China Focus: Grand Canal witness to Hangzhou's change from industrial hub to cultural gem

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By Xinhua writers Yin Xiaosheng, Duan Jingjing

HANGZHOU, Oct. 5 (Xinhua) -- Cruiseboats glide along the Grand Canal in the historic city of Hangzhou, while the loud speakers are announcing the famous attractions: Gongchen Bridge, Xinyifang, Wulinmen.

There is no shortage of traffic along this waterway in the capital of east China's Zhejiang Province, with visitors keen to sample the architectural delights of a city dubbed "Heaven on Earth."

Among the captains is Song Guangqi, who has steered his boat under the Gongchen Bridge, at the southernmost end of the canal, tens of thousands of times over the years.

These days, as he takes his boat past the confluence of two tributaries -- the Yuhangtang and Xitang rivers, he is pleased to find that a deserted industrial oil depot had been transformed into waterfront parks.

With a history of more than 2,500 years, the Grand Canal connects Beijing and Hangzhou, serving as a significant transportation artery in ancient China. In 2014, a stretch of the canal measuring 1,000 km was declared a world heritage site.

Built in the early 1950s, Xiaohe Oil Depot is representative of the city's old industry. It once supplied the energy to boost industrialization on both sides of this section of the Grand Canal.

The depot is now defunct, but three oil tanks have been preserved as a memorial to the city's industrial heritage. Thousands of holes of different sizes have been drilled into the industrial remains as part of the process of reinforcement and renovation.

Song said his job on the Grand Canal allowed him to witness the development of the Hangzhou section over the decades.

"When I came to Hangzhou in 1999, I followed my relatives working on boats on the canal, doing everything as a sailor, boatman and factotum. Later, I obtained the certificate to become a boat captain," said Song.

In 2010, the transport company Hangzhou Waterbus started recruitment for their cruiseboats, and Song became an employee.

"The ancient city of Hangzhou was laid out along the Grand Canal. During the period of Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-979), Hangzhou entered a period of rapid development, relying on the transport of the Grand Canal, and became a famous city in the southeast," Song said.

He often reads books about the Grand Canal's history, so that when tourists on board ask him about the canal, he can provide accurate commentary.

Jiang Weimin, a senior Hangzhou resident, remembers when the canal was not so charming. More than 20 years ago, he set a record by paddling a kayak along the Grand Canal by hand, together with his partner. Passing along the waterway from the south, he was saddened by "black pollutants floating on the canal water."

Since the 1950s, industrial and warehousing enterprises had packed the banks of the canal, taking advantage of the waterway transport.

In the 1980s, hundreds of tributaries feeding into the canal brought more industrial and domestic sewage. There was a popular saying at that time: "If there's a stink in the air, you're in Hangzhou."

Since then, the municipal government has sought to tackle the problem, carrying out comprehensive water treatment measures and landscaping along the canal.

Over the years, the water quality of the Hangzhou section of the Grand Canal has been improved from Class V to Class IV, or even Class III in some areas. Hangzhou has realized the goal of restoring the canal, with clear water, green trees and beautiful scenery along its banks.

In addition to the canal's ecology, a number of deserted industrial sites along the waterway have been transformed through industrial heritage protection, as well as cultural and economic development.

To the west of Gongchen Bridge, a number of museums have emerged on former industrial sites, such as the China Knife, Scissor and Sword Museum, the China Fan Museum and the China Umbrella Museum. The cultural cluster has added new tourist resources to the canal tours.

"Industry moves out and culture moves in," said Chen Jiang, deputy director of the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal (Hangzhou Section) Comprehensive Protection Commission. "This is the vivid practice of combining the protection of industrial civilization with the inheritance of urban culture."

He said that in the process of exploring, displaying and reshaping the canal culture, people along the waterway have regained cultural confidence and faith, and found new forms of development.

In the eyes of Zhang Tiantian, a watercolorist, the protection and utilization of cultural heritage should be related to people's lives.

He frequents the Grand Canal to capture details with his ink-painting, such as cruiseboats passing, old men fishing and women washing clothes.

"Culture is neither a fossil nor a specimen, but a continuity of life," said the young artist, who has become well known for using his brush to promote canal culture.

"I have a we-media studio near the canal, which works to attract tourists to the canal through my recording of canal life," he said.

Now in his 60s, Jiang often thinks about paddling up the canal again, confident that this time he would find the experience more pleasant.

"The changes along the canal are a microcosm of China's development," he said. "I look forward to finding more stories on the clear water of the Grand Canal." Enditem

(Xia Jinjin contributed to the report.)

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