Artists add cultural flourish to development of an eco-island

Residents of the concrete jungle who are looking for a green alternative lifestyle are finding Chongming Island a perfect place to live and work.
Ti Gong

The outside of Fang Wei and his wife Uma’s residence.

Four years ago, Fang Wei and his wife Uma escaped the inner-city rat race and moved to Chongming Island, where they renovated an abandoned 4,000-square-meter fish station into workshops and a home.

“The tranquil countryside atmosphere inspires ideas for my artwork,” said Fang, a local artist. “We are doing here exactly what we love doing.”

The workshops are at opposite ends of the building, like bookends encasing a middle area of living room, dining bar, bedrooms and gardens. A water lily pond outside one window stands in what was once a garbage waste area.

Born and raised in the city, Fang said he came to Chongming with little experience in rural life. Warm-hearted neighbors helped him in the renovation also gave him tips on growing plants.

“We diverted the river and planted hydrangeas, China roses, ginkgo trees, loquat trees and herbs near the ponds,” said Fang. “The vitality of plants here surprises us. I guess that’s why people call Chongming a blessed place.”

From local sources, he collected old furniture, flooring and windows to renovate the building in a style keeping with the island’s history and culture. He said the old floors give him a sense of comfort and relaxation when he is standing at his easel.

Chongming, which lies in the mouth of the Yangtze River, is the northernmost part of Shanghai. As one of last areas of the municipality to develop, it has escaped the worst of unbridled development that has paved over so much of Shanghai. The island is less densely populated than inner city districts.

While many artists have traditionally sought inspiration in water towns, Fang said the island’s abundant natural resources and balanced ecology are attracting more contemporary artists to its shores. Already, art exhibitions are starting to come to Chongming.

“I hope more will come, giving the island a new cultural vitality,” Fang said.

Fang and his wife embody the spirit that Chongming seeks to cultivate.

Plans call for the island to become a global hub of eco-tourism and an ecological showcase. The island wears its green badge with pride.

About a quarter of Chongming is forested. Organic farms are producing vegetables and fruits widely prized in downtown Shanghai markets. Natural wetlands, fresh air, a network of hiking and biking trails, bird sanctuaries and clean waterways have made the island a favorite getaway destination for those seeking a respite from the chaos of urban life.

Ti Gong

Artist Uma paints in her studio.

Ecological areas

The Chongming land development plan (2017-35) calls for forest coverage across 35 percent of the 1,267-square-kilometer island. Wetlands will encompass 43 percent. The population will be strictly controlled to protect the environment, with a limit of 700,000 people by 2035.

“Rural revitalization in Chongming is a key element in Shanghai’s campaign to enhance its profile globally,” said Tang Hailong, Party chief of Chongming District. “The island is rich in natural resources and agriculture. We want rural development to be built on environmental principles, using the latest technologies to add value to our farm products.”

The development plan also calls for three scenic tourism areas: Dongtan in Chenjia Town, Dongping in the Beihu Lake area and Xisha in the Mingzhu Lake area. Dongtan will feature a sports center and a conservation area for Chinese sturgeon. It will host a major flower expo in its National Forest Park in 2021.

The Beihu, Dongping Forest Park, Dongtan, Xisha and the wetlands of Qingcaosha are major ecological areas on the island.

Eco-tourism development will be based on traditional village culture and local agriculture. Facilities will be built that allow visitors comfortable accommodation while retaining bucolic scenery.

By 2035, there will be a new urban-rural system compromising a core town surrounded by satellite villages and communities. The core town will be Chenqiao in the middle of the island.

The “ecological island” will incorporate advanced sewage treatment facilities, recycling programs and system to reuse agricultural waste.

Chongming industry will be developed in keeping with the island’s green credentials. It will rely heavily on agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry and fisheries.

By 2035, cultivated land on the island be a minimum 4,230 hectares. Chongming has earmarked about 2,660 hectares for projects raising rice using only organic fertilizers. The new brand Chongming Rice is prized for its good taste and aroma.

Rice paddies in those areas are all weeded by hand. Ducks, frogs and solar-powered bug-zappers handle pest control. Eventually, the island plans to ban all chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

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