Two Sides of Sinan Lu

The contrast on both sides of the street is only as jarring as you make it out to be, if you notice it at all.

You can see it while standing in the middle of Sinan Lu (思南路), facing Fuxing West Lu (复兴西路) in Shanghai’s French Concession. A noted commercial development of ostentatious luxury sits face to face with the ghosts of past riches. Both Shanghai past and Shanghai present are embodied in the traditional, old, European-style villas. But those on one side of the street have had their layouts redesigned, their foundations tilted sideways, their innards replaced with modern amenities (lifts!), and their courtyards beautified with plenty of commercial landscaping. On the other side of the street stand facsimiles of the original, unmodified versions of these structures: tired, broken down and devoid of occupants.

Sinan Mansions, as the new development is called, is a collection of 49 renovated colonial Tudor-styled mansions from the ’20s and ’30s transformed into a commercial stretch of F&B, retail, luxury condos, and corporate villas. Aesthetically, it’s underwhelming.

Nevertheless, the swath of new restaurants, lounges and luxury hotels are expected to be warmly received by crowds who would at least appreciate this interpretation of heritage preservation while sipping RMB 100 (US $15) cocktails and dining in the RMB 40,000 (US $5970) per night luxury villas.

Distracted by the shiny property development, many passers-by rarely give a second glance to the old villas across the street. After all, they were mostly obscured by walls and tall trees, the way their original owners, wealthy Chinese families and European expats, had intended — for privacy. One villa had even served as an outpost for Kuomintang spies who were staking out Zhou Enlai’s residence, at 73 Sinan Lu, which now serves as a museum.

The collection of older villas (Nos. 52, 54, 56, Sinan Lu, etc.) has recently served as workspace and dormitories for many workers building Sinan Mansions across the street. In the courtyards stand large sawing contraptions, loose metal rods, brick, stone, and rusting motor engines. Amidst the green foliage, it looks like a scrap yard jungle. 

Wandering through the old houses, you see stacks of bunk bed structures dismantled and stacked against the walls. Abandoned loose shoes, chopsticks, broken furniture and the occasional piece of underwear are scattered around, signs of everyday life. The house had been decaying slowly over the years; there’s rotting wood in doors, ceilings, walls and floor, as well as a copious amount of dust wedged in every crevice.

One particular villa is kept in better shape and is filled with occupants, as evidenced by some bolted doors, unlocked rooms that outfitted with bunk beds, basic kitchenware, and calendars on the walls.

I chanced upon a danwei (单位/work unit) meeting underway, where a female manager was briefing a group of workers on how to behave as Sinan Mansions opened up to the public.

“Whether you are cleaning or fixing things, make sure to keep your clothes on and look neat. There will be guests walking around, our leaders and some from abroad, so be civilized and do not spit or sleep on the floors!” Everyone laughed nervously.

When they found me skulking nearby with a camera and tripod, a worker, at the insistence of his manager, told me, politely, “We’re having a meeting now. You cannot be here.” As he walked me out, I apologized for interrupting. Pausing, he then whispered, “We finish at about 3pm; you can come back later.”

What’s one to make of all this? As the orgy of Expo activity came to an end on October 31st, major construction across the city has now resumed, with a vengeance. It won’t be very long before the set of old villas across from Sinan Mansions will also be “refurbished”, replicating their remodeled neighbors across the street. Their cosmetic surgery is set to begin by the end of next year.

This post is an updated version of the original at Shanghai Street Stories.

This entry was written by Sue Anne Tay , posted on Wednesday November 10 2010at 10:11 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Interior Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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