The changing fortunes of Zhang's Garden

Zhang Yuan, a cluster of shikumen (stone-gate) houses in downtown Shanghai, has a history of more than 130 years. It is a living fossil of life in Shanghai.
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Life in a slow lane: Two grannies chitchat on a sunny day in Zhang Yuan. Life hasn't changed much here with the erosion of time.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Tucked away on the corner of Wujiang and Taixing roads, less than 100 meters from the bustling Nanjing Road W., Zhang Yuan, or Zhang's Garden, seems like another world where time stops.

It was a large country house that once belonged to a British businessman. In 1882, he sold it to a Wuxi native named Zhang Shuhe, who rebuilt the estate and turned it into a garden for public use.

It was the time when the then Shanghai Municipal Council excluded the locals from public gardens. So many private gardens in the city started charging fees for admission, and to make them more attractive, entertainment facilities and other attractive features were introduced. 

Zhang Yuan was one of those private gardens. It had ponds and rockeries, weeping willows and bamboo groves. It even boasted a modern observation tower building (the Arcadia Hall) and a theater. Western restaurants, novel electrical appliances and recreational installations were also part of the garden.

Today, it is a cluster of shikumen (stone-gate) houses surrounded by modern high-rises. At the entrance are some small and food and beverage outlets.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Zhang Yuan also houses some fancy food and beverage outlets.

"What is worth mentioning is that before the downfall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Zhang Yuan served as a venue for political forums," says Zhuang Yuanqiang, a retired journalist who has researched on the compound for decades. 

"Revolutionaries such as Dr Sun Yat-sen, Zhang Taiyan and Cai Yuanpei gave speeches at the Arcadia Hall. Chinese martial arts master Huo Yuanjia showcased his skills in front of a big crowd. Renowned Chinese painter Liu Haisu exhibited his first nudes here," says Zhuang, who was born in 1954 in Zhang Yuan and lived there until 1998.

"There were many 'firsts' in this garden — the first Western-style wedding, the first women’s speech, the first time revolutionary figures cut their pigtails (regarded as a symbol for feudalism) in the public and the first outdoor photography studio," he adds. "During the heydays, Zhang Yuan was the setting for women’s fashion in Shanghai."

With the opening of the Great World amusement complex in 1918, which was packed with slot machines, magic shows and fireworks, Zhang Yuan gradually lost its appeal and was redeveloped again into a premier shikumen residential block featuring independent villas and terrace houses.

Zhuang, who used to live in a two-story shikumen house, sees himself a native of Zhang Yuan.

"Besides big happenings in Zhang Yuan, there were also interesting stories of people who lived here. The history of Zhang Yuan has continued to this day," he says.

Zhuang studied at Guangming Primary School at No. 1, 590 Weihai Road along with his five siblings in the 1960s.

“It was a typical lane school with only four to five classrooms, a narrow courtyard and no playground. We did morning exercises and sports in the alley in front of the school gate. Small as it was, the two-story independent shikumen house holds a lot of sweet memories from my childhood,” Zhuang says.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Residents practice traditional fan dance at the Zhang Yuan Public Living Room.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE
Zhuang Yuanqiang / Ti Gong

Zhuang Yuanqiang poses in front of the shikumen house in Zhang Yuan where he used to live.

The Guangming Primary School also operated as a night school between 1942 and 1945. More than 300 students attended the night courses where they received revolutionary ideas from teachers who were undercover Communist Party members.

In the four years, the school groomed more than 40 Party members, 23 of whom joined the main force at the central revolutionary base in the mountains.

"I wouldn’t have known about all these if I hadn’t spoken to one of my neighbors who used to work at the school,” says Zhuang.

Renamed as Zhang Yuan Public Living Room, Guangming Primary School has been converted into a dining hall for the elderly and an activity center for the community.

In 2010, Zhuang was assigned to cover the World Expo 2010 Shanghai stories while working at Xinmin Evening News. It was then that he learned many old shikumen houses were marked out for demolition for new projects. Unlike most of his neighbors who were eager to move out for a better living condition, he saw the value of protecting the old community.

Zhuang says most shikumen houses in Zhang Yuan were shared by four or more families and sheltered, on an average, 20 people since the 1950s.

"It’s the living fossil of life in Shanghai over the past half a century before people moved to bigger apartments with flush toilets, private kitchens and bathrooms," he says.

According to Zhuang, the best way to save Zhang Yuan from the bulldozers was to tell stories, through which people can see the cultural values of old buildings and understand why preserving them is beneficial not only for the city’s culture but also for the local economy.

He went from house to house to listen to stories about life in Zhang Yuan, visited library to dig out old newspapers on anything about the place, and opened a WeChat public account in 2016 to post articles on the compound. 

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Buildings in Zhang Yuan are mainly typical shikumen (stone-gate) houses.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

The WeChat account now has more than 30,000 followers. He says he has “correspondents” who report to him on the latest "news" from Zhang Yuan.

"They informed me when the British Chamber of Commerce opened a Shanghai office there this year, and I rushed to take pictures," Zhuang says.

Zhang Yuan was a popular spot for movie directors who wanted to depict old Shanghai. The Chinese romance war drama “The Crossing,” directed by Hong Kong director John Woo, not only had some scenes shot in Zhang Yuan but also based characters on real-life stories in Zhang Yuan. 

The film is based on the sinking of the steamer Taiping in January 1949. It sank when colliding with a cargo ship in the dark with over 1,500 passengers and crew onboard.

It was the New Year's Eve. Furious families rushed to the headquarters of the shipping company the next day. By the time the court announced the compensation, three of the four shareholders of the company had fled. Only Zhou Qingyun stayed on.

He sold his house, his car, his wife's jewelleries to pay part of the compensation. When they moved out of their residence in Zhang Yuan at No. 2, 106 Taixing Road, they were even body-searched to make sure they weren't carrying anything with them.

Zhou died in 1959, but his wife continued to pay back the debt. She passed away in 1975 due to malnutrition. It was only then that their children discovered that their mother had been selling blood to make ends meet every month.

In 1982, the Zhou siblings cleared off the last debt. They burnt the debt book and all the receipts at the tomb of their parents. At the end of the day, they had their first meal in a restaurant to celebrate the "end of a torture" they had been suffering for more than 30 years.

"People, who moved in lately, will have no idea of the story of the Zhous if I don't tell them," says Zhuang. "How can you not be moved and appreciate the neighborhood once you know about it?"

Zhuang Yuanqiang / Ti Gong

Zhou Qingyuan's former residence in Zhang Yuan

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