Heading west: tracking the arrow of Shanghai
I have walked on Nanjing Road many times on my way to the Bund and remember passing by shops using loud speakers to sell jade brocades, tourists speaking different languages and dialects and young men hurriedly chucking flyers in my handbag.
But my interest in Nanjing Road started when I found a 1929 map of Shanghai that highlighted the market value of different zones in the city. A blue-toned, T-shaped zone of Nanjing Road all the way to the Bund was the city’s most expensive area that year.
Nanjing Road was constructed in 1851 as Park Lane — from the Bund to the racecourse on what is today’s Henan Road. It was widely called Ta Maloo, which translates into “Great Horse Road.” The Maloo extended to Zhejiang Road in 1854 and stretched further to Xizang Road in 1862 as the race course was relocated twice — the last one being in today’s People’s Square.
English missionary Walter Henry Medhurst suggested that “the settlement road names should be made intelligible to the tens of thousands of natives who had crowded into the limits for safety from the Taiping Rebellion.” Thereafter, Park Lane was renamed Nanjing Road after the ancient Chinese capital city.
In 1945, the local government renamed the former Bubbling Well Road as Nanjing Road W. — and the other end became Nanjing Road E. The entire stretch came to be known as Nanjing Road that stretched 5 kilometers. The street became so prominent that it came to symbolize old Shanghai and was nicknamed “Shi Li Yang Chang” or “10-mile-long foreign metropolis.”
Early in the last century, Nanjing Road was transformed into a world-class shopping street after Chinese merchants built four modern department stores — complete with concrete structures with modern equipment and high towers.
Today, Nanjing Road is crowded by visitors from all over China and abroad, who can be seen enjoying a bottle of “old Shanghai yogurt,” or buying a plastic Oriental Pearl TV Tower or taking photos with a man attired in old Shanghai-style suit besides a vintage car.
The road underwent several rounds of renovations, the most famous being converting the stretch between Henan and Xizang roads into a pedestrian street in 1999.
Last month, the local government issued a plan to build Shanghai into a global city by 2035. Urban regeneration is highlighted in this plan, which means mixed use of land, revitalizing urban areas and introducing a new lifestyle.
Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall and Yuyuan Garden Shopping District in the 1990s were the two earliest examples of Shanghai’s urban regeneration practices. They were followed by other well-known projects like Xintiandi, Tian Zi Fang, M50, Sinan Mansions and Waitanyuan.
Since the time I began writing this column about a year ago, Nanjing Road has been undergoing a new round of urban regeneration.
In some places, private toilets were being added to apartments in the century-old Ci’anli Building. The red-brick Carlowitz Building near Jiangxi Road has turned into a complex of shops and offices with the beautiful veranda restored.
Traditional department stores like the 1930s Whiteaway Laidlaw & Co Ltd, the Central Arcade and The Sun have been renovated as they look to attract younger customers. Later this year a glass dome and a gallery in the air will link The Sun Co with two new buildings.
The 1980s East China Electrical Power Building has been preserved after fierce debate. Along with the adjacent 1930s Shanghai Power Company Building, it has been renovated into a boutique hotel. The former Wing On Department Store will undergo restoration sometime this year.
While exploring this historical road, I have survived the dust, dirt and noise and, at times, forced to wear the safety helmet, but the changes were very welcoming. I am looking forward to a more vibrant Nanjing Road, where the historical buildings will be thrown open to the public.
Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao said that early foreigners in Shanghai would say that “if Bund was like a bow, then Nanjing Road was the arrow ─ flying westward, which has been the direction that has guided Shanghai’s urban development for a long period of time.”
After exploring the bow-shaped Bund, I have walked westward along the 19th-century Nanjing Road that is undergoing a 21th-century regeneration.
The first part of the journey focusing on the former Park Lane, today’s Nanjing Road E. (from the Bund to Xizang Road) ends today at The Sun building, the youngest and most modern among the four big Chinese department stores on Nanjing Road.
Next, we will embark on a journey through the western part of Nanjing Road.
Let’s continue to follow the arrow of Shanghai this spring!