Magic of reinvention: A muddy flat evolves into an icon of modern history

Yang Jian
A bustling road and its popular leisure center mirror the city’s transformations, becoming enduring landmarks.
Yang Jian

Editor’s note:

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Shanghai. Once dubbed “the Paris of the East,” the city has evolved into a fusion of multiculturalism. Along the way, Shanghai has accumulated a repository of stories about the people and events that have shaped its history. Five areas of the city occupy pride of place in that journey: People’s Square, Jing’an Temple, Xujiahui, Lujiazui and Xintiandi. This series, a collaboration with Shanghai Local Chronicles Library, visits them all to follow in the footsteps of time.

Xizang Road, a historic thoroughfare that has reinvented itself time and time again, mirrors Shanghai’s own transformation.

It hosts, among other attractions, the Great World Entertainment Center, a rich historical cornerstone of the city’s leisure and entertainment scene.

Centered on People’s Square, the north-south Xizang Road is a key axis in the core area of Shanghai’s downtown. It has played a pivotal role in the city’s history and economic prosperity.

The road, originally Muddy Flat Creek, dates back to the mid-19th century when it marked the western boundary of the British concession in Shanghai.

The waterway, a natural barrier of the concession until 1899, was eventually filled in to facilitate urban expansion, paving the way for the birth of Xizang Road in 1912.

Though a latecomer among major roads downtown, it quickly became a vital artery linking the north and south of Shanghai. The 1.4-kilometer road was transformed into a bustling commercial district, with the opening of the Great World indoor amusement park in 1917 marking the beginning of a new era.

Magic of reinvention: A muddy flat evolves into an icon of modern history
Ti Gong
Magic of reinvention: A muddy flat evolves into an icon of modern history
Ti Gong

A comparison of Xizang Road in the 1930s and today

Great World, founded by industrial magnate Huang Chujiu (1872-1931), became an icon of modern Shanghai’s entertainment and leisure culture. The multifaceted complex offered a myriad of attractions, from traditional Chinese operas to modern Japanese magic shows.

It was a place where the traditional met the modern, and cultures from around the world intermingled. Open from noon until late at night, it attracted more than 10,000 visitors daily.

Huang Jinrong (1868-1953), a Shanghai mob boss, later took over the center and expanded the site, renovating the building and turning it into an even bigger complex featuring dining, stage shows and shopping malls.

Its standing as a landmark site led to slogans such as “you haven’t visited Shanghai until you tour Great World.” Its popularity soared in the 1990s when some people tried to break a Guinness world attendance record there.

Xizang Road flourished in its wake. In its heyday in 1938, the road was considered the “busiest nightlife hub” of Shanghai, with more than 240 shops, recreational venues, restaurants and hotels.

The transformation of Xizang Road over the decades from a high-end commercial street to a more inclusive and varied shopping area reflects the evolving nature of Shanghai’s economy and society.

The main businesses along the road shifted from popular restaurants, cafes and cinema to the influential leather industry in the 1950s and to a hub of travel agencies in the 1980s.

During World War II, two bombs accidentally dropped by a damaged Chinese air force fighter plane landed in front of Great World, resulting in 1,106 fatalities, including seven foreigners, and 830 injuries at the venue. It was one of Shanghai’s most devastating wartime incidents in terms of casualties.

In the postwar era, Great World underwent several name changes and transformations. It continued to be a place of nostalgia for many Shanghainese. The 12 “distorting mirrors” in the lobby area are still a popular attraction.

Magic of reinvention: A muddy flat evolves into an icon of modern history
Ti Gong

Today’s Great World is a cultural center to display “intangible cultural heritage.”

Scholar Shen Liang, an expert on the Great World, said the venue was so popular because it blended entertainment, fun and educational content.

But changing times mean changing tastes. With its popularity on the wane, Great World closed its doors in 2003. But that didn’t end its story. True to its history, the venue reinvented itself, reopening in 2017 as the Great World Cultural Arts Center, a hub for preserving and showcasing Shanghai’s UN-designated categories of “intangible cultural heritage.”

Xizang Road, which is today a vibrant mix of cuisines, tourism and entertainment, remains a hallmark in Shanghai’s story of change, resilience and enduring spirit.

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