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Modern facelift for ancient city
By Wing Tan

Cangcheng Old City, a town with 500 years of history, is well into a major renovation and restoration project that began after the site was listed as one of Shanghai’s 32 historical and cultural areas in 2005.


The resulting facelift is worth a visit. Walk along cobblestone streets and over stone bridges. Admire architecture dating back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Walk through mansion where concubines once lived. Stroll in traditional gardens. Eat in restaurants serving age-old specialties.

The project has now completed its first 10 years, with more to follow.

“We haven’t got a firm timetable when the whole project will be finished because it is quite a complicated, demanding job to restore all the ancient architecture,” said Zhuang Qin, deputy director of Cangcheng Old City Development Office.


Behind Zhuang’s desk hangs a large, bird’s-eye blueprint of the project, It shows Cangcheng Old City surrounded on three sides by water and flanked with old-fashioned shops, boat ramps and bridges.

The old city covers 66 hectares, with a core zone of 19.5 hectares. It contains two heritage sites protected at the Shanghai municipal level — Yi Garden, built in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and Dacang Bridge, which dates back 385 years.

It also contains nine heritage sites under district-level protection and 81 registered cultural relics that cannot be removed from the town. There are 18 ancient mansions, with another 19 architectural sites of cultural significance yet to be registered.


“Cangcheng Old City is, in essence, old Songjiang and has borne testament to the twists and turns of history for centuries,” Zhuang said.

Cangcheng was once famous as a rice storage depot and river transport center for grain. The word cang means “rice bran.” The town’s crisscrossing rivers and canals connected with the sea.

Along the waterways, mansions, temples and bridges were built during the Ming Dynasty.

In ensuing years, however, civil war and political upheaval took their toll. The town fell into disrepair and its prominence disappeared.


In 2005, the town was given a new lease on life when Shanghai listed it among protected heritage sites. Three years later, after a series of surveys and planning sessions, a 3 billion yuan (US$482 million) renovation and protection project began.

The project called for 3,300 families in old, dilapidated houses to be relocated.

In 2013, the old moat was dredged and a riverside greenbelt built. In the same year, underground water and sewage pipes were extended under Zhongshan Road W. Last year, the Shuicicang Temple of Lord Guan was renovated and is soon to reopen.

It’s quite a site to see even as a work in progress.

A place to linger

Old houses, zigzagging lanes, local snack shops and other facilities are about to be revived along the main street, Zhongshan Road W. The arterial links many of Songjiang’s tourist sites, such as the Songfang Tower, a mosque from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Zuibai Pond Park and Du’s Mansion.


In the past several years, about 1,700 households were moved to more modern housing. Most of the older houses in Cangcheng Old City were state-owned and used for public housing.

Major sites listed under cultural heritage protection include Yi Garden, Du’s Mansion, Feihua’s House, Dacang Bridge and the Xiuxi Buddhist Temple.

There’s an eight-meter height limit on buildings in Cangcheng Old City’s historical and cultural zone.

So far, Yi Garden, Feihua’s House, Du’s Mansion, Baosu Hall and Guandin Temple have been restored. “After all the residents have been relocated, we will begin final restoration work,” Zhuang said.


Last year, preservation work on Wang Chun-yuan’s Mansion was completed. This year, Xu’s Pawnshop is scheduled to be restored in a project that should finish in May 2016.

“We will restore all the old houses — 129 in total — one by one,” Zhuang said. “Our timetable will depend on the condition of those houses.”

The main goal is to retain the original architectural look of the houses.

“We want these ancient buildings to tell their own stories,” Zhuang said. “We need to protect and use these 129 heritage sites properly.”

Illegal structures built during the 1970s and 80s will be torn down.


“Restoration is still in an early stage,” Zhuang said. “We need to develop a plan for managing these old properties once restored to ensure their future sustainability. We aren’t talking about making money. We want to make them as a monument to show today’s generation how their forebears lived.”

Restoration work on Du’s Mansion has set a benchmark. Located on the north side of Zhongshan Road W, the home was built during the Qing Dynasty. It is famous for delicate wood carvings on the doors, windows, posts and handrails.


Sixty-eight households were living in the old mansion. It took two years to relocate them and then renovate the building.

Today, the mansion has become a center for folk culture. Artists give performances there, Songjiang embroidery and 200 pieces of wood furniture from the Qing Dynasty are on exhibit, and shadow plays and lantern dances are staged in the surrounding gardens during festivals and holidays.

The mansion’s museum is open free to visitors, and it has become a popular tourist site.

“The success of Du’s mansion has greatly inspired us,” Zhuang said.

Public participation is a key element of the restoration project. In future, visitors can roll up their sleeves and try weaving in Feihua’s House, which was built in the Republic of China. They will be treated to Kunqu Opera in the Yi Garden, which originated in the Ming Dynasty. They can learn Chinese calligraphy in the Lu Ji Memorial Hall, which venerates the great master calligrapher. Or they can even enjoy fashion shows in Wang Chunyuan’s Mansion.

“We don’t want visitors to just take a snapshot and move on,” Zhuang said. “We want them to feel history and take in the stories these old houses have to tell.”

Renovating ancient structures is a tedious, complicated job that requires great skill and care.

Massive efforts

After all households have been relocated, ancient architecture experts from Jiao Tong University will conduct field trips and survey the structures. Family trees will be researched and archives of old architectural details scrutinized.


Experts from the university, the local museum, the Bureau of Cultural Relics and the redevelopment company will work together on a detailed renovation plan.

Most of the construction workers on the project come from neighboring Zhejiang Province and have long experience in repairing and renovating ancient Chinese houses.

“It’s not like building a modern house,” Zhuang said. “Some of the ancient hand skills, such as woodcarving and mortise-and-tenon joinery, are dying out today, and only a small number of old master workers still retain the knowledge.”

Take Wang Chunyuan’s House, for example. Workers had to remove all the modern add-ons done by residents, including paints, doors and walls. Intricate woodcarvings on handrails all had to be restored.

“We take extreme care to retain the most original look of these old houses as much as possible,” Zhuang said.

Workers discovered Wang’s main hall had two roofs. At first, they thought it was modern construction added by residents, but experts determined that the two-layer roof was an ancient structure to provide warmth and reduce humidity. So the dual roofs were retained.

In another interesting discovery, under each room designated for Wang’s wife and four concubines, there were water vats buried underground. Experts believe the structures may be related to feng shui, but their assumptions still need to be verified. The renovation team has kept the water vats intact for visitors to view.

“Old houses bear witness to Songjiang’s history in the past 500 years,” Zhuang said. “They complement the development of modern Songjiang.”

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