A prized Shanghai waterway emerges from industrial past

Yang Jian
Decades-long work to clean up Suzhou Creek and redevelop its riverside will be fully completed and open to the public by the end of the year.
Yang Jian

Editor’s note:

Suzhou Creek holds a special place in the hearts of Shanghai residents. The region's silks and ceramics were carried along the Maritime Silk Road in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and centuries later the area became an early industrial hub of the city. By the 1980s, it had degenerated into a cesspool flanked by shantytowns. But that was the past. The future is now fully on display with the completion of intensive cleanup projects and redevelopment of the waterfront. As President Xi Jinping said during an inspection tour in Shanghai in early 2020, a people's city must be built by the people and for the people. This series explores the creek's remarkable journey.

A prized Shanghai waterway emerges from industrial past
Provided by Xue Liyong / Ti Gong

An old photo taken nearly a century ago about the busy water traffic on Suzhou Creek as well as the Zilaishui Bridge, also known as Jiangxi Road Bridge, which has been demolished.

Row, row a boat to Grandma Bridge.

Grandma calls me a good baby.

She rewards me a streamed bun and a pasty.”

The classic Shanghai nursery rhyme refers to Waibaidu Bridge over Suzhou Creek, illustrating the importance the downtown waterway has always had in the city.

Creek may be a bit of a misnomer for a 125-kilometer waterway that originates in Taihu Lake in Jiangsu Province and winds through the cities of Suzhou, Kunshan and Shanghai before finally emptying into the Huangpu River. Indeed, Suzhou Creek is known as the Wusong River for most of its journey.

The city’s early foreign settlers named the 54-kilometer section in Shanghai after Suzhou, the upstream terminus for boat travel.

Since Shanghai opened its port in 1843, the creek has been the backdrop for dramatic landmarks in the city’s history. It was the scene of wartime suffering and the birthplace of China’s earliest national industries.

Its industrial heritage left the creek’s water murky in the 1980s. Cleaning up the pollution and redeveloping its banks have been projects underway for years. Now, at long last, those projects are set to be completed by year’s end, and the full amenities of the “new” Suzhou Creek area will be fully opened, including a continuous riverside walkway.

Riverside development spanning 42 kilometers has involved the districts of Huangpu, Hongkou, Jing’an, Putuo, Changning and Jiading. Each is presenting unique waterfront attractions.

Under the city’s umbrella, the overarching development plan, called “Striving for a World-Class Waterfront Area,” involves extensive greenbelts, preserved historical buildings, new cross-creek bridges, “sponge city” technology and an environment in harmony with nature.

“The waterfront area of the creek will become the ‘backyard garden’ of local citizens, while the Huangpu River waterfront, which is already connected and open, serves as the ‘reception room,’” said Zhu Jianhao, deputy director of the city’s housing and construction management commission and current manager of the projects.

A prized Shanghai waterway emerges from industrial past
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The same section of the creek nowadays

Xue Liyong, a senior researcher with Shanghai History Museum who has spent decades studying the history, published a book last year entitled “Suzhou Creek in the Waves of History.”

“The campaign to connect and open the riverside area has remarkable meaning to Shanghai,” said Xue. “The creek once played a key role in drainage, irrigation and shipping for the city. With all the upgrading done, it has been transformed into an urban river of ecology and sightseeing.”

Xue, 73, who is a native of Hongkou District, recalled boyhood summers of jumping into the creek from Waibaidu Bridge. The creek has never ceased to fascinate him. After retirement, he continued his research on the creek and still shares his findings with friends on WeChat.

He recently sent two old photos to Shanghai Daily. One shows Waibaidu, also known as Garden Bridge, where the creek meets the Huangpu River. The other is Zilaishui Bridge, also known as Jiangxi Road Bridge, which has been demolished.

Dozens of sculling boats and cargo ships once plied the waters, creating a commercial trading center in the area. The height of prosperity began in the mid-19th century, when foreign companies doing business in the city recognized the lucrative opportunities of the riverside. 

Jardine, Matheson & Co, once the largest trading company in China and East Asia, opened a silk company on the creekside in the 1860s. Raw silk produced in neighboring Zhejiang Province was shipped to the factory via the creek, and its output was exported to the world through the Huangpu River.

The Ewo-Yuen Press Packing Co was established near the Zhejiang Road Bridge over the creek in 1907 to package the exports, according to Xue’s research.

Chinese entrepreneur Rong Zongjing and his brother Rong Desheng opened the Fuxin Flour Factory on the north bank of the creek in 1912, marking the beginning of China’s national industries. 

China’s first electric fan company Wahson, still a time-honored brand in the city, began operation on the south bank of the creek in 1916. More Chinese entrepreneurs followed to compete with foreign firms and gradually supplant their products with local versions.

A prized Shanghai waterway emerges from industrial past
Xue Liyong / Ti Gong

An old photo taken nearly a century ago shows the Waibaidu Bridge over the creek.

The heyday of the period is chronicled in the Suzhou Creek Industrial Civilization Museum in Putuo District.

Outside the museum, a century-old hydrogen compressor is displayed. It was purchased by Wu Yunchu (1891-1953), a chemist who created monosodium glutamate and a forerunner of modern industrialists. Wu operated an ammonia synthesis factory at the creek to break a foreign monopoly.

Another key exhibit at the museum is a minting machine provided by the Shanghai Banknote Printing & Minting Co, which is still operating today along the creek. It was started in 1978 and minted one-, two- and five-cent coins until 2000.

A large number of factories, docks, warehouses and storage yards were set up on both sides of the creek, making the riverside a core industrial hub of Shanghai. Workers and the poor built slum housing along the creek, Xue said.

The factories and residents dumped waste into the creek, turning it into a foul-smelling cesspool by 1978, he added.

Zhang Xiaoguo, a now retired city official who once was in charge of creek cleanup, recalled the waterway was “dark as ink and stank like excrement” when he took on the job.

“Some city legislators who went on a site tour of the creek actually fainted,” Zhang said. “It was difficult to stand there for more than five minutes at a time.”

In 1988, the city began building sewage pipelines and a water treatment plant to curb the pollution. By 1999, a major cleanup campaign and 14 billion yuan (US$2.1 billion) were allocated for the first three of phases to restore the ecosystem of the creek. 

Linda Tsao Yang, 94, who was born in Shanghai and went on to an illustrious career in US banking, was among those at the forefront of cleanup efforts. She was awarded Honorary Shanghai Citizenship in 2016 for her contributions.

Her campaign began after visits to the creek in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, when the waterway was choked by garbage and other pollutants. Yang helped arrange US$300 million in funding for the creek’s environmental rehabilitation project.

At the time, she said the undertaking was crucial because of the positive impact it would have on millions of people in Shanghai.

A prized Shanghai waterway emerges from industrial past
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The Waibaidu Bridge and the Lujiazui financial hub

A dragon boat race has been held on the creek annually since 2004 to celebrate the results of the cleanup.

Gabriela Martin, 24, a postgraduate student from the French city of Lyon, took part in the race for the first time last year.

"Suzhou Creek looks dynamic and beautiful, and I was impressed by the large crowds who gathered on the riverbanks to watch the race," she said at the time.

Riverside shantytowns have been replaced by upmarket neighborhoods, and walls and fences have been demolished to provide full public access on riverside paths.

A region on Zhenping Road, formerly known as sanwan yilong, or “three bays and a lane,” was one of the city’s most notorious downtown shantytowns until 1999.

It has been replaced by Brilliant City, a high-end community housing about 30,000 residents.

According to Xue’s research, the name of the road originally referred to “poverty eradication,” a vision that has come to fruition. The road, serviced by Metro Lines 3, 4 and 7, has become a popular downtown residential area.

Shanghai government has invested over 25 billion yuan in the fourth stage of the creek’s rehabilitation since 2018. It was aimed at improving water quality and flood control.

Zhang, former manager of Suzhou Creek’s rehabilitation, now serves as a volunteer at Mengqingyuan Park at the creek, where he talks to visitors about the history of the cleanup efforts. On sunny days, he escorts tours, especially of children, down to watch birds at the creek.

The 60-meter Changping Road Bridge, dubbed the “Eyes of Suzhou Creek,” opened on December 6, becoming the 34th bridge to span the waterway. The new steel bridge functions in tandem with the Waibaidu Bridge of the nursery rhyme, which was the first steel bridge over the creek in 1907.

“With pride, I tell very visitor that the creek not only demonstrates Shanghai’s history but also shows the city's commitment to urban environmental management standards,” Zhang said.

A prized Shanghai waterway emerges from industrial past

The Suzhou Creek cruise service opened in 2010, which was later suspended.

A prized Shanghai waterway emerges from industrial past
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Dragon boat teams from both home and abroad race along Suzhou Creek near the Brilliant City community.

A prized Shanghai waterway emerges from industrial past
Zhang Supqing / SHINE

A century-old hydrogen compressor purchased by Wu Yunchu (1891-1953), a chemist who created monosodium glutamate and a forerunner of modern industrialists at the Suzhou Creek Industrial Civilization Museum in Putuo District.

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