SUZHOU, CHINA — This morning we are packing up for Shanghai for a fast overnight stop on the way to Beijing. But first, let me tell you about yesterday.
We were treated to a road trip by our good friends, G.Q. Zhao and Pang Zhangzi, to Taihu Lake and the ancient village of LuXiang. The destinations were great, but the ride through the western part of Suzhou on the way out of town also provided some considerable points of interest.
As with everywhere else we have been since landing in China, construction is rampant. It’s big and it’s everywhere. We witnessed the beginning of one massive redevelopment project, the likes of which would be unimaginable in the U.S. A couple of miles of shuttered buildings and remnants of recently-demolished buildings were being treated to new sidewalks and flora; all being made ready for new residences, said to be in great demand. In our country it would be almost impossible to sew up this much contiguous developed real estate, even if the capital to do so were available.
Speaking of residences, the workers building everything live in temporary housing situated on the work sites. These white, mostly two-story structures all look alike except most have blue metal roofs and a few have red. It is obvious that they are constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed over and over. The living conditions are not exactly luxurious for the workers who are here in Suzhou from all over China.
Construction is going on in all forms, not just buildings. We passed a number of road and bridge projects and one subway station and tunnel site for the third new subway line in Suzhou. On all the major public thoroughfares, there is beauty built into each project. Tree-lined sidewalks and large sculptures are common.
The changes brought on by the prosperity China has enjoyed for a number of years have not all been easy. The sudden emergence of the passenger vehicle as a primary mode of transportation has presented some interesting challenges: roads and parking. The latter may prove more daunting than the former. You can build more roads (many have tolls) but adding parking to existing residential areas is nearly impossible. For decades, large-scale housing complexes have been built with virtually no automobile parking for the residents. Now, virtually every family has one car and some have two.
Taihu Lake is the third-largest lake in China. We stopped at a fish market along the way so our tour guides could purchase some fresh fish and crab. And I mean fresh, as the fish and crabs are kept in live wells until they are chosen to be cleaned for the crowd of anxious consumers.
The drive was pleasant as we drifted along through small villages. The lakeside drive was lined for miles with blooming rose bushes that were being tended by workers who also kept the roadway clean. This is not a job for the faint-of-heart, as there is little shoulder and the drivers use the entire roadway, no matter what the painted lines dictate. Here, the horn is the turn signal of choice and traffic signals serve mainly as mild suggestions to the pedestrians, auto, bike, and motorbike riders who all share much of the same roadway.
The ride was a unique mixture of our tour guides speaking in their native Chinese to each other over Taylor Swift on the radio, as we passed numerous wedding parties being staged on the passing villages. The ride was every bit as interesting as the stop at our destination, LuXiang Village.
This popular Suzhou tourist destination is a throwback to years gone by. Like the Hutong district in Beijing, this area has been spared from redevelopment and is treasured as a historical landmark. Village residents offer good food to eat and local crafts, but the real star is the village itself, with canals and buildings built along alleyways just wide enough for horse-drawn carriages (or motorbikes).
While in LuXiang Village we got our first close-up study of the traditional clay-tile roofing that is found all over the region, most notably in the older sections of Suzhou. The pan and cap system is laid over a clay tile or concrete deck with wide pans under rows of the somewhat narrower caps. The caps are stacked thick in tight courses making for a heavy system. The pans are muddled in well but the caps seem to be held by gravity as much as by mortar embedment.
To support the ongoing maintenance of the aging village structures, we noted that absolutely nothing went to the landfill. All roof tiles that were removed were neatly stacked and reserved for reuse on another structure. Random piles of brick and other recyclable building materials were likewise kept in separate piles. Bamboo fixed with tie wire was the scaffolding of choice, as it is still actively used all over Asia on many worksites. Steel has taken over for most scaffolding in the cities where worksite safety measures are evident.
Following a lunch of fried turnips with onions and the best Wonton soup I’ve ever had, we headed back to the city. On the ride back I paid attention to the buildings, thinking about the questions of how their building systems differed from ours. I was reminded of what we have in common, and that’s the predominance of engineered metal buildings. The more I learn about our differences, the more I am reminded of how we are the same. We all need our built spaces to keep us comfortable, warm, and dry while being affordable to build and maintain.
It seems all the people in the world are coming to the realization that our construction methods must also be environmentally-friendly and sustainable. It’s certainly as hot a topic here as it is in the U.S. and has been for decades in Europe and Japan.