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March 6, 2010

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Ancient Gaoqiao Town beckons with historic spots, easy pace

GAOQIAO ancient town with its beautiful old buildings is tucked away at the southern tip of the Yangtze River, secluded from hectic urban life and the nearby Lujiazui financial area in Pudong.

But the quiet town is just a 30-minute bus ride from Lujiazui, and the Pudong New Area has big plans to develop the charming area of tourism, commerce and residential purposes. A Holland Town, which has completely copied Kattenbroek Town in the Netherlands, is built nearby and a New City will rise in the area.

Gaoqiao dates back to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1278) and its many years of isolation has meant that life still moves at a slow pace and the town is largely intact and unspoiled.

Strolling through the town, one can appreciate well-preserved architecture with beautifully carved wooden facades and elaborately painted sign boards that have faced from the weather.

The narrow, winding stone-paved main street is flanked by buildings with wooden facades and shutters; few are painted, so the wood's natural color is evident.

The 2,000-meter-long street follows the Jiebang River and is divided into three sections -- East Road, West Road and North Road.

Street vendors are everywhere. Migrant workers mingle with the locals.

The town has more than 60 historic buildings, covering 151,000 square meters and the main street is studded with quite a few of them.

Jingye Hall on West Street is around 90 years old and is famous for its elegance and rich carving. Two families live in the two-story house that covers more than 900 square meters.

A knock at the door is answered by 90-year-old Lu Huijuan, who is all smiles and happy to show visitors around.

"I've been living and farming here for almost 70 years since the day I got married," she says.

Her husband, Xu Jiashan, who died 15 years ago, was the archetype and inspiration for the hero of the movie "No. 51 Military Depot" shot in 1961. It tells about how Xu collected intelligence and bought firearms and military supplies for the New Fourth Army during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).

Lu's son bought a new flat downtown where she lives, but she returns every week to the old house and enjoys her old memories for a day or two.

Green shallots are planted in the corners of the spacious courtyard, paved with black bricks. Wood ceilings and doors are carved with scenes from "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and "Romance of the Western Chamber."

The fir wood was carefully selected for carving. Some of the carvings are Western and not in the traditional Anhui style.

The doors are made of a special hard wood imported from Europe and quite rare in the town. Instead of glass, which was rare, the window panes were made from clam shells, a mollusc with highly translucent shells.

In 2008, the local government repaired the roof and renovated the kitchen and bathroom for the families living inside.

Old furniture passed down from generations is still in use, including wooden dressing tables, big square tables and long benches. Modern furnishings include TV sets and comfortable sofas.

"A good thing about the old house is that it's cool in summer and warm in winter," says Lu.

Water is the essence of the town, and rivers and streams used to crisscross the area. Houses were all along the rivers for convenience and the cook breeze off the water. Many streams have been filled in for modern construction.

The Jiebang River survived and the striking Yangxian Hall built in modern European style stands on the banks; traces of Chinese elements are visible, as in its green-tile roof.

The owner of the house, Shen Jinfu, was a successful businessman in the late 1920s who imported soap, matches, gas oil and candles to Shanghai.

Shen was influenced by European culture and his father-in-law, Cai Shaoqi, a contractor who built many famous villas on Sinan, Yandang and Ruijin roads, off bustling Huaihai Road. Shen wanted his own residence to be similarly elegant.

The outer walls are built of reinforced concrete mixed with sand and sea shells that glitter in the sunlight.

The doors are made of a hard wood from the Philippines and bronze locks come from France. Western chandeliers, fireplaces and mantels and glass windows are common.

The spacious riverside balcony is the best place from which to view the Dragon Boat Festival celebrations, such as the dragon boat races.

The toughness of the walls is attested by the dozens of bullet holes and craters from battles during the civil war. The house withstood cannon bombardment and heavy artillery fire.

Today Shen's residence has been turned into the Gaoqiao Town Historic Culture Museum, displaying more than 6,000 items. Other buildings

Ling's Residence

The two-story brick and wood house in Chinese style is now a museum, exhibiting 700 antiques and other items. The 1,200-sqm building has 36 rooms.

It was purchased by the local government from the owners for 1.7 million yuan (US$250,000).

Exhibits include porcelain vases, a bamboo mahjong set, silver chopsticks, a 1905 edition of Webster's New International Dictionary, a gramophone, a Siemens telephone, a Berkefeld water filter, a Watson electric fan and many other items.

Shude Hall

Built in 1907, the house has 24 rooms and a 115-sqm courtyard covered with a spectacular glass dome.

It features fine carvings of wood, stone and brick.

Yu Garden

Dating back more than 280 years, the garden has two lotus ponds separated by a mini causeway inspired by the Su Causeway by the West Lake in Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang Province.

The highlight is a 4,000-year-old osmanthus tree.


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