Watch your step! You may discover history, art and digital technology underfoot

Yang Jian
The streetscape is full of surprising footnotes; a mundane manhole cover can be a bookmark of history, a piece of whimsical artistry, or an environmental monitoring device.
Yang Jian
Watch your step! You may discover history, art and digital technology underfoot
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A decorative sewer lid near the iconic Normandie Apartments in Xuhui District

Beneath the feet of pedestrians and the wheels of traffic lie monuments to Shanghai's history, artistic creativity and technological know-how. Just look down and what do you see? Manhole covers!

Among them, decorative manhole covers found on streets and in alleys act not only as gateways to the city's vast underground infrastructure but also remind us of a rich urban heritage.

Indeed, there are more than 6 million manhole covers across the city, managed by 20 entities and departments, including water services, telecommunications, electricity, public security, information technology and gas, according to Jin Xi, a maintenance engineer at the Shanghai Road Transport Development Center.

Usually stepped over and rarely noticed, these unassuming metal discs play a pivotal role in ensuring the health, safety and comfort of urban life.

While most of the covers are just commonplace sights found in any metropolis, some are very old and carry historical footnotes of the city. These covers were initially fitted by Shanghai's earliest water, gas, power and telephone companies, who laid the groundwork about a century ago for the metropolis Shanghai today.

Watch your step! You may discover history, art and digital technology underfoot
Li Xiaoying / SHINE

In 1996, the popular TV show "Brainwave Surfing" sent its viewers on a quest to find Shanghai's oldest manhole cover. The winner was found at the intersection of Dongdaming and Yongding roads and dated back to 1921.

The discovery sparked public interest in historical manhole covers.

In 1999, during construction work on Renmin Road, several manhole covers were unearthed bearing inscriptions traced back to 1913. Laid after the demolition of city walls, they were promptly snapped up by the Shanghai History Museum and put on public display.

But many "antique" covers still lie in place, scattered around Shanghai and attracting enthusiasts like Dong Xiongfei, who embarked on a decadelong personal mission to document historical manhole covers.

Born in Shanghai in the 1980s, Dong was formerly employed by a foreign company, but he quit the job in 2020 to found "Walking Geli Dong" guided walking tours of the city.

His fascination with manhole covers was triggered by a near-miss with a 1933 cover, which was lost to roadworks before he could take a photo of it.

"A manhole cover that's still in use is a living piece of history," Dong told Shanghai Daily. "There's no need to replace it if it's not broken. It stands as a symbol of urban life, allowing us to read and understand the city's evolution."

Watch your step! You may discover history, art and digital technology underfoot
Ti Gong

Dong Xiongfei (left) guides a walking tour of the city to explore hidden history and culture in Shanghai's downtown.

His collection of photos of old manhole covers has grown to more than 130 – and counting.

Dong considers them urban bookmarks. His photos include covers bearing insignias such as "S.T.C." (former American Shanghai Telephone Co), "S.W.W." (Shanghai Waterworks Co as it was known) and "C.M.F." (erstwhile French Municipal Council).

His enthusiasm is shared by locals, foreign residents and visitors.

A German friend of Dong's, inspired by the manholes, even hosted an art exhibition based on rubbings taken of the patterns on the covers.

Clarisse Le Guernic, a French expat living in Shanghai for nine years, operates a cultural agency that aims to expose foreign residents and visitors to the city's deeper secrets. She looks at insignia like "S.M.C" (former Shanghai Municipal Council) and "P.W.D," (former Public Works Department) and sees links to the city's past.

"I just love anything related to history and every detail that can tell us more about it," she told Shanghai Daily.

Watch your step! You may discover history, art and digital technology underfoot
Ti Gong

Clarisse Le Guernic poses with manhole cover-style fridge magnet.

Among her cherished possessions are a manhole cover-style magnet she keeps on her fridge and a mobile phone holder bearing the pattern of one of Shanghai's earliest manhole covers, which is now housed in the city's history museum.

In areas like Nanjing Road E., the North Bund and the area around the iconic Normandie Apartments, more modern manhole covers have become canvases for artistic expression, with designs that celebrate local culture and history.

Cast-iron manhole covers adorning Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall were crafted around 1999 as part of a street renovation project led by Zheng Shiling, a renowned local architect and then vice president of Tongji University.

Each of the 37 manhole covers features a landmark, such as the skyline of Lujiazui, the Yan'an Elevated Road, Shanghai Library, Shanghai Museum and the Mid-Lake Pavilion in Yuyuan Garden.

Some 20 of these emblematic manhole covers remain in situ, while others were removed during renovation and extension of Nanjing Road E.

"By 'engraving' Shanghai's most notable historical and modern buildings and urban landscapes on these manhole covers, we invite people to trace the city's historical context," said Zheng. "They help to enhance a sense of domain and place on this iconic street."

Watch your step! You may discover history, art and digital technology underfoot
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A decorative manhole cover on Nanjing Road pedestrian street displays the iconic Broadway Mansion in Hongkou.

Shanghai is not alone in adding artistic touches to mundane infrastructure. Globally, cities are transforming manhole covers into pieces of urban art, each telling a unique story of local heritage and culture.

Tokyo celebrates its pop culture with manhole covers featuring iconic anime and manga characters. Paris has painted manhole covers to resemble vinyl records. In the Norwegian city of Stavanger, decorative sewer lids on cobbled streets blend with the city's quaint charm.

And in China, manhole covers near the Tsingtao brewery in the eastern city of Qingdao are embossed with motifs related to the famous beer brand.

Along Wuyi Road in Shanghai's Changning District, manhole covers feature playful elements, including graffiti of cartoon characters like SpongeBob and Captain America's shield. The initiative there, involving 40 artworks, is part of a broader effort to infuse the historical street with reminders of past culture and present-day innovation.

"Urban revamping should encompass more than just physical renovations; it's also about embedding culture and humanity into our cityscapes," said Zhang Chao, an artist leading the project.

He said the artistic manhole covers crafted by eight local artists not only beautify the area but also encourage the community to appreciate their local environment.

Watch your step! You may discover history, art and digital technology underfoot

Graffiti painting on a manhole on Shanghai's Wuyi Road

Manhole covers aren't only artistic; they also can be "smart." Many are equipped with high-tech sensors that help urban agencies monitor environmental data, including underground water levels. If data point to a problem, an alert is triggered and sensors pinpoint the exact location where maintenance crews should be dispatched.

From a technological standpoint, there is immense potential for smart manhole covers to contribute to Shanghai's goal of a safe, efficient and eco-friendly environment, said Yu Diankun, a construction management staffer in the Hongkou District.

Watch your step! You may discover history, art and digital technology underfoot
Ti Gong

Urban management staff install a smart sensor underneath a manhole cover in Shanghai's Hongkou District.

Special Reports