The Xu Family of Zhujiajiao
Caogang , as its name implies, was part of the extensive canal system which, in the olden days, was responsible for the vital transport of grain supplies from the rich Yangtse delta region to the imperial capital Beijing. The canal builders thus made sure that this trunk waterway is straight, wide, and deep.
Zhujiajiao, the town on the canal, was already a prosperous center of trade even before the 1500s during the Ming dynasty. Its population grew when merchants and tradesmen moved here to take advantage of its superb location. Around the year of 1600, the leading local families built the five-arched stone bridge across the canal. By 1900, Zhujiajiao had become the undisputed top township in the whole of the county of Qingpu.
The town was famous as a production and distribution center of cotton cloth in the Ming dynasty. Nine out of ten households were said to be engaged in cotton spinning and cloth weaving. By 1900 and up to the breakout of the Anti-Japan War, Zhujiajiao was a busy center for the rice trade. When new crops were harvested, boats laden with rice jammed the canals. The rice merchants had their mills and warehouses along the canal. Oil mills, rice wine makers, cloth dyers, pawnshops, sauce makers, and crafts and services of all sorts lined the long streets. Zhujiajiao is connected to Shanghai’s Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek by convenient waterways. New things and new thoughts poured in from this window to the West.
I do not have any direct source of information on the Xu Family of Zhujiajio. My father recalls that his maternal grandmother, that is, the bride mentioned in the preceding section, had a younger brother. He regularly visited Changshu to attend board meeting of the Changshu Electric Light Company. On each visit, he would stay in the house of his niece Yu Mengying, and would amuse her son by drawing little dogs and rabbits. A rough estimate puts the time as being the 1920 and the 1930s.
In “The Annals of Changshu” published in 1990, there is a short reference to the Changshu Electric Light Factory:
“In the 2nd year of the Republic (1913), an electric light factory was built at Small East Gate…, which began producing electricity on the 15th of April 1915. Electricity produced was used to power the rice mill, and surplus was sold to outside users.”
Now there is this distinctive possibility: The Xu Family of Zhujiajiao were rice merchants and owned a rice mill,
and , before coming to Changshu, already started using electric power for rice milling. The electricity produced was for their own use and was also sold to others when there was a surplus. After his success in Zhujiajiao, the rice merchant Xu partnered other rice merchants in Changshu in a similar venture. Doubtlessly, the Xu’s of Zhujiajiao were a progressive family and that fact had a positive impact on Yu Mengying’s mother who grew up in that environment.
In 1915, Changshu Electric Light Factory began producing electric power. Investor Xu visited Changshu every year to attend board meetings. If my father was then five years old, then Entrpreneur Xu, then 40 -50 of age, regularly travelled by steamers among Zhujiajiao, Suzhou, Changshu, and, of course, Shanghai. The last-named rose rapidly and entered her golden years. 1920s and 1930s saw the growth of modern industries in Shanghai and Wuxi. Trade and commerce in the delta region enjoyed a period of boom.
We addressed the mother of our grandmother “Suzhou Lao Taitai”. I remember seeing her when I was maybe 6 or 7. One Lunar New Year, Suzhou Lao Taitai came to our house at Yuyuan Lu in Shanghai. She was accompanied by her son. My father knelt on the floor and performed Kowtow. He was going through the customary rites. We kids were peeping behind the living room doors. Lao Taitai was very tall in my eyes and stood upright with a dignified air. She was quite blind though due to “Blue Light Eye”(Note: glaucoma). She used her fingers to stroke down the face of her son, then in his mid-50s, and said in her soft Suzhou dialect, “You are still a young fellow.”
My grandma always enjoyed good health. Except for piles, she never suffered any serious health problems, and lived a long and active life, thanks to the strong genes she inherited from her mother.
December 2009. My wife Chow Ling, myself, and our daughter Le Yin visited the popular tourist destination Zhujiajiao an hour’s drive from Shanghai on the Dianshan Lake. I asked a shop woman in the old town and was told that some of the descendents of the prominent Xu Family were still living in Zhujiajiao.