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October 16, 2010

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Canal town gets culture makeover

THE suburban canal town of Zhujiajiao, once known as the "Venice of the East," is promoting itself as a cultural center with a new museum, artists' studios, music festivals and other assets. Wang Jie reports.

The water town of Zhujiajiao is known for its beautiful canals, stone bridges, cobbled streets and architecture dating back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Just 50 kilometers from downtown Shanghai in Qingpu District, the former "Venice of the East" attracts many tourists with its laid-back ambience, eateries and shops selling handicrafts.

Today it is trying to set itself apart from other charming water towns by promoting its cultural heritage.

"Apart from its soothing scenery, Zhujiajiao is rich in culture and art," says Lu Qianlin, official of Shanghai Lake Dianshan Newton Development Co Ltd, which is developing the area into an even bigger tourist draw.

The Zhujiajiao Museum of Humanities and Art, located at the entrance to the water town, just opened before the National Day holiday with an exhibition of 130 oil paintings and sculptures that tell the story of the town. The two-story, 1,569-square-meter building features numerous exhibits exploring the history and culture of the town and the region south of the Yangtze River.

Around 125 Chinese oil painters were invited to spend time in the water town, soak up the atmosphere and create a gallery of images of the ancient town.

"These paintings vividly depict the details of culture, customs and atmosphere in old Zhujiajiao and visitors will be guided through a surprising time tunnel," says Yu Xiaofu, a veteran local oil painter who is in charge of the project.

Visual images create a striking picture, more powerful than words.

"A painting can conjure up a particular setting, such as a small restaurant, a fabric shop or the traditional Lantern Festival," Yu says, adding that each painter interprets the town differently.

Zhujiajiao with its criss-crossing waterways was developed as a trading town in the Ming Dynasty and reached its prime in the 1930s. At one time, there were more than 70 rice stores in the town and the grain was transported by canal to other parts of China.

The five-arch Fangsheng Bridge built in 1571 in the Ming Dynasty still stands today.

"We are very proud of the history of Zhujiajiao, and we treasure everything that has been left to us," Yu says.

For example, two 479-year-old ginkgo biloba (maidenhair) trees were removed for construction of the museum and later replanted in front of the building.

"Though we lost exhibition space, we finally saved these two trees that were witness to history, so newcomers should take a stroll outside the museum as well," says Yu.

More charms

In addition to the museum, the town is undertaking cultural activities and luring artists and musicians to set up studios by the water.

Refurbished Hua Ya Tang (Elegant Flower Hall) and its classical garden are made the elegant setting for a Kunqu Opera version of "The Peony Pavilion" by famed artist Zhang Jun.

Zhang, former deputy director of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera House, quit last year to set up a private Kunqu Opera arts center in Shanghai and chose Zhujiajiao for "The Peony Pavilion."

The elegantly decorated old house Hua Ya Tang as well as the Ming-style garden unwittingly offer a stunning environment to echo with the performance.

"We have bought and renovated around 200 old houses in Zhujiajiao, in hopes that more culture and artistic programs can be introduced here," says land developer Lu.

Celebrity artists with studios in the town include famous Shanghai photographer Deke Erh, Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun and acclaimed film director Feng Xiaogang ("Aftershock," 2010) and veteran actor Zhang Guoli.

"We want to invite more celebrities to open their private studios in Zhujiajiao, which would definitely inject new blood in the ancient canal town," says Lu.

Cultural and art programs already held included the International Water-Color Biennale in mid-April, Kunqu Opea performances and the Zhujiajiao Water Village Music Festival during the weeklong National Day holiday.

"We believe Zhujiajiao won't merely attract visitors with its peaceful landscape," says Lu. "They will be fascinated by what they can see and hear against this backdrop."


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