Shanghai considering the line-ups at the train station this afternoon. The whole process took about an hour and a half. I stook in one line about one hundred feet long next to maybe thirty other identical line-ups just slammed with people. And while they moved fairly quickly, there was pushing and budding and shouting at the ticket windows, which made for some very stern clerks.

I waited patiently and when it came to my turn, I was given a wide berth – a sort of foreigner’s deference. Strange at times and common here in China, but today it was appreciated as it made it easier for me to communicate with the attendant and secure my return fare. I was the only white face that I could see in a room of more people than I could estimate and this photo (above) does not do the scale justice.

Suzhou is known for its beauty and many people retire here. It is a smaller city – only about six million people, or a bit bigger than the size of Toronto! – and it is full of greenery and lovely canals that line walkways and parks.

After the train station, I walked in the direction of the most recommended garden. There was so much construction on this road that I couldn’t find it and everyone I asked was either also visiting or was too shy to respond. I ended up joining the throngs on a small shaded patch of grass by a river to have a snack and to rest my walking legs.

When I started up again, I finally saw a historical landmarks sign that told me that I’d overshot that particular garden. “Mei wenti,” I thought (or, “no problem”), “I’ll just go to a different one!” So, I followed my nose and my eyes and zeroed in on an historic temple that cost too much to tour (but was free to photograph!)

I was sure that the temple would have some gardens to tour but I was wrong. I continued on. I even hopped a rickshaw for a large section of one of the busy streets. There was just something sweet about the rickshaw driver and he caught me with tired feet!

When I hopped out, I was supposed to be really close to the “Joy Gardens,” which were next on my map. I walked along the road and couldn’t see a single garden nor an entrance way or alley towards one. I did, however, pass a music shop.

That’s when it was all over.

A young man was sitting in the entrance way and was playing an erhu. These traditional Chinese instruments have always fascinated me and I even own (a broken) one at home. I walked past the shop and smiled but then a few paces later I remembered that I needed a guitar strap and so I doubled back.

The men in the doorway greeted me with smiles – both the proprietor and the young musician – and motioned for me to tour the store at my leisure. I asked about the guitar strap and promptly purchased it (only 10 kuai!) and then proceeded to ask some various questions about the erhu. Eventually, I imagine that my questions got a bit trying and they asked me if I wanted to try to play it. Of course I did!

They gave me an informal lesson on holding the bow and the instrument on my leg, finding the notes (doh, ray, me, fah, so, lah, tee, doh) and the correct posture. I was concentrating so much on trying to hear the pitch and land the notes correctly that I didn’t realize until I looked up about five minutes later that a small crowd had gathered on the sidewalk to watch this blonde foreigner make horrifying, out-of-tune sounds on the erhu!

The owner subtly motioned for me to move into the store and he sat me down half-way back and away from the onlookers and then plopped a children’s erhu lesson book in front of me. If was equipped with pictures and diagrams. He told me to keep working on it with an impatient “why-have-you-stopped?” gesture and so I did. It only took me about another five minutes to successfully nail the major scale. They applauded. I smiled like the little kids in the pictures and I knew that I had to buy one.

Only 175 kuai later and I had a starter erhu and case filled with extra strings, rosin and the shopkeeper’s well-wishes.

Now they wanted to hear me play the guitar and so I spent another half an hour picking and strumming away at a very cheap guitar that he pulled off of the wall for me to play. They clapped and laughed at my style of playing but kept encouraging me and I was easily baited into playing more. Finally, though, it was time to put the cheap guitar back on the wall in hopes that it would one day stay in tune.

I strung my new erhu over my shoulder and bounded out of the store with music in my step.

I was still looking for that garden, but I again couldn’t find it, even after asking the police who made a grand (and loud) show of miming how to get to the garden to me despite my ability to understand basic directions.

A half-hour later and I was no closer to any traditional garden. I had planned to meet some friends from Canada in Suzhou in the afternoon and I was already late. I caught a taxi and had to accept the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing any gardens this time around. The traditional gardens of Suzhou will have to wait until the next time.

(I’m sure they’re beautiful!)

I’d like to think of this music shop as my hidden garden in Suzhou. It was beautiful and full of tradition!

They’re calling my train now. Time for me to lift my stuff off of this dirty floor and make my way back to Shanghai. I have a “standing only” ticket (i.e. no assigned seat) for the ninety-minute, jam-packed trip back to Shanghai. . . so wish me luck!

Erhu image came from Deborah Koh’s page dedicated to the folk music of China.