A workers' paradise still retains an old charm
White walls, red roofs, little chimneys and green window frames distinguish the three-story, villa-style buildings that comprised the Caoyang No. 1 Village built in 1951.
The residential quarter in Putuo District was designated as a cultural heritage site in 2004.
Today, the park-like community is scenic and tranquil. A large green area separates two rows of blocks, which is not common in an urban district. The main path in the neighborhood winds along a waterway.
Seating is an iconic part of the neighborhood. Sofas, benches, armchairs and other seats are common throughout the community. Many are accompanied by small tables. The seating is popular with elderly residents, who like to congregate outside to chat with neighbors.
“All of the chairs were left by previous residents,” said a 69-year-old man surnamed Zhang. “Our houses are so small that we are forced to spend time outdoors. For us oldsters, chatting with neighbors is the best way to pass time.”
Zhang’s parents were cotton mill workers who moved into the neighborhood in 1952.
I met Zhang in a pavilion, where he was chatting with several other elderly residents.
According to Shi Yunxia, director of the neighborhood, there are about 470 residents aged 80 years and above in the Caoyang No. 1 Village. “I do know we have two centenarians,” she adds.
Living in the neighborhood was once a very distinguished honor because only exemplary workers were chosen to live here.
Sun Wenjie, 93, worked as a technician at a state-owned cotton mill. He showed me yellowed certificates presented to him by Chen Yi, Shanghai’s first mayor, for his skilled work in the late 1950s.
“The house here was allocated to me by 1953,” Sun said. “This area was originally quite rural, with vegetable fields, a railway station and a bamboo garden. Bad people sometimes hid in the bamboo. My wife, who worked a night shift, used to be afraid to walk home by herself.”
Sun said he designed a cooling system for the Caoyang Cinema and provided technical support to the community shopping mall.
Now widowed and living in the 13.8-square-meter home by himself, Sun keeps his rooms quite tidy. The red-painted wooden floors, the windows with green wooden frames and the rosewood furniture have been part of his daily life for more than six decades.
“It was such a prestigious honor to live here,” he said. “I worked as a volunteer helping build the houses in 1951. The wood and bricks were transported to the railway station nearby. The houses were designed in a foreign style that we had never seen before.”
Each floor has three units with three private bathrooms, a shared kitchen, private gas stoves and sinks. Though the houses are not large, they are well equipped. The chimneys add a nice touch but they appear to be only decorative nowadays.
“We used traditional Chinese cooking stoves before the advent of coal stoves in the 1970s and gas stoves in the 1980s,” Sun said.
Different materials for staircases — wooden ones between the first and second floors and concrete between the second and third floors — highlight the fact that the third stories were added in 1962. Bricks for the top stories were made of coal cinders.
“I perfectly adapted to life here,” Sun said. “After many tumultuous times, I find my current life very happy. My only wish is that I had a private kitchen.”
Sun has seen many changes in the community over the decades. Many old neighbors have either died or moved away. The once empty area around the community has filled with buildings. The water quality of the nearby river has significantly improved since the 1980s. Several elderly men fish there every day.
“Unlike those from the Suzhou Creek or Huangpu River, the fish here are very good, without that ‘fishy’ taste,” said a resident who was fishing in the waterway. “My home is right here, so I can go fishing twice a day. It’s my retirement hobby.”
He carried a bottle of water, a towel, a plastic bucket and a fishing rod to his favorite fishing spot. The day I met him, he caught three fish.
A project is underway to remove unauthorized construction in the area. Caoyang Park is also undergoing reconstruction, and the local sewage disposal and fire protection systems are being upgraded.