For the latest in my relocation guide series, here’s a snapshot of expat life in Suzhou, China. Hannah is a keen runner, a great mum and a fellow Expater based in Suzhou, China. Here she shares a slice of her expat life in Suzhou, the land of silk and honey.
Expat life in Suzhou
Moving to Suzhou
The move is something I would not choose to repeat! We decided to go minimalist and take essentials such as clothes, a few toys and books and toiletries and laptop. So, we ended up selling/chucking a lot of furniture and items.
We shipped with a company called Seven Seas. To be honest I was not overly impressed with the service myself – my sewing machine and Kenwood food mixer arrived broken. We shipped two boxes and they arrived about four months after we arrived in China.
For immigration, my husband had to get an employment visa. He had to submit of a lot of paperwork, get it all countersigned and apostilled, with several trips to the embassy. It was a nightmare!
His visa status includes me as his wife and our two kids as dependents. As part of his teacher’s package the kids have their fees waived. On top of this, we all get health insurance and taxable allowances for one air flight back to the UK every year. It’s an excellent package.
Quality of life in Suzhou
Well as for the quality of expat life in Suzhou, let me list the pros and cons.
Pros: The Singaporean style infrastructure in the Industrial Park is convenient -it has nice wide roads and extra lanes for all the e-bikes and bicycles, and wide pavements too.
Plus, it is clean and well looked after.
There is quite a bit of foreign investment too, so lots of restaurants to choose from representing different cuisines and a fair amount of English is spoken.
Shanghai is only a two hour drive away or 40-minute train journey away too, offering lots more shopping, eating and entertainment options.
Cons: The air pollution does get bad, especially during December to February. During these months we try to stay inside with air purifiers and when we do go out, we wear pollution masks.
The older parts of town feel rather chaotic. There are always areas under construction which creates chaos in the surrounding roads. It feels a little unsafe for both the contraction workers and the pedestrians.
I’d also mention accessibility for the internet sites we want to visit as a disadvantage. Google, Facebook and some other sites require a VPN as the Chinese government has blocked them.
There is no airport in Suzhou.
Finally for non- Chinese speaking parents, there’s really only a choice of two international schools, and both come with high fees.
Is Suzhou safe?
I feel very safe in Suzhou, safer than I did in my hometown in UK.
The subway system has mandatory security checks for all passengers. I’ve never heard of any public displays of aggression. Although there is a drinking culture, it seems to be well controlled and contained.
We’ve not experienced much petty theft in the three years, only occasional bike helmets going missing from our ebike and bikes.
What is Suzhou famous for?
Suzhou is known as the ‘Venice of the East’ as it is interwoven with canals.
It is capital town of Jiangsu province. As the birthplace of silk and silk embroidery, it was once the wealthiest in the country. Today tourists can visit the ‘embroidery town’ where craftsmen still practise the old-fashioned hand weaving.
Suzhou is also famous for its gardens. It was here that well-to-do families from various dynasties had their large homes and gardens. These had specific layouts according to the custom of the times, for example stone mosaic floors. They are open to the public now, with ‘the humble administrator’s garden’ probably the most famous example.
Is Suzhou expensive?
Suzhou is expensive for renting and buying properties. A two-bedroom apartment would cost between 5000-7000 RMB/month (£560- £800 English GBP).
If you buy groceries in the supermarkets, it is expensive. This is especially true for wine, dairy products, coffee and chocolate. If you only rely on local fresh food markets then the price goes down considerably. Public transport and taxis are very cheap.
Extra-curricular activities are expensive, for example swimming classes cost £24 English GBP for 45 minutes, and piano tuition would set you back £30 GBP for half an hour.
Where to stay
For the Industrial Park area in Suzhou (where most of the expats live and work), there are two central areas: West of the lake and East of the Lake.
There are a good number of 5 * hotels, such as the Courtyard Marriott, W hotel, Intercontinental and Hilton. These hotels guarantee comfort and a variety of western and eastern style cuisine.
For expats moving over, serviced apartments would be better for long term stays. I’d recommend the Howard and Johnson, and the Hilton.
For families, I would recommend a place where we live called Lakeshore Gardens Compound. It has only one road around the periphery so it feels safe for the kids to ride their bikes and scoot around in the main part of the compound. The guards are also friendly and pay attention to the kids. It has an outdoor pool for the summer months, too.
Young professionals without kids may prefer the Presidential Palace, Marina Cove and Horizon compounds.
Expat life in Suzhou
In relation to Suzhou with a population of 10 million the expat community is small.
The expat world here is an open community, with people often coming and going regularly. A very small portion are long term expats, most move on after 3-6 years.
Suzhou overall has very work focused kind of vibe; there a lot of office workers, bankers, factories.
For recreation there’s a lot of shopping and eating out. Meanwhile for kids there are nature parks, trampoline places, ice skating etc. An Olympic sized stadium just opened a year ago, containing vast sports facilities. And of course there’s the cultural side – the ancient gardens and boat trips along the canals.
As far as integration with locals in concerned, it’s really down to the effort you are prepared to put in. There are open opportunities for locals and expats to mingle outside of work. The Toastmasters and the Suzhou Striders Running Club are great ways to meet foreigners and Suzhou locals.
I reckon the largest expat population here are from South Korea, working in the technology sector, mainly with Samsung. Meanwhile most expats from the UK work in education posts as teachers, in headships etc. There is also a strong technology and engineering sector. Many German expats are associated with this sector, for example Bosch has its headquarters here. Among the American expat population, a lot work as engineers or teachers. There’s a small French and Indian population too.
There is quite a discrepancy in terms of investment in the old and new areas of town. The government seems to invest so much in the stylish areas that attract foreigners, but I feel the older parts of town are a little neglected.
It surprised me how advanced life is here, in terms of transport systems, (for example bullet trains), and how many appliances and day-to-day goods are available. It is surprising how everyone completely relies on their phone for everything; making payments, buying train tickets, ordering from menus, etc, etc!
All in all, is Suzhou a good place to live?
Yes. As far as Chinese cities go, as a family with young children I think we got one of the best deals. It’s safe, convenient, fairly easy to get around, with quite a lot of options for activities, good schools. I’m happy here!
For more on expat life in Suzhou, follow Hannah’s journey at landofsilkandhoney.net