Until the year 2000, Labour Day (May 1) and China’s National Day (October 1) were serious affairs devoted to honouring the country’s workers and nation-builders. Then the mandarins in Beijing had a brainwave. They decided that since people were working so hard, they deserved a week-long paid holiday. “Go forth and see the country with your family and friends,” they proclaimed.

The scheme was a grand success. Within five years these two “Golden Weeks” accounted for more than 20 percent of all holiday trips. The number of people taking trips during just one of the two weeks surged from 28 million in the first year to 120 million in 2007. Capacity was ramped up almost overnight. Hotels and airlines, train and bus operators, bars and restaurants, souvenir shops and camera companies all did roaring business.

But the idea was almost too successful. China’s scenic and historic attractions couldn’t bear the strain of millions of people tramping through all at once. So in 2008, the government decided to scrap one of the Golden Weeks – the May holiday – and scatter the days off throughout the year.

This year May 1 fell on a Saturday so to make up for it, May 3 was declared a holiday. And then the local Shanghai government swung into action. May 1 is when the Shanghai Expo would open. Why not reward the city’s residents, who have toiled and suffered countless inconveniences as the city was spiffed up for its coming-out party? “Two more days of holiday!” they declared.

After living in China for more than four years, one gets used to the government’s whims and learns to adapt. I did the same thing that a few million Shanghainese did during that break: headed out of town. No rush to see the Expo; it’s going to be around for six months.

My family and I made our way towards Jinji Lake, an ultramodern township next to historic Suzhou. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken a little over an hour. But China’s car sales have just doubled over the previous year, and it seemed that all the new car owners believed this was their test track. Within a distance of 80 kilometres, there were at least a dozen crashes. Luckily, we arrived unscathed.

Suzhou Industrial Park, which is a rather sorry moniker for such a futuristic urban setting, is a China-Singapore collaborative venture, with dollops of help from American landscape designers. The lakeside marina and park were conceived and executed by EDAW, (now AECOM), the California-based design firm.

The Suzhou Industrial Park Administrative Committee should have also hired a brand-naming firm but the unsexy name in no way detracts from the sleekness and absolute order of the city’s landscape. The balconies of the Crowne Plaza jutted into the lakefront like a cruise ship. Workers were scrambling to put the final touches to the Intercontinental – no May Day break for them, poor souls.

We stayed at the Shilla Hotel – part of a South Korean chain – and watched the sun set over the massive convention centre from our hotel window. As it grew dark, the lights came on and the building’s outer skin began to change colour by the minute.

The shopping centre nearby boasted all the top Western brands: Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo. Next to a canal reminiscent of Singapore’s Clarke Quay, alfresco diners were being entertained by live jazz bands. Every seat at Pizza Hut and Papa John’s was taken, the smell of freshly-baked donuts clashing with the spices in a hundred simmering hotpots. Screams from teenagers riding a roller coaster floated over the blue rooftops of a fairy castle amusement park, where the giant wheel doubled as a giant neon Lancôme billboard.

For a moment I was disoriented. Where was I? This certainly didn’t look like suburban China. But it was.

A hundred thousand people gathered by the lakeside to watch a spectacular display of fireworks and fountains, but we weren’t among them. We just couldn’t get there. Every road was jammed, which is what happens when a tiny fraction of Shanghai’s population descends on a hapless nearby holiday destination. The tourists are great for business, but for the local municipality’s street cleaners and traffic police, they’re a menace.

Speaking of street cleaners, they must have worked into the wee hours because when we arrived at the same lakeside park in the morning, this is how it looked:

Nary a stray candy wrapper in sight. People flew kites into the brisk breeze. Kids tumbled around on the grass.

Teenagers rode tandem bicycles.

Soon-to-be-wed couples, with their friends and photographers in tow, posed for their wedding albums.

Yet there were other young folks who seemed oblivious to the beauty of this urbanscape, even to each other, immersed as they were in the multiple screens in their hands.

Historic Suzhou – the Venice of the East, home to the gardens dating back to the sixth century BC, the Spring and Autumn period – seemed so far away. For now, China’s holiday-makers were donning their Ferragamo shades and dreaming of sailing a yacht on Jinji Lake.