CHINA’s government talks a lot these days about promoting culture. It has launched a massive push to expand cultural industries, both to project “soft power” and to compensate for a slowdown in growth in other areas of the economy. In Shanghai, the authorities have warmly embraced the idea, pledging to rely less on heavy industry, and to build up not just financial services and logistics, but also creative industries and tourism. In line with such plans, the city government talks increasingly about promoting heritage conservation and highlighting Shanghai’s rich history, not least as a way of appealing to visitors. A recent survey of foreign residents of Shanghai by the city’s Jiaotong University showed that culture, heritage and architecture were seen as the city’s most important attractions.
Yet while significant sums of money have been poured into renovating the famous Bund waterfront and a few prominent historical buildings, it’s always seemed to me that the government is missing a trick when it comes to promoting the city’s cultural heritage. Just a few blocks south of the Bund is Shanghai’s Old City — the original settlement, the one that existed before the 1840s when the foreigners arrived with their gunboats and their opium. The new arrivals began building their own neighbourhoods, which evolved into the city’s famed International Settlement and French Concession, on the muddy flats further along the Huangpu River, leaving the Old City largely alone. It was the Chinese themselves who demolished the unusual oval city wall, built to keep out Japanese pirates from what was by the Ming dynasty already a prosperous trading port, after the country’s first revolution in 1911. But as the foreign concessions developed through the 1920s and 30s, the Old City retained much of its distinct character, with its warren of narrow winding streets, many with quaintly poetic names: Green Lotus Street, Dream Flower Street, West Horse Alley, to name just a few.
Even at the turn of this century, much of the area seemed little affected by modernisation. Walking down the narrow alleys, with their bustling street markets, squawking chickens and playing children, one could almost imagine oneself in a small town during the Qing dynasty. Foreign visitors tended to be astonished — and charmed. The survival of this area, just a few minutes’ walk from the gleaming shopping centres and office buildings of one of the city’s main shopping districts, felt quite miraculous, something perhaps worthy of a UNESCO conservation award. Yet the city government did surprisingly little to promote the area to foreign visitors, and development continued apace.
Yes, the Yuyuan, an exquisite classical walled garden built in the Ming dynasty by a scholar-official for his elderly father, is still on every tourist itinerary, attracting thousands of visitors a day with its rockeries, pavilions and small bridges. Crowds cluster round the nearby Huxinting, better known as the “willow pattern tea house,” having crossed a zigzag bridge over a tiny lake. Some even pop into the City God Temple next door — the old Taoist heart of city life, more or less destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but recently restored.
But other than that, it seems, the government’s main ambition for tourists who come to the Old City is to get them to part with their money. Way back in the 1980s, the area on two sides of the Yuyuan garden was levelled to make way for a multi-storey tourist market, filled with tacky shops, fast food outlets and touts of every kind. Nearby, the planners have built several fake “old streets,” in pseudo–Ming dynasty style, offering cheap textiles, tourist trinkets and antiques of varying degrees of authenticity. Yet the neighbourhood’s real “old streets” have been largely ignored: in most guidebooks, Chinese or foreign, the area beyond the Yuyuan gets barely a mention. Even the grand Confucian temple, a few blocks to the south, remains remarkably quiet on a busy weekday — its classical courtyards and traditional study halls, with their sloping eaves and imposing red pillars, attract just a few students from the nearby high school, presumably seeking peace and quiet as well as a little academic inspiration. The branches of the trees in the main courtyard are festooned with little yellow cards carrying messages written by anxious parents appealing to Confucius — the ancient sage seen as a kind of god of education — to bring their children success in their studies.
Yet what’s left of the old town has a unique character, retaining much of its bucolic atmosphere. Step off the main road that replaced the old city wall into one of the nearby side streets, and the first thing you notice is how quiet it is: the hubbub of traffic fades into the background, voices carry easily across the street. The houses are often tiny, the oldest ones with their upper floors fronted in red-painted wood; even the grander old buildings, many constructed by successful merchants in the 1920s, are subdivided among many families. But there’s a human quality here: life feels slower; old people sit outside their houses on stools, chatting with their neighbours; children play in the street, something they could hardly do safely in other parts of Shanghai; flowers poke out from tiny balconies; and in some streets ancient trees cast their shadows. The residents sometimes look curiously at foreign visitors, but many are friendly and relaxed — on one visit, two old gentlemen beckoned me over and told me tales of the area’s history, pointing out where red guards had chipped away an old Nationalist flag on a nearby house during the Cultural Revolution.
There’s certainly no shortage of fascinating buildings — strange hybrids of Chinese style and art deco, many with interesting tales behind them. One crumbling old mansion, hidden away behind an arched entrance, was the home of a famous artist who supposedly hosted a dinner here for Albert Einstein when he visited Shanghai in 1922. Yet there’s little attempt to identify such historic sites: the area’s oldest building, a narrow early Qing dynasty tower in a tiny street, has no sign, and is inaccessible behind its high walls; the former home of Paul Hsu (Xu Guangqi), the sixteenth-century government minister and Jesuit convert who played a key role in early scholarly interaction between China and the West (and who has an entire memorial park devoted to him in another part of Shanghai), has just a tiny stone sign, written only in Chinese, and is in a decrepit state. The Old City’s original fire tower, some one hundred feet tall and over a hundred years old, is another neglected landmark.
A few of the buildings, and one or two lanes, have been refurbished, yet little attention seems to have been paid to the neighbourhood. It was the only part of town that wasn’t spruced up when Shanghai hosted the World Expo in 2010. Two of the bigger roads that run through the area have been widened into eight-lane traffic arteries, effectively carving the Old City into four rather forlorn quarters. A number of streets and blocks have been replaced by modern residential buildings, their towering height (and in some cases, gold roofs) a brutal contrast with their surroundings.
It’s a process which is probably inevitable. Professor Wu Jiang, an architect who recently served for several years in Shanghai’s planning bureau, did try to have the whole Old City zoned as a historic conservation area, but admitted it was too late for sizeable chunks of the area where plans for demolition had already been approved. Opposite the City God Temple, for example, a shiny new shopping mall now looms over the narrow streets, like a strange spaceship parachuted into the Old City, with branches of H&M and Zara, and a Marks & Spencer largely empty except for a few curious tourists. It’s a symbol of the government’s continuing desire to modernise the Old City. On Dew Fragrance Garden Road, a few blocks west, I find a famous old school almost completely demolished, its front building apparently spared, but another elegant block, with a plaque identifying it as having been built in 1921, standing half-wrecked amid a pile of rubble.
Nearby, another neighbourhood which traditionally linked the old town to the riverside is also on the way down. Centred on a long road known as Wang Family Wharf Street (Wangjia Matou Jie), this was Shanghai’s original “docklands,” a warren of small lanes with a rare, village-like quality, where many houses had their own small courtyards. Of course, the houses, most of them now owned by the state, were often decrepit, and some of the residents welcomed the chance to be relocated to new homes in the suburbs. But the forced eviction notices flapping from some of the half-demolished buildings are a reminder that not everyone was happy with the process. And there’s no doubt that the loss of such neighbourhoods erases something of Shanghai’s uniqueness. Visit them while you still can… though if you’re too late, you can always make do with the “old” building that has just been built round the corner, in the new high-rise compound beside the six-lane road, at the bottom of Wang Family Wharf Street.
Duncan Hewitt, a Shanghai-based journalist who writes for Newsweek and other publications, is the author of Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China. He writes each month online for Inside Story.