Zhujiajiao, one of the best-preserved Chinese water towns, is often called the “Venice of Shanghai.”
Back from another extended stay in endlessly fascinating and ever-changing Shanghai, I’m posting another installment of some of the social, cultural, culinary, and travel highlights.
Zhujiajiao, founded more than 1,700 years ago, was an important trading center during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties.
Its impressive canal system was originally built for irrigation and travel. Today it is a town of 60,000 with gondolas, arched bridges, centuries-old architecture, and picturesque lanes that give it an enduring charm.
On my first visit, a bicycle trip, our guide told us not even to try to pronounce the name, which sounds like “jew ja je-ow.” I’ve returned a few times, most recently for a day of photographing capped off by a private viewing of Oscar-winning Chinese composer Tan Dun‘s musical production Water Heavens.
Located just 30 miles from central Shanghai, Zhujiajiao is one of the many ancient water towns that dot the landscape of the Yangtze Delta.
Tranquil Zhujiajiao is a mere 50-minute ride but a world away from Shanghai, with its cobblestone lanes, traditional homes, temples, and tree-lined canals.
A DAY OF PHOTOGRAPHY POINTERS
I had gone to Zhujiajiao for a digital photography course offered by the Shanghai Community Center, a great resource for members of the international expat community who want to delve deeper into Chinese culture and life. I’ve taken many tours, lectures, and classes there.
We were told to photograph whatever interested us in Zhujiajiao, which offers much enticement. The unique town is so often used as a location for films and television shows that it’s been called “the Hollywood of Shanghai.”
The teacher, Mexican-born architect and professional photographer Francisco Marin, founded a photography business in Shanghai specializing in architecture, landscape portraits, fashion, and beauty.
Eleven students reviewed basic camera functions, exposures, and composition, then piled into a mini-bus to drive to Zhujiajiao to put Francisco’s special tips and pointers into action.
Photojournalist Jeanne Lawrence waited for the others to snap her photo on a bridge.
BRIDGES AND BOATS
Its riverside location made Zhujiajiao an important distribution hub and marketplace in the 1300s.
The iconic five-arched Fangsheng Bridge (translates as “setting fish free”), built in 1571 and rebuilt in 1814, is the largest bridge in town and the oldest in this part of China.
Lang Bridge (Veranda Bridge) is the only wooden bridge in Zhujiajiao.
VIEW FROM A GONDOLA
One of the best ways to see the town is to hire a friendly boatman to take you on a scenic ride through the ancient canals, once used for travel and irrigation.
With numerous canals and 36 stone bridges crisscrossing the town, much of its transportation activity is still via boat.
Our group opted for a canal ride to observe daily life as it is lived on the water’s edge.
Many residents still live and work in the centuries-old Ming and Qing-era buildings that flank the waterways.
Bridges are built in a variety of shapes and materials (stone, wood, marble) and each has unique decorations and carvings.
The canals meander through the city.
This Yuanjin Buddhist temple across the Caogang River was built in 1314 during the Yuan Dynasty, was rebuilt many times afterward, and is still in use today.
Traditional Chinese arched bridges are very elegant. Some are original and some have been rebuilt, but each one is different.
Bridges also serve as resting places for both locals and visitors.
A walk through the many streets of Zhujiajiao offers numerous delights, especially along the main thoroughfare or Dajie (North Street), lined with shop after shop.
Strolling through the narrow lanes, you’ll find tiny cafés down back alleys, teahouses, hole-in-the-wall souvenir stores, and houses dating back a hundred years or more.
A stroll takes you past whitewashed walls, grey slate roofs, and garden courtyards.
Away from the tourist streets, down the small alleys, you can still see life as it’s been lived for generations.
This pedestrian village is a pleasant retreat from the hustle and bustle and noise of Shanghai.
SHOPPING & TOURIST AREAS
There are many antiques stores to browse and, if you have a good eye, great finds.
The food stalls that line the narrow streets gave us ample opportunity to sample some local delicacies and offered me a terrific chance to do food photography, one of my special interests.
One of the local specialties, zong zi, is a bamboo leaf-wrapped snack of glutinous rice, traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival.
A cottage industry exists to hand-wrap and hand-tie the zong zi.
Another local specialty is pork knuckle braised in a red sauce made of soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, and spices.
TIME FOR LUNCH
By lunchtime, we headed to one of the restaurants with a canal view.
We enjoyed a private room with a typical round table for family-style service.
Our photography teacher Francisco Marin ordered his favorite dishes for us to sample.
One museum we visited was the traditional Tong Tian He Pharmacy, where a plaque reads “Herbalist Doctor Diagnoses.”
Later we stopped at a house museum that displayed show rooms filled with furniture and appointments, allowing us to imagine living in China of another era.
Lynn Ellison tried out an antique sedan chair once used for travel.
Stephanie Lawrence joined in for the experience.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
If you walk past the crowds and the main streets, you will discover tourist-free, quiet alleys where mostly elderly residents remain, the younger generation having decamped for the city.
Here you can still witness a way of life that is disappearing as the country modernizes.
CONSTRUCTION & RENOVATION
Zhujiajiao is very popular with tourists thanks to its close proximity to Shanghai, so more and more shops are replacing homes and its authenticity is in danger of disappearing.
I understand there’s a new large-scale shopping and entertainment development. That and the construction of new housing may turn the area into just another modern Shanghai suburb rather than a genuine historic town.
Many of the locals are selling or renting out their houses for use as commercial enterprises. Here construction workers renovate and convert another home into a store, café, bar, or restaurant.
The town is enjoying a constant construction boom.
Next door to construction that’s underway is this recently finished renovation.
This tourist local bar is most likely a redo of a former private residence.
The previous night’s beer bottles lined up in front of the bar suggest it was a busy night.
At Zhujiajiao’s entrance is this KFC in an ancient building, perfectly representing modernism’s encroachment on the country’s historical spaces.
WATER HEAVENS EVENING PERFORMANCE IN ZHUJIAJIAO
After a day of taking photographs and roaming the town, I met up with friends to watch a private musical performance, Water Heavens, in Zhujiajiao’s Water Music Hall.
The show was created and produced by Chinese-American Tan Dun, the Oscar-winning composer of scores for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero.
Enjoying the special privilege of a private show with the composer himself, our group included music patrons Dolly and Victor Woo, visiting from San Diego, and Shirley Young. Dubbed the “Chinese Ambassador of Culture” because of her involvement with Chinese-American cultural exchange, Shirley divides her time between New York City and Shanghai.
Artistic Director of London Southbank Centre Jude Kelley, composer Tan Dun, photojournalist Jeanne Lawrence, cultural ambassador Shirley Young, and music patron Dolly Woo in Water Music Hall.
Listening to this water percussion masterpiece was one of my most memorable experiences in Shanghai.
THE MAGICAL SETTING
With Tan Dun’s vision, Isozaki Studio transformed an unused ancient house into a performance hall, maintaining the influence of ancient houses and furniture.
The minimalist Water Music Hall was designed by the world-renowned Japanese architecture firm Isozaki Studio.
The respectful evocation of the past in Water Music Hall sets a world-class example for other renovations around the globe.
Under the hall’s domed roof, drops of water fall through a circular window, and streams from a nearby canal flow into the structure to create a square pool of water, so that the floor-level “stage” is covered with a thin layer of water.
THE WATER-INSTRUMENT ORCHESTRA
Since childhood, Tan Dun has been fascinated by water and the natural music it makes. At La Jolla’s SummerFest in 2012, where his work Water Passion after St. Matthew was performed, he asked, “Since the sounds of water are so beautiful, why do you need instruments?”
Tan Dun eagerly introduced Water Heavens to our group.
His four-movement Water Heavens uses traditional Chinese strings, pipa, and percussion and adds water as a musical instrument. It also incorporates opera, contemporary dance, and ancient Chinese architecture.
The music was created by splashing, slapping, and dripping water around the stage and in the bowls, as well as singing, playing conventional string instruments, and tapping on bamboo poles that reached the ceiling.
CHANTING MONKS AND BACH
The combined sounds of Bach being played on string instruments and the chanting of the monks created an ethereal harmony that gave me goose bumps. This scene was reflected in the pool of water and the image will linger forever in my mind.
As the performance began, the lights dimmed and musicians, sitting in the lotus position surrounded by water, began to play.
Light was used sparingly, just to highlight a splash here or movement there.
In the background, a golden-hued temple on the opposite side of the riverbank lit up and Buddhist monks appeared on the balcony, chanting evening prayers and waving red lanterns.
I wasn’t sure if the temple and monks were authentic or something created for this show. I discovered it was indeed an ancient Yuanjin Buddhist Temple.
The second piece was “Water Rock and Roll,” during which the sounds of heavy rain coming down from the dome’s oculus hit the floor like sounds of thunder.
The percussionists began beating basins full of water and tap dancing in pools to create hip-hop and rock and roll beats.
The pool became a big drum, with performers slapping the surface.
Musicians played and danced using traditional Chinese instruments, water, props, and parts of Water Hall’s architecture to create a lush symphony and dance show.
The third movement, “String Quartet and Pipa,” featured the traditional four-stringed Chinese instrument that is similar to a lute.
The fourth and last movement, “Four Seasons of Zen,” merged the sounds of gentle rainfall with the singing of the monks and the ringing of temple bells.
What an imaginative idea to use water elements to create music. “In Water Heavens, music can be seen and architecture can be heard,” Tan Dun said. It was an overwhelming auditory and visual treat.
Avoid weekend visits and peak visiting hours during the late morning and early afternoon. Crowds thin in late afternoon, which is prime time to stroll around, stop at a teahouse, and enjoy the especially magical dusk hours.
If you visit Zhujiajiao between April and December, be sure to see one of Tan Dun’s musical performances. Touring the town and hearing the music would make for a very special day’s outing.
Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence and Zhang Yi.
*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.