My Suzhou: Man of History Steve Koss

By Ned Kelly, May 21, 2019

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My Suzhou is a That's series when we ask a Suzhou-based somebody to tell us about their life.

Steve Koss first spent a day-and-a-half in Suzhou in 2000 as part of a multi-city tour of China. Charmed by the ancient gardens, tree-lined streets and locals who stopped on their bicycles to practice their English with him, he returned the following summer, met a Suzhouren who became his wife, and now splits his time between the city and Manhattan. He has written Beautiful Su: A Social and Cultural History of Suzhou, China, and does historical tours of the city, Walking with Steve.

Tell us about your book, Beautiful Su?
The more I learned about Suzhou, from living and sightseeing here between 2001 and 2006, the more I wanted to know about the city. I went looking for an English-language book that would tell me the story of Suzhou, but all I could find were two or three quite specialized, academic style books, and some similarly specialized journal articles. There was nothing that presented the end-to-end history of the city, and nothing for a general readership.

Looking through those books, however, I saw enough to give me the idea that such a book could be written, so I decided to tell the city’s story. The book took more than six years to research, and two more to write, and came out in September 2015. The first sentence in my book’s preface says it all: “This is the book I wanted to buy but couldn’t find.” The rest, as they say, is history – pun intended.

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How did Walking with Steve come about?
It was actually suggested to me last summer by a newspaper reporter here in Suzhou, who thought it might be an interesting way for expats and English-speaking locals to learn more about the city they live in. She was correct – it has turned out to be quite popular.

Tell us about your different walks?
There have been 13 different walks so far: five in 2017, seven last year and one this weekend. Each walk takes a different route and usually includes three or four places of historical or cultural interest. I generally avoid the typical tourist spots and focus on ‘deep Suzhou’ – the kinds of places that expats, and even locals don’t know about, and that have interesting stories attached to them.

One walk, for example, starts at Suzhou’s Twin Pagodas, or Shuang Ta, and includes a stop at Tongdeli, a small, dead-end alley where ‘Big Ears’ Du Yuesheng, the notorious head of the Shanghai Green Gang triad in the 1920s and 1930s built himself a country residence in Suzhou. Big Ears Du had some other interesting connections to Suzhou that I talk about as part of the walk.

Ned-One.jpegWhat is your favorite Suzhou site?
I love to walk the narrow lanes and alleys of the ancient city with my wife. Because she’s a Suzhouren, and speaks Suzhouhua, my wife is able to (and really enjoys) engaging the elderly people who live in the older homes, so we have the opportunity to visit their homes and hear about their lives. It provides me a fascinating entrée as a foreigner into traditional Suzhou life.

If I had to pick an actual site, I would probably choose Canglangting, the Surging Waves Pavilion Garden. It is my favorite Suzhou garden for its unique design and clever management of space. And it is rather more lightly visited than the famous, tourist-oriented ones.

How can people sign up for a walk?
There’s no fixed schedule for my walks — we just post announcements in advance on WeChat when we’ve set a date for the next upcoming one. There’s a WeChat group called Walking with Steve where we post the announcements first, then to various other chat groups and individuals.

This has all been more of a hobby – an enthusiasm for helping people who live in Suzhou know more about their city rather than a business – so simply add me on WeChat through my ID – mathman180 – and I will send you announcements for any upcoming walks.

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Steve is hosting his next historical walk on Sun May 26. To sign up for Walking with Steve or to learn more about his his book, Beautiful Su: A Social and Cultural History of Suzhou, China, scan the QR code below.

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Read more My Suzhou

[Images via Steve Koss]

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