China's first modern pleasure garden, gone but not forgotten

Qiao Zhengyue
The history and future of Zhangyuan Garden, a legendary Chinese pleasure garden which developed to a living museum of Shikumen buildings.
Qiao Zhengyue

Red lanterns illuminated grey lane houses and dark wood gates in the Zhangyuan Garden area last month. After celebrating the last Spring Festival residents are packing up their belongings and moving away from a neighborhood full of history sandwiched between Wujiang and Weihai roads.

“I plan to move to a new home not far from here, also in the Jing’an District. I will miss Zhangyuan forever because it’s where I grew up,” says Xin Jianming, a middle-aged man, whose family has lived for decades in a room on the second floor of a shikumen (stone-gate) house that boasted a larger interior public space than ordinary shikumen houses.

“I played badminton in the spacious corridor and enjoyed sliding down the handrail of the big staircase when I was a boy,” he recalls.

In January, the local government announced Zhangyuan Garden will go through a new round of refurbishment to turn the plot into a mixed-use center of leisure, commerce, fashion and culture. Meanwhile the project will further enable Metro lines 2, 12 and 13 to connect in one underground station. Local residents like Xin received financial compensation for relocating so several of the historical buildings in the area get preserved.

“Zhangyuan Garden, which evolved out of an Englishman’s farm and later a renowned Chinese garden, had been a living museum of shikumen architecture. It had great values for research and preservation,” says Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao, who is co-authoring a book on Zhangyuan Garden’s architectural history.

China's first modern pleasure garden, gone but not forgotten
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

Zhangyuan Garden features abundant architectural forms that once existed in the city. Starting last month, some 1,200 families are moving to relocation homes to make room for a commercial makeover.

Zhangyuan Garden dates back to the 1860s when a British merchant, Groom Francis, purchased a farm. Francis owned a firm named Glover & Co on Nanjing Road. He had lived in an apartment building on Yuanmingyuan Road but later moved to a farm along the Bubbling Well Road, today’s Nanjing Road W.

Chang Su-ho, or Zhang Shuhe, was a Wuxi native who worked for the Shanghai Steam Navigation Co. He bought the farm from Groom and built Weichunyuan Garden for his mother to live in. It had ponds, rockeries, rare flowers, willows and bamboo groves.

After Chang’s mother passed away in 1885, he opened the garden to the public at the advice of a friend.

It was at a time when the then Shanghai Municipal Council excluded locals from public gardens. So, many private gardens in the city started charging admission fees, including the Chang’s plot.

In 1893 Chang invited two famous architects, T. W. Kingsmill and B. Atkinson, to build the garden’s signature building — Arcadia Hall. To make it more attractive, he not only added new entertainment facilities but also expanded the garden five times, from the original 20 mu (13,340 square meters) to up to 70 mu.

In a 1923 year guide, titled “Shanghai: A Handbook for Travelers and Residents to the Chief Objects of Interest in and Around the Foreign Settlements and Native City,” Zhangyuan Garden, which was then called the Chang Su-ho Garden, was listed as one of the city’s renowned gardens.      

“The hall is one of the handsomest buildings in Shanghai, and the gardens are good. Displays of fireworks are given in the summer. There are some altogether original effects, quite unlike those Western fireworks. Refreshments may be obtained. The gardens are about 12 years old. Under the present management, many new attractions have been added, such as a water chute and cycle track,” as was introduced by the book.

China's first modern pleasure garden, gone but not forgotten
Shanghai Library / Ti Gong

The original gate of the Chang Su-ho Garden in the late 19th century.

While building operations were going on in the garden in 1893, the North-China Herald reported the Arcadia Hall building was “something in the nature of a ‘new departure’ for a Chinese pleasure garden.”

“The general effect of the structure when viewed from the outside is very pleasing,” the paper reported on April 21, 1893. “The style is the Italian Renaissance, and the material a familiar red brick. Over the N.E. corner will be a pretty campanile tower 90ft high, which will give a very fine view over the surrounding country. The principle entrance is at the N., and on entering the visitor will be attracted by its very tasteful appearance. To the right and left, just before entering the hall, are rooms which will be used as cloak rooms when foreign entertainment is being given, but probably at other times they will be utilized as shops.”

The report says the idea was to construct a finely built teahouse very closely to the Continental Café. The main part of the building consisted of a fine hall 80 feet long by 40 feet wide, which was adorned by a colonnade that supported a similar promenade looking down into the hall.

“The primary object of the hall is to serve as a teahouse, and when it is finished, on account of its loftiness, tasteful decoration and general airiness and brightness it will be a model one,” the report said. “But it will be available for other purposes as well. Foreigners who desire to give a ball or other entertainment of a similar nature will be able to hire the entire building and if the ideal which has been set up is only realized the place will no doubt be very popular with Shanghailanders.”

Professor Qian Zonghao discovered from historical postcard photos that the grand Arcadia Hall had red bricks and a steep tower.

“It was so large but was properly designed and built with abundant details, which expressed a combination of refined handicrafts and a merry fairy tale atmosphere. The building became the landmark of Zhangyuan Garden and a name card to attract visitors. It’s a pity that this building, which was formerly located between today’s 264 and 250 Maoming Road N. had been demolished long time ago,” Qian says.

After the opening of the new Arcadia Hall, Zhangyuan Garden embraced its golden era which lasted until 1909. It became a garden where you could admire flowers, climb to the tower of Arcadia Hall to cast a bird’s-eye view of Shanghai, play billiards, drink tea, take photos, which were still rather novel at that time, watch fireworks or even ride hot-air balloons. The garden hosted numerous birthday parties, wedding ceremonies, memorial services, celebrations and big gatherings.

China's first modern pleasure garden, gone but not forgotten
Shanghai Library / Ti Gong

A file photo shows the then Zhangyuan Garden for a variety of entertainment or commercial activities.

Famous Shanghai historian Xiong Yuezhi, who did one of the first academic researches on Zhangyuan Garden in the 1990s, named it “the first public space in modern China.”

In late 1900s, the garden served as a venue for political gatherings and speeches. 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.

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 of feudalism) in the public and the first outdoor photography studio.

“The rise for Chang’s garden to become such a public space was closely related to the special political environment of Shanghai at that time. The garden, located in the International Concession, was not under the direct jurisdiction of the Chinese government. There was a lot of options for innovations and ideas,” Xiong writes in “Zhangyuan Garden: Research of a Shanghai public space in the late Qing Dynasty.”

After its peak time in the 1900s, the garden saw a decline at the openings of newer entertainment parks like the Great World Amusement Center in 1918. After Chang Su-ho died in 1919, the compound was gradually divided into up to 28 pieces for selling and reconstructed into a shikumen residential block by different developers.

Today, it is a cluster of shikumen houses surrounded by modern high-rises.

“Zhangyuan Garden sits as a centerpiece of Nanjing Road W. historical area. There was a plan to connect Metro lines 2, 12 and 13 in one stop years ago but technology was not mature for preserving so many old houses,” says Li Zhendong, vice chief architect of the state-owned Shanghai Jing’an Real Estate (Group) Co Ltd, a major developer of this project.

“Now the upcoming regeneration project will be able to preserve these valuable historical buildings and make full use of underground space.”

China's first modern pleasure garden, gone but not forgotten
Zhang Xuefei / Ti Gong

No. 77 is one of the historical buildings to be retained in the redevelopment.

He says an archival book for each building in Zhangyuan Garden was done as part of the research work starting in 2016.

“So far archival, architectural and restorative experts have researched more than 170 buildings and interviewed some 1,100 local families. Modern technologies, such as GRS, drone photographing have been used in making this architectural records,” Li says.

Professor Qian notes that Zhangyuan Garden features abundant architectural forms.

“Built from 1920s to 1930s, the compound had a variety of new-style lanes, old-style lanes and the more spacious shikumen mansions. The variety resulted from dozens of early developers and made it differ from other shikumen residential block like Jing’an villa where buildings looked almost identical. Therefore, Zhangyuan Garden has a unique value for conservation,” Qian says.

Yesterday: Chang Su-ho Garden

Today: Zhangyuan Garden

Architects: T. W. Kingmill and B. Atkinson

Address: 590 Weihai Rd

Tips: The former garden opened in 1885, and the shikumen block was developed in the 1920s. It is recommended to take one last look of the place as soon as possible as a new round of renovation work will start after all residents are relocated.

Parachute balloon spectacular greeted by excited ‘hi-yahs’

Judging from the thousands of wondering Chinese who flocked to Chang Su-ho’s garden, Shanghai, on Saturday afternoon, parachuting is another of the inventions of the Western barbarian which come as a shock to celestial notions. Of balloons the natives know something; but the spectacle of a woman flying through the air and descending for nearly a mile, apparently with only the aid of an umbrella, was certainly enough to excite “hi-yahs” without number.

It is on such occasions that foreigners in China must feel the disadvantages of not understanding the language. The comments, translated into our speech, would without doubt be very amusing; and it is highly probable that they were not wanting patriotic natives who felt sure the same kind of thing had been done in the Middle Kingdom thousands of years before.

Anyhow it is some satisfaction to the Westerner to find that when a Western sensation is produced in China it is done as it should be. Everything passed off without a hitch, from the commencement of the inflation to the final descent of Miss Van Tassell in a cotton-field near Oliver’s Bungalow. It is true that, for financial reasons, the start was delayed, and that the process of inflation proved rather tedious, but the ascent and descent were all that could be desired.

At six o’clock, just after sunset, Miss Van Tassell went up at the tail of the balloon, and in five minutes’ time, after performing some blood-curdling feats on her horizontal bar, she let go, at a height of about 4,000 feet. Very quickly the parachute opened, and she came steadily down, landing without accident, though the shock on coming to the earth was sufficient to throw her on her face. Then, after having had the remarkable experience of seeing the sun set twice in one day, the daring performer was wrapped up in a cloak and taken home. The balloon fell about three miles off. It was rescued in the shortest possible time, but not before the villagers had wantonly cut off nearly the whole of the top sections.

Miss Van Tassell, on being interviewed in the evening, said she fell very rapidly, this being due to the wind. She had always found, she said, that she fell more quickly in wind than in calm. Her first parachute jump was a delightful sensation, but afterwards she began to realize that there was a certain amount of danger about it. The Van Tassells leave shortly for Manila.

                                                            (Excerpt from The North-China Herlad, October 17, 1890)

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