A decade of dedication to preserving Yangpu's heritage

Yang Jian
Li Jialei, head of the district's cultural heritage management department, is dedicated to preserving and revitalizing cultural relics as she witnesses the area's transformation.
Yang Jian
A decade of dedication to preserving Yangpu's heritage
Ti Gong

Li Jialei checks the condition of a historical building along the Huangpu River.

Li Jialei, the head of Yangpu's cultural heritage management authority, has dedicated her career to the preservation and revitalization of Yangpu's cultural relics.

The Yangpu waterfront, once a cornerstone of China's industrial revolution, has been recognized as a national demonstration zone for the protection and adaptive reuse of industrial heritage sites.

Born, raised, and educated in Yangpu, Li has witnessed firsthand the district's transformation from an "industrial rust belt" to a "show belt of life."

Since starting her heritage work in 2015, Li was astonished to discover a deep connection to the district's heritage.

She lived near the old site where the "March of the Volunteers," China's national anthem, was composed.

She traversed the alleyways where then Premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) directed the third armed uprising of Shanghai workers.

She studied at Shanghai University of Technology, surrounded by historical buildings filled with historical stories.

"Life is a circle," Li said. "As a child, I could only see the factories along the river and the tall walls. Now, I understand their historical significance and have seen the transformation of the riverside."

Colleagues refer to her as the "GPS of Yangpu's cultural heritage" and the "photo archive of Yangpu's cultural relics."

A decade of dedication to preserving Yangpu's heritage
Ti Gong

Li Jialei (left) investigates a historical structure along the Huangpu River with a colleague.

The 15.5-kilometer waterfront stretch, known as the birthplace of China's modern industries, includes the nation's first water, electricity, shipbuilding and textile companies.

The area is also home to landmarks such as China's first modern water plant and the largest thermal power plant in East Asia.

The area contributed to a quarter of Shanghai's and a 20th of China's total industrial output. Time-honored brands, such as Forever and Phoenix bikes and Shanghai Watch entered the domestic market from Yangpu.

Since its inclusion in the National Cultural Heritage Administration's candidate list in 2020, Li and her team focused on creating a model for industrial heritage protection.

"Our work extends beyond preserving buildings," Li said. "We protect the unique spirit and cultural essence of Yangpu's waterfront."

Li's commitment to heritage work includes thorough field surveys and interviews with retired factory workers, gathering stories that breathe life into historical buildings.

Under her leadership, three new district-level cultural protection units were identified, and four industrial heritage sites were incorporated into protection efforts.

Currently, the demonstration zone along the river houses 73 immovable cultural relics and outstanding historical buildings, including national and municipal key units.

A decade of dedication to preserving Yangpu's heritage
Ti Gong

Li Jialei works on a digital platform about Yangpu's historical buildings.

"Seeing each brick, window and wall restored to its original state fills me with a sense of purpose," she said.

Li said heritage preservation must be multifaceted, extending beyond physical structures to encompass cultural memories and ecological context.

She has documented the industrial era's collective memory through interviews and a 12-part documentary series, "Century of Yangpu: Industrial Imprints." The project enriched the narrative of Yangpu's cultural heritage, highlighting the human stories behind the buildings.

A book, based on her collaboration with academic institutions, has been published, which features 15 cases of industrial heritage protection and showcases the district's innovative practices.

In addition to her preservation efforts, Li played a crucial role in developing long-term policies for the demonstration zone.

She co-authored a measure that outlines comprehensive actions for preserving and revitalizing industrial heritage.

Li also contributed to creating the city's first digital management platform for cultural relics, integrating Yangpu's heritage management into a unified digital system.

Despite her achievements, Li continues to seek new ways to advance heritage work. She is currently planning the next three-year action plan for the demonstration zone and preparing for the next national cultural relic survey.

"There's always more to do," she said. "I'm committed to enhancing the capabilities of our younger colleagues and ensuring that our heritage work remains vibrant and effective."

A decade of dedication to preserving Yangpu's heritage
Ti Gong

Li checks a model of a riverside historical building with a colleague.

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