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Crayfish and factories lure people, not the 'Great Wharf'

Date: 2012-11-14

SEVENTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD Wang Meihua lives by herself in a two-bedroom wood-and-brick house built more than 200 years ago near the Great Wharf of Shaobo near Yangzhou city, birthplace of the Grand Canal of China in Jiangsu Province.

The two-floor house, near the entrance of the lane leading to the Great Wharf, is one of the four oldest in the county. Most other old houses have been replaced with new cement apartment blocks. Inside, Wang too has running water and plumbing.

Today this segment, roughly estimated to be 200 meters long and five meters wide, is no longer in operation, no barges dock, though it still gets fresh water.

"Those who live near the mountains become mountain eaters, and those who live near the water become water eaters," the saying goes, meaning livelihood depends on surroundings. "Mountain eaters" live on what's available in the mountains, such as mushrooms and wild animals, while those by the water become fishermen or deal with fishermen.

Wang's family used to be "water eaters," since her parents ran a shop that sold daily necessities and supplies to cargo and fishing vessels passing through the county on the old canal built in the Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

"When I was little, all the houses used to be like this, but many have been replaced or given new facades to make them appear new," Wang tells Shanghai Daily.

"The water channel outside the lane used to carry boats, then people stopped coming and it became very dirty until the local government cleaned it," she says.

Families used to dump garbage, so did fishermen, and the watercourse also contained sewage and industrial discharge.

In ancient times, many ships stopped by the Great Wharf, one of four docks in Shaobo and moored for days as cargo was moved and the crew enjoyed shore leave.

Each of the four wharves led to a lane like the one where Wang lives. All were filled with shops, eateries and hostels - but the real fun was nearby in Yangzhou where there were magic shows, singers, a lively street scene and prostitutes to suit everyman's pocketbook. Yangzhou was famous for high-class prostitutes favored by wealthy traders.

But the wharves fell into disrepair in the early 20th century, with the expansion of railways and outbreak of conflicts. Shops were closed and people had to find other ways to make a living.

Wang's five sons, like many young people in the town, have all moved to nearby cities in Jiangsu Province to work in factories. They visit her once or twice a year, but they would never consider moving back.

Many of those who stayed on made a living catching, selling and cooking crayfish from Shaobo Lake. Both sides of the main road in the county are packed with restaurants and small eateries with simple drawings or pictures of crayfish on their signs.

In Jiangsu and nearby areas, Shaobo is famous for its crayfish, and thousands of people visit every summer, the season for crayfish. Business has been especially good in the past five years since crayfish has become quite popular.

The old stretch of canal where Wang lives is only a few kilometers from an operating section of the Grand Canal. Part of an ancient dam has been repaired and preserved.

A historical preservation team has been working hard to raise residents' awareness of the site's value and urge them not to dump garbage into the water. It has been difficult but quite successful. The team also plans to replace the modern facades of houses in the lanes with old-style bricks.

From this quiet channel one can see the operating canal in the distance. It's the Shaobo branch of the canal, part of the principal line of the Huaiyang section of the Grand Canal. It was expanded in 1949.

An old gate remains, part of the first Chinese lock to uses modern engineering technology in 1936. There's still an office building built over the water; it looks quite narrow since the canal has been widened. (Source: Shanghai Daily)