Zhou Wenrong, a 40-year-old Shanghai local, is at the helm of his electric cruise boat during capacity tests on Shanghai’s central-running Suzhou Creek. “I need some time to get used to this unreal reality,” Zhou says as he smiles and tells Sixth Tone how he has never seen Suzhou Creek in such a clean state, one completely different from what he knew as a child.
Zhou, who has been driving cruise boats and ferries for over a decade, remembers how Suzhou Creek was in the past little more than a malodorous ditch. The water was dark and smelled terrible, and boats used to cut through the garbage that polluted it. “No matter where I wanted to go, I would always try to avoid Suzhou Creek. I think most people in Shanghai hold a similar view.”
People take a moment to relax on the bank of Suzhou Creek, 1990s. Lu Yuanmin for Sixth Tone
People drink on a boat on the Suzhou Creek, 1990s. Lu Yuanmin for Sixth Tone
Ruan Renliang, deputy director of the Shanghai Water Authority, described to Sixth Tone how four water improvement projects, part of a series of policies to develop Suzhou Creek laid out in the 2035 Shanghai Urban Master Plan, have led to significantly cleaner water today. The efforts, which launched in 1998, have cost more than 40 billion yuan ($5.5 billion) and this week culminated in the launch of the Suzhou Creek cruise, officially opened to the public on Nov. 1.
Another factor that has lifted Zhou’s mood is the calmer conditions on the Creek. A few months ago, he was a ferry driver on the Huangpu River, which required him to be on high alert on account of the fast and changeable currents, especially during the rising tides. In addition, there were ships and boats everywhere. “Just like a road without traffic lights, you must concentrate on driving, and it was impossible to relax in the slightest,” Zhou says.
For now, no other boats are allowed on the Suzhou Creek. Tourists can board the cruises from eight piers along the tourist route. Once on the cruise, tourists pass various bridges and can ogle the architecture on both sides of the banks, reflecting the historic changes Shanghai has witnessed over the past century. After disembarking, they’re greeted with myriad walking trails, parks, and commercial areas.
Zhu Jianhao, head inspector of the Shanghai Municipal Housing and Urban-Rural Development Management Committee, introduces how from 2002 to 2018, nearly 3,500 enterprises alongside the river were relocated and resettled, releasing riverside real estate for green spaces and parks. Then, from 2018 to 2020, 63 docks were opened, and around 15 kilometers of riverside greenways were built. Now, 42 kilometers of pathways connect about 150 hectares of green and other open spaces on both sides of the river.
Despite the sizable improvements, “We still have a long way to go,” says Zhu Jianhao. “We can use this as a starting point to imagine what ‘life in a megacity along the Suzhou River,’ as outlined in the 2035 Shanghai Urban Master Plan, will look like.”
A cruise boat drives on the Suzhou Creek, Oct. 24, 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Zhou Wenrong, a 40-year-old cruise boat driver, poses for a photo, Oct. 24, 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Two cruise boat drivers work on the Suzhou Creek, Oct. 24, 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Cruise boats drive on the Suzhou Creek, Oct. 24, 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Cruise staff drive on the Suzhou Creek, Oct. 24, 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
People enjoy themselves on the pathway along the Suzhou Creek, Oct. 24, 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
The sunlight shines on the Suzhou Creek, Oct. 24, 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Editor: Tom Arnstein.
(Header image: Locals fish on the bank of the Suzhou Creek, Oct. 24, 2022. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)