Grand Canal becomes backdrop for city life

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2012, 12:00am


Few man-made things are etched as deeply in the Chinese consciousness as the Grand Canal, a 1,776km system of locks, canals and rivers that historically linked Hangzhou to Beijing and Xian, and from there to the Silk Road.

The canal in Hangzhou dates back more than 1,000 years and was built through back-breaking labour by millions of workers. It continues to be a dynamic part of the city's economic and cultural life. While it once primarily transported grain, its main cargo today is coal and construction materials. The canal carries 20 per cent of China's volume of inland waterway cargo, according to a 2008 study by the Ministry of Communications.

Until recently, the canal was seen as a utility or a nuisance rather than a tourist attraction. 'When I came to Hangzhou in 1985, shabby houses, factories and warehouses extended along the canal and made it a less valued quarter of the city,' says Wu Ailun, a long-time resident of Hangzhou.

Today, the city is reintegrating the canal into daily life. 'The canal is the backyard for many apartment buildings in the city,' says Robert Wise, director of Team Oregon LLC, a planning firm that focuses on international markets and advanced sustainability planning.

The city has invested heavily in restoring the canal and improving its environmental friendliness. While urbanisation has been unkind to the canal, the city has invested in wastewater and surface water treatment in conjunction with its application for a Unesco World Heritage Site status, says Shen Yu, senior scientist in urban wetland ecology and environmental science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Work remains, with nutrients from agricultural land and organics and metals from traffic polluting the canal. Even so, Hangzhou is busily rebuilding the culture of the canal. 'They are reproducing the kind of renewal they did for West Lake and the Xixi National Wetland Park,' Yu says.

The canal's renaissance includes a host of amenities that are already transforming the canal into a lifestyle destination and tourism spot. 'Seven years ago, changes began to occur as derelict buildings were dismantled and parks with exercise equipment were set up,' Wu recalls. 'Many people, especially retirees, now exercise there.'

While renovating the canal is a massive project, it's in line with the massive projects that often capture the Chinese imagination.

'China likes to do things on a grand scale, and canal renewal can be a backbone for development and bridge the past to the future,' Wise says. Given the city's experience restoring the West Lake into a tourism dynamo, few are betting against prospects for the canal. Indeed, the transformation is already changing people's expectations.

'At first, residents didn't want to smell it, then they wanted to see fish in the water,' Yu says. 'The target is moving higher and will push the canal to be better and better.'