Old neighborhood to become fashion hub, lifestyle center'

People living in Zhangyuan, a well-preserved shikumen in Jing'an, started to move out this month to make room for a commercial makeover of the Nanjing Road W. area.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The first families move out of the Zhangyuan neighborhood, bound for relocation housing. It was a farewell filled with cherished memories of the past and bright hopes for the future

People living in Zhangyuan, a well-preserved shikumen in Jing’an, started to move out this month to make room for a commercial makeover of the Nanjing Road W. area.

Bounded by Weihai Road to the south and Wujiang Road to the north, the area is home to about 1,200 families who have been living in century-old buildings with shared kitchens and toilets, cracked walls and leaky ceilings.

Almost all the 170 historical structures in Zhangyuan will be retained and restored, but they will no longer be used as residences.

“The history of Zhangyuan is a mixture of different architectural styles, from shikumen to garden villas, with Western art deco lines and traditional Chinese interior layouts often seen in one house,” said Shi Yunlun of the Jing’an Real Estate Group.

“We know every building,” said Chen Rujian from the same company, “including a building’s age, style and details like which floral embellishment is carved on which lintel.”

The buildings, once rehabilitated according to original drawings, will become commercial properties.

“We will turn the area into a fashion hub and lifestyle center,” said Song Lin, from the real estate company. “We will make the whole area a living museum of local history and culture, with theaters, showrooms, salons and other venues.”

Some of the buildings will be renovated into boutique hotels and small guesthouses.

As part of makeover, Zhangyuan’s drainage system will be upgraded to collect, purify and store rainwater. More greenery will be planted in the area. There will be a smart parking system, and passengers will be able to transfer directly between Metro Lines 2, 12 and 13 without leaving the stations.

Most local residents said they are happy about their relocation.

Ruan Kemei, 66, who lived in Zhangyuan since childhood, has lived with her husband in 18.2-square-meter flat built in the 1920s.

The building originally belonged to a rich businessman. Ruan’s father was his adopted son and inherited part of the property. Over the years, Ruan Kemei inherited the room where she has been living. The old windows and lintel remain, but the fireplace was removed.

“It was gorgeous,” she said of the fireplace, “but we had to remove it to get more space. My happiest time in Zhangyuan was playing with my friends in the alleyway. My uncles and aunts often held dance parties in the grand living room under the chandeliers.”

But now, that living room is shared by nine families and piled with tables, cabinets and other belongings. She had a toilet built in the courtyard for her family but shared a kitchen with others.

“I love this place, but I always wanted to move out,” she said. “I don’t have enough money to buy a new house, but now my chance has finally come.”

Shi Lejian, 80, said she feels the same.

“I am so happy, but I am also worried,” she said. “Finally, I can live in a modern apartment, but I have to say goodbye to all my old friends.”

Shi, her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter share a 31-square-meter room on the first floor. It’s not very small, but they don’t have any privacy.

“We share a kitchen with four families, and we all sleep in a room without dividers,” she said. “Luckily, we have our own toilet, but it is not in our room. We have to cross the corridor and go through the kitchen to reach the toilet. Over the years, all I yearned for is a single room filled with sunshine.”

Zhangyuan dates back to 1872, when a British merchant bought a plot of farmland and built garden villas.

In 1882, it came under the ownership of Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Shuhe, who expanded it into a modern public gathering spot. Shanghai’s first electric light bulb was turned on there, and it hosted the city’s first entertainment park, where Chinese opera, magic shows, gambling and dining flourished.

The building lost its popularity as an entertainment venue as cinemas started springing up. In 1919, the property was turned into private residences, and lines of shikumen buildings appeared.

Unit were partitioned into smaller flats occupied by several families, which led to squalid living conditions.

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