Surviving the regeneration of Nanjing Road

Looking forward to the opening of the Shanghai History Museum, Michelle Qiao continues her exploration of the history of one of the city's most historic thoroughfares. 
Surviving the regeneration of Nanjing Road

The past and present of Shanghai racecourse

Shanghai History Museum will soon throw open its doors and become a new landmark on Nanjing Road.

Since I began writing this column on Nanjing Road more than a year ago, it has been undergoing a new round of urban regeneration. While exploring this historic road, I have survived the dust, dirt and noise and, at times, been forced to wear a safety helmet.

I’ve seen private toilets added to apartments in the century-old Ci’anli Building, three 1930s department stores renovated as they look to attract younger customers and the 1980s East China Electrical Power Building preserved after fierce debate and now converted into a boutique hotel.

But none of those is more exciting to me than the opening of Shanghai History Museum built in the former clubhouse of Shanghai racecourse, which had shaped Nanjing Road and had a profound effect on the city’s urban development.

Nanjing Road was constructed in 1851 as Park Lane — from the Bund to the first racecourse on today’s Henan Road. It was widely called Ta Maloo which translates into “Great Horse Road.” The Maloo was extended to Zhejiang Road in 1854 and stretched further to Xizang Road in 1862 as the racecourse was relocated twice to its final place at today’s People’s Square.

The almost 1-square-kilometer grounds had been the former social center for Shanghai’s foreign population.

The races were one of the standard entertainment with track meets held twice a year. Three full days were devoted to the big event, and the racecourse became the place to be for anyone wanting to be seen. The taipans closed their offices and ladies had to have new dresses.

Surviving the regeneration of Nanjing Road
Ti Gong

An archive photo of the racecourse surrounded by a galaxy of buildings.

Surviving the regeneration of Nanjing Road
Ti Gong

“After decades of regeneration, a congregation of racecourse buildings came into being. A galaxy of excellent historic buildings had been erected one after another around the racecourse, such as the Park Hotel, the city’s most significant modern building, the Grand Theater, The Sun Co and Shanghai Great World, to name just few,” says Tang Yu’en, chief architect for the renovation. 

However, the fashionable throngs were dispersed with the outbreak of the Pacific War, and the Japanese used the racecourse as a military camp when they occupied Shanghai. After VJ Day, it was leased to the US army as a club.

In 1951, the racecourse and its neighborhood became today’s People’s Square, People’s Avenue and People’s Park, an area transformed into a political, cultural and entertainment center of the city.

“The former shape of the racecourse is still maintained. A rainbow of new structures were built around it, including the Shanghai municipal government building, Shanghai Grand Theater, Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center and Shanghai Museum,” Tang says.

Shanghai historian Xiong Yuezhi says this central area is a space where multiple urban features met and mingled.

“It’s fitting to call People’s Square ‘the heart of Shanghai,’ which was at one time famous for its entertainment of races and prosperity of modern urban infrastructures and big shops,” says the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences historian who is also editor-in-chief of “The General History of Shanghai.”

“It’s where tens of thousands of celebrities had left their footprints or settled their homes, such as famous scholars Liang Qichao (1873-1929) and Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940). It was also a place to showcase power and host big celebrations such as the 50th anniversary of Shanghai opening its port,” Xiong says.

Tang adds that in a 1950 survey, the flagpole of the Park Hotel was referred to as “Zero Center Point of Shanghai” because of its central location. Since 2016, the Huangpu District government has hosted an annual cultural festival entitled “Zero Center Point of Shanghai” at People’s Square.

“The square is the real center of Shanghai,” Tang says.

Surviving the regeneration of Nanjing Road
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Laszlo Hudec's Grand Theater was one of the historic buildings erected around the racecourse.

Park Lane was renamed Nanjing Road, and in 1945 the local government renamed the former Bubbling Well Road starting from the former racecourse to Nanjing Road W. — and the other end became Nanjing Road E. 

The entire stretch came to be known as Nanjing Road, stretching 5 kilometers. The street was so prominent that it came to symbolize old Shanghai and was nicknamed “Shi Li Yang Chang” or “10-mile-long foreign metropolis.”

Professor Qian Zonghao, who wrote “Nanking Road 1840s-1950s,” notes another analogy narrated by early Shanghai expatriates.

“They said if the 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,” he says.

After exploring the bow-shaped Bund, I walked westward along the 19th-century Nanjing Road that is undergoing a 21st-century regeneration. The first part of the journey, which focused on the former Park Lane, today’s Nanjing Road E. (from the Bund to Xizang Road), ended in January.

With the much-anticipated opening of Shanghai History Museum, I decided to circle around the former racecourse before going further west along Nanjing Road. This series will feature an amazing variety of historic buildings, ranging from hotels, cinemas, schools to apartments and churches.

So let’s follow the arrow of Shanghai and explore the heart of the city this spring!

Surviving the regeneration of Nanjing Road

Part of the racecourse has become today's People's Park.

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