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Zhu-jia-jiao, A Shanghai Watertown Story

David Yang, August 2006

Watertown tour is a relatively new idea in China tourism. Before 1990 no people visit the so-called  water towns, they were just ordinary Jiang-nan (southern Yang-zi river) villages. As large scale urbanization begins, old towns have been fast giving way to factories and office buildings. By early 1990s people realize it was necessary to keep some of them, at least for the sake of tourism money. 

There are a  dozen of developed water towns in Jiang-su and Zhe-jiang areas. Shanghai also has one, Zhu-jia-jiao. In Chinese, Zhu-jia-jiao means the corner of Zhu families. It's located at the very corner of Shanghai Qing-pu district, adjacent to Jiang-su province. There is a direct bus service between Zhu-jia-jiao and the People's Square, shanghai city centre. Bus fare is 9 Yuan (USD1.20), the journey takes one and a half hours.

Zhu-jia-jiao sunset. Photo ID: ZHJJ001.


Zhu-jia-jiao is a new name in China water-town directory. During my 2-day stay, I found that beside the Fang-sheng-qiao bridge (originally built in the Ming dynasty and  rebuilt in Jia-qing period, late Qing dynasty), there are no real historical things left in town. Most of the old looking houses are built or rebuilt recently.  Large scale reconstruction is still going on, I believe in the next few years, all Zhu-jia-jiao houses will be in brand new concrete and steels, covered with old-looking tiles.

 I am not saying the reconstruction of endangered old houses is a bad thing. many houses of Zhu-jia-jiao were built a few decades ago, not old enough to be preserved as historical sites. If you are patient enough to wait for 100 years or more, any houses we build today will gain some historical value. But  if you are looking for real ancient water town now, forget Zhu-jia-jiao. Don't ask me where to go for the real things today, I have been to many water towns in China, in my view none really fits the name of ancient town. Li-jiang in Yun-nan province is probably a good bet. 


Zhu-jia-jiao old houses. Photo ID: ZHJJ002.


There are good news from Zhu-jia-jiao as well. Comparing to other water towns, Zhu-jia-jiao is less crowded, the streets are relatively quiet if you avoid weekends and Chinese golden weeks. Plus, the local foods, especially Zha-rou and Zhong-zi, are cheap and good, if you are not vegetarian.

As mentioned, Fang-sheng-qiao is well worth a visit. Fang-sheng-qiao in Chinese means the bridge of freeing. There are many local women try to sell you live fish along the bridge. They say it would bring you luck and fortune if you free fish by the bridge. I would love to have a try because I need money, but it is the water quality that stopped me. I was a little afraid the fish would be killed if they were freed in the dirty water. Freeing or killing, that is a problem.

The streets of Zhu-jia-jiao is less crowded and quiet, good for my style of street photography. But it was too quiet that for the first time in 4 years I was forced venturing into low-night photography, or I should call it no-light photography, because I was literally shooting in the complete darkness. In a few night images the stars are noticeable, as exposure time was set to 30 seconds or longer.


Cheng-huang Temple Bridge. Photo ID: ZHJJ003. A 30s exposure.


In the dusk of my first day visit, I was hoping to get a few good images with red-lanterns light up, the standard water town shots. I scouted around and at 6pm spot a small bridge for night shots. When the night completely falls, there was no one red lantern ever lighted up. I desperately asked around, locals said there are too few visitors in the weekdays, the lanterns only light up in the weekends. Oh, no.


Red lanterns light up only on the boat. Photo ID: ZHJJ004.


Zhu-jia-jiao is just a day tour for many. But I would recommend to spent a night there, especially if your purpose is to take good photos. Light condition is at its best late in the afternoon and early in the morning.  With most of tourists gone and locals re-surface on the streets, it becomes a photography haven. I got over 300 shots in my 2-day visit.

There's a 2-storey tea house not far away from the famous Fang-sheng-qiao that boasts itself the largest teahouse in Jiang-nan. if you get up and reach there early (before 9am) you would be surprised to see a morning gathering of hundreds of local people, chatting, gambling, Chinese chess and Ma-jiang playing,  or simply enjoy a cup of tea, which costs only 1 Yuan (USD0.13).  Amazing, must go and see, then you will understand why the streets of Zhu-jia-jiao is so quiet, because people are all in the teahouse.


Gambling, Zhu--jia-jiao teahouse. Photo ID: ZHJJ005.


Please click here for total 72 images of Zhu-jia-jiao


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