Chinese call Suzhou “the Venice of China.” Though far from sinking, the saying nowadays applies as much to the scenery and history of the city, which is only a 30-minute train ride from Shanghai, as to the fame it is now gaining as one of China’s premier commercial centers.
Suzhou municipality in a broader context incorporates five other cities within its boundaries, and in 2005 actually surpassed Shanghai in the amount of utilized foreign direct investment (FDI) by a ratio of three to one, at US$6 billion. Indeed, at last count in 2006, there were more than 16,000 foreign-invested companies in the municipality.
Suzhou is home to two of the largest, most successful economic development zones in China: the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) and the Suzhou New District (SND). About 50% of the investment in SIP is Western, with American companies taking the lead, while in SND Western companies account for about 20% of all investment. Hence, Suzhou is home to the largest concentration of Westerners in China outside the first-tier cities – Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The city is clearly a manufacturing base, though the local government is developing an R&D and IT industry complexion. The local administrators in SIP and SND can be quite helpful in assisting investors to organize their application for business licenses, bank accounts, tax certificates and the like.
For instance, when we incorporated our company in SIP, administrators from the promotion department personally helped us organize and then audit our paperwork before we submitted it for approvals at the one-stop administrative center in the same building.
In SIP in particular, the Singaporean model for transparency and administrative rigor eases the process considerably compared to many development zones around China. As a result, Western firms tend to favor investing in SIP.
Still another reason for Western companies to invest in and around Suzhou is the large and vibrant expatriate community of several thousand who are clearly defined from their Shanghai or Beijing counterparts. Given the nature of their work outside large offices, you don’t see many businessmen wearing ties in Suzhou and when you do, it’s a rather exotic sight. Business-casual tends to be the uniform of choice.
Though Suzhou is a forward-looking city, it has gone to great lengths to maintain some sense of character through its low, whitewashed façades topped off with peaked black ceramic tile roofs. And at the City of a Hundred Gardens – as it’s been called for a millennium – tourists and locals often ride in tour boats along the canals that weave through the downtown area.
If you’re looking for an apartment, real estate companies that cater to Westerners – such as Maxelli and Joanna Real Estate – pre-qualify apartments to ensure they match normal tastes in design and decoration. The agents can help with negotiation to reduce the possibility of price gouging and ensure that landlords hold up their end of the bargain. English-speaking post-sale agents will personally assist you with everything from maintenance issues to utility-bill payments.
The city itself has a population of about 1.5 million, but socially, it’s very easy to be included in any number of circles and feel a part of what’s going on. No matter the size of your company, just show up a couple times at local pubs like The Blue Marlin in SIP or SND, and in little or no time other Westerners will introduce themselves to you.
For spouses following their partners to Suzhou, getting settled is equally convenient. The Suzhou Expat Association hosts monthly gatherings to introduce newcomers to old Suzhou hands to help with all the practicalities of life in a new city, from finding the right school or daycare services to knowing where to shop for Western amenities. The Blue Marlin in SIP has also launched a monthly event in which expats can learn about international services such as insurance, healthcare and wealth management.
One of the wonders of Suzhou is that you can one moment be walking down a sidewalk jam-packed with pedestrians, and the next find yourself in a secluded back alley taking in trees and traditionally sculpted flower bushes beside a quiet stream. With an already well-founded industrial base of Western companies, Suzhou is aggressively pushing forward a “green” agenda that will only make the area more attractive and enduring as a place for quality investment and comfortable living.