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Creekside pathway blends history of St John's University

A newly renovated section of the Suzhou Creek waterfront opened to the public on Wednesday, allowing visitors to closely see some over century-old East-meets-West buildings of the prestigious St John's University.

The 900-meter-long riverside area at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Changning District is dubbed the "Pearl of Suzhou Creek" due to its beautiful landscape and unique historical ambiance.

A continuous path opened in 2019 after the university divided part of its campus along the creek as public space. The district's transport and construction authorities later launched a renovation project along with the university to further improve the riverside environment.

Ten sightseeing attractions have been planned, featuring the historic complex of the university dating back to 1879. The well-preserved buildings within the university have been listed as protective structures by the city government.

Two attractions near the Mann Hall built in 1909 and Gezhi Building built in 1899 opened to the public on Wednesday. All the 10 spots will open by the end of September, said Wu Daoqun, deputy director of the construction management commission of Changning.

"We aim to blend the humanity and history of this riverside section by preserving the historic buildings and opening up more public space," said Wu.

The St John's University was founded in 1879 and became China's first school with full English lessons in 1881. It was also the first modern church college of the country. Five schools and an affiliated middle school had been set up by 1949.

Famous alumni of the university include diplomat Wellington Koo, influential writers Lin Yutang and Eileen Chang, then vice president of China Rong Yiren and journalist and publisher Zou Taofen.

With the motto of "Light & Truth," the university was once the best in China and dubbed the "Oriental Harvard."

The university was revoked in 1949, with different departments being allocated to other local universities, including Fudan, Tongji and Jiaotong as well as the East China Normal University. The campus and the multiple historical buildings belong to the East China University of Political Science and Law.

Major renovations have been completed on the historical buildings in accordance with the city's opening-up campaign for the Suzhou Creek waterfront, said Li Qingchun, deputy director of the logistics management department of the East China University of Political Science and Law.

Further landscape improvement projects are being conducted, such as to relocate tall trees and expand the size of lawns, and make more historic buildings in the university visible to visitors on the waterfront, Li said.

Mann Hall, or Si Meng Hall, was built near the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to commemorate preacher Arthur Mann, a graduate of Yale and philosophy teacher at St John's who drowned in 1907 trying to save a Chinese friend. Students of the university donated money to build the building, while Yale University made a commemorative bronze tablet in the hall.

The nearby Gezhi Building, a three-story brick-and-wood structure, was built in 1899. It once served as the laboratory building, among the first of its kind in China, with labs for chemistry, physics and medical lessons.

"These buildings have unique Shanghai-style architectural features," said Xue Minghua, the designer for the riverside space of the section.

"They blend western decorations such as arched windows and pillars along with traditional Chinese overhanging eaves, which are rare and unique."

Xue said the riverside section is an ideal place for residents and tourists to run or walk. "It will become a key site for the 15-minute community service circles in Changning," he noted.

Shanghai initiated the idea of building a "15-minute community-life circle" during its master plan for 2035. Within a 15-minute walk, residents are expected to have access to various services related to living, working, studying, traveling and elderly care.

To make the riverside paths and flood walls harmonious with the historic buildings, senior masons and construction workers have been invited to build the waterfront amenities, according to Chen Yangdong, who is in charge of the project construction.

Some 80,000 ground tiles, for instance, were made manually to restore the original ambiance of the university. The flood walls were polished by senior workers to make it both beautiful and reliable during the city's flood season, he said.

Another waterfront region beneath the Middle Ring Road along the creek has also been renovated and officially opened on Wednesday.

The riverside space along the creek, Xinjinggang River and Hami Road has been decorated in colorful and modern styles. Each section of the space features an animal, including flamingo, leopard and zebra.

Basketball courts, gyms, service stations and sightseeing platforms have been built, drawing a minimum of 115 visitors to the waterfront region every day since a soft opening was launched early this year.

Riverside development spanning 42 kilometers involves the districts of Huangpu, Hongkou, Jing'an, Putuo, Changning and Jiading. Each is presenting unique waterfront attractions, with a continuous riverside walkway.

The overarching development plan, called "Striving for a World-Class Waterfront Area," involves extensive greenbelts, preserved historical buildings, new cross-creek bridges, "sponge city" technology and an environment in harmony with nature.

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