Charm and a bright future abound in picturesque rural town
By Tan Weiyun
MAOGANG Town, only one hour’s drive from downtown Shanghai, is a world apart from urban hustle and bustle.
The town, which comprises 1,133 hectares of forests and 1,533 hectares of farmland, became the first town in the city to be named a China Ecological Town.
The honor wasn’t surprising. Maogang has consistently ranked high in Shanghai’s Environmental Evaluation for the past 18 quarters.
Here, charming countryside is dotted with historic cottages. The air is fresh, the skies clear. No wonder that so many city dwellers come here seeking welcome respites from the concrete jungle.
In this rural paradise of 38,000 people, rose petals dance in the breeze on cobblestone paths festooned with lanterns. Birds chirp merrily on tiled roofs at twilight.
Two ruddy-faced older villagers knit and chat on a doorstep as ducks waddle about in the yard. Nearby, swiftly flowing canals rush toward their rendezvous with shining estuaries.
On either side of town paths, white-painted cottages tiled with gray-blue slate roofs evoke the traditional Chinese architecture of a water town.
In recent years, the local government has invested in road building, home renovation, sewage treatment and canal cleanings in the 16 villages within its borders.
Xinjian Village, at the town’s eastern tip, is listed as one of Shanghai’s Most Beautiful Villages. It thrives as an agricultural center for flowers, fruits and vegetables. Bamboo chicken coops in front of cottages are kept neat and tidy.
The surrounding forests are home to many animals. Zhu Mingdi, a forest keeper, walks in the woods every morning.
“The air is so fresh and you can hear the birds sing,” he said. “In the early morning, there is usually a thin mist hovering in the forest, which makes me feel like I am walking in a wonderland.”
Zhu said he once encountered badgers, an animal that has been considered extinct in Shanghai for many years.
Maogang used to be a remote, forgotten place on the southern bank of the Huangpu River. In 2007, the local government began a series of projects to give the town a makeover. A sewage treatment facility was built, and clogged waterways were dredged to give them new life. Dilapidated old homes were renovated, and public restrooms and litterbins were installed. The banks of almost 80 rivers, creeks and canals were turned into 24 hectares of greenbelt.
Every year, Maogang invests more than 70 million yuan (US$11.38 million) to manage and maintain its new structures. About 20,000 square meters of flat rooftops were altered to sloped roofs to assist in waterproofing and insulation.
Three years ago, Maogang Town shuttered 37 polluting factories, creating 138,400 square meters of land allocated to eco-friendly small companies. Coal burning has been reduced by 170,000 tons a year. This August, another eight high-energy consuming factories were been closed.
All the wastewater produced by local enterprises in the town’s industrial parks are collected and effectively treated at a central facility.
An eco-circle system was established. Eight town villages boast 13 “model” pig and rice farms. Pig manure is treated and recycled as rice paddy fertilizer, which had helped raise crop yields. Maogang Town is more a family than a community.
The town is divided into 108 grids, each with its own leader, who works as an inspector, liaison officer, mediator and a village big brother.
One of those leaders, Xia Yuanlin, is in charge of 132 families. In his notebook, Xia records addresses, ages, contact numbers and family members.
He and his team ride bikes in their community to keep in contact with residents. They inform elderly people when free cataract surgeries are available.
They show villagers how to sort garbage for recycling. Working with volunteers, they hold classes on law and health, and discuss the latest government policies on agriculture.
The team knows who is sick, who needs special care and which cottages need repairs. It offers free transport to shops and hospitals for disabled people and provides home haircuts for the elderly.
“I’m busy every day, but I am happy to be where I am needed,” Xia said. “I am available 24 hours a day. The residents all know where to find me. We are like a big family.”
Maogang was the first town in Shanghai to initiate the “Family Farm” program in 2007. It was devised to help farmers stay on the soil. Today the town is attracting many young people who are returning from urban jobs.
The town has 160 family farms covering 1,327 hectares, or more than 91 percent of Maogang’s rice paddies.
Family farm owner Li Chunfeng from Yaojing Village earned almost 300,000 yuan last year by growing rice and raising pigs. He also leases out two tractors and two harvesters, which brought in 46,000 yuan.
“I’m now proud to be a farmer in Maogang,” he said.
Pride and profit infuse the family farm program.
Yang Yuhua returned to the town in 2007 and now earns about 100,000 yuan, more than twice his former factory salary.
Qian Huahui, 34, quit his job as a car salesman and went back to Xinjian Village to grow rice and vegetables. He has completed studies on soil quality and has set up sales channels with restaurants and hotels.
“To be a farmer is a worthy endeavor,” Qian said. “Not everyone can do it. You need a passion for the soil.”
To qualify for the family farm program, applicants must be successfully vetted by the village committee, agricultural experts and fellow farmers. After selection, a farmer must pass an examination periodically to keep his status in the program.
Local government subsidies underpin the success of the campaign. Each farmer is given 200 yuan for every 667 square meters of land under cultivation.