A Chinese city building bridges to the world
Suzhou’s replicas of famous Western bridges may seem odd to some, but offer a window on to world history for many others
The sight of what looks like London’s Tower Bridge over a river in the Chinese city of Suzhou either brings a smile or a frown. It is one of countless replicas of famous Western landmarks that have mushroomed across the mainland despite Chinese deploring foreign imperialism. Overseas visitors may find the structures disconcerting or even tasteless, and some residents feel they are not in keeping with local character, but there are also those who believe they are an invaluable addition to cityscapes. Whatever the feelings, there is no denying that they represent a nation that is outward-looking and economically confident.
Suzhou has a long and proud history, with its nine Unesco World Heritage sites, network of canals and ancient gardens and temples. But it has also experienced extraordinary growth over the past decade, with urban development creating modern commercial, business and industrial zones. Among them is Xiangcheng district in the city’s northeast, 35 per cent covered by water, where developers have built bridges that imitate Western ones, among them Tower Bridge, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Paris’ Pont Alexandre III bridge.
The bridges and other copycat structures have earned the city a reputation as a clone capital. But such features can be found throughout the country, among them replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysee in Hangzhou, Thames Town in Shanghai and a copy of Austria’s Hallstatt village in Huizhou, while there are dozens of examples of the official residence of the US president, the White House. But Suzhou offers a special case, given that it is famed around the world for its ancient stone bridges across waterways, observed by Venetian traveller Marco Polo when he visited in 1276, leading to the city being known as the “Venice of the East”.
Some residents, particularly the elderly, believe the new bridges are not in keeping with their city’s image. Others wish architects could be more original. But not all agree; the structures are a popular backdrop for wedding pictures and are an attraction for tourists. For Chinese who do not have the opportunity to travel, they also provide a window to the world offering history and perspective.