Living 17 years in China, “New Yorker” writes Suzhou story
2018-08-19 13:37:00


After 17 years in Suzhou, Stephen L. Koss from America is getting used to the summer in the city, though he still doesn’t like the muggy weather.

In a summer breeze in late July, he recalled his first visit to the city. It was also a muggy summer day in 2001. He didn’t know then, that he would stay in the city for so long and even write a book about it.

“It was fate”

Seventeen years have passed by, and Stephen still remembers many details in his first trip to Suzhou. He said, “We were staying at Suzhou Hotel on Shiquanjie. At night, when everybody else has gone to bed, I still wanted to take a walk.”

After China implemented the Reform and Opening-up policy in 1978, a great number of foreigners have come to Suzhou for traveling and business investigation. Most of them would stay on Shiquanjie, or Shiquan Street, where most of the city’s hotels with the qualification to receive foreign guests were located. The Suzhou-style buildings with foreigners on their casual walk were once a unique scene in the ancient city.

“People were very nice. They tried to talk to me in English as much as they can. One man even invited me to an English corner.” Stephen couldn’t help laughing.

Coming to China for the first time with a travel group, Stephen went to a number of cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Nanjing and so on. “But Suzhou is the only city that made me want to come back again.”

He did come back. In the following year, the math teacher came to Suzhou again, and stayed for a month, during which he met the Chinese lady he later married to in 2003.

“It was fate.” he said.

Changing city changes life

Travelling in a city is one thing, but living in a different culture is another. In his early years in Suzhou, Stephen had a lot of problems to conquer.

Eating is the first one.

“If I was traveling, I could eat Chinese food for a month. But living here, I got nowhere to find the food I used to eat in America, like cheese, bread and even coffee!”

The eating problem is followed by overmuch attention he got due to his exotic look.

In contrast, language is not the biggest problem, as Stephen would always meet people who could speak at least some English. And things are getting even better with more Chinese people learning this international language.

“It’s been a big change,” Stephen said, “English is making China more international. For people coming to Suzhou, no matter where they come from, as long as they speak English, they can live in Suzhou.

“Suzhou has become so much more westernized. There are more foreign companies, more foreigners, more western restaurants and shopping centers. Life is becoming easier.”

Now, as Stephen can buy his favorite cheese and bread in Suzhou, he has more interest in the authentic Suzhou flavor. He would even try to talk his foreign friends who stick to western food into “Yaba Shengjian”, a local food shop specializing in pan-fried soup buns.

Shiquanjie is no longer the most popular place for foreigners. They now form active communities in Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) and Suzhou New District (SND) outside the ancient town. According to statistics from Suzhou Municipal Government, by April of 2018, there are now 13,000 foreigners from 93 countries working in Suzhou. And the city is among the top ten “Most Attractive Chinese Cities for Foreigners” for six consecutive years.

Stephen no longer gets curious stares from local people. He becomes “invisible” as he is treated as a Suzhou citizen like everyone else.

“New Yorker” writes about Suzhou

After Stephen retired from his teaching position in America and settled down in Suzhou in 2006, he had more time to look at the city. And he wanted to find an English book to read about the cultural context of the city.

“I know the city has 2,500 years’ history, but I knew only pieces about what happened in the 2,500 years.”

Finding only picture books or tourism pamphlets, he decided to write a book himself. After six years of research, two more years of writing and compiling, and 11 drafts, Beautiful Su: A Social and Cultural History of Suzhou, China finally came out in 2014.

Hoping to help foreigner like him, who want to build a thorough idea about Suzhou, Stephen is surprised to find that 60% of his readers are actually Chinese. Some of his Chinese readers even said they felt ashamed that a foreigner knew more about Suzhou than they did.

“But I always tell them don’t. Because if you spend eight years doing research and writing about New York, you would know more about New York than me.

“People just tend to neglect the city they are living in.”

However, fortunately, the decision makers of Suzhou did not neglect the city. In the early years of Reform and Opening-up since 1978, Suzhou was listed as the one and only ancient city under comprehensive protection in China. In 1982, “development and protection” was made the guideline of Suzhou’s future development. To protect the classical gardens, roads and bridges in the ancient city proper, Suzhou started to build the Suzhou New District in the west wing of the city in 1990. In 1994, the Sino-Singapore cooperating Suzhou Industrial Park broke ground, making Suzhou a new forefront of China’s reform and opening-up.

“Those are among the things that the government did it right from the start.” Stephen told JiangsuNow, “It gave people the choice. If they want to live the modern life, the SIP and SND are there. At the same time, the old city is still protected.”

Stephen is becoming famous because of the book, and he’s getting busy, too, as he has been frequently invited to lectures, cultural events, and even culture-themed hikes in the city. He is still constantly discovering new stories about Suzhou, and he likes to share his idea of the city with younger generation, just like what he always writes for his young readers on the first pages: You are the future of Suzhou. Take care of the city. Editor:Nicky