A little sprucing up goes a long way on Wukang Road
By Michelle Qiao
It was an average Monday morning on Wukang Road. A robust expatriate man was jogging along the street flanked with historical buildings. A slim Chinese woman was dropping her son off at the World Primary School, which was founded in 1936. Five young women in summer dresses in a rainbow of colors walked into a popular French bakery. Across the road, a uniformed middle-aged man was enjoying his dim sum while sitting on his old moped under the shade of a tree.
Everyone seemed to be passing through an ocean of history — a vivid past I want to reveal in this series about Wukang Road.
When I moved into a flat hidden down a lane on Wukang Road in 2009, a government project for regenerating this historical road was just coming to an end.
Stretching 1 kilometer, the road appeared more neat and beautiful, but it was still quiet and unknown. Often I had to explain where I lived by adding “not far from Xujiahui” or “near Huaihai Road.”
But Wukang Road has miraculously become much more famous over the past five years. Xuhui District government set up a visitor center here, which has received over 220,000 domestic and overseas visitors. Chic restaurants and cafes have popped up on both sides of the street and are usually full of customers on weekends.
On sunny days, couples are seen posing for their wedding photos and models are also doing shoots. There are usually some tourists wondering around and looking at the old buildings.
In 2011, Wukang Road was named a national historical and cultural street by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.
I don’t have to explain where I live any more.
These changes can be attributed largely to the rejuvenation project that kicked off in 2007 — regarded as the city’s first attempt to restore and revive a historical street. It proved to be so successful that Xuhui government plans to copy “the Wukang Road model” and apply to other historical streets.
According to the 1924 Chinese book “A Comprehensive View of Shanghai anecdotes,” Wukang Road was originally built by a prominent American named John Calvin Ferguson. His goal was to make it convenient for faculty members to travel from downtown homes to Nanyang College (today’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University). Locals often referred to this nameless road as Route de Ferguson.
The road is in the former “new French concession,” a vast area that the French Municipal Council gained by expanding its concession westward to Huashan Road in 1914. It was the last time the concession expanded. The area was planned as a high-end residential zone to accommodate the city’s growing population of wealthy individuals.
Still crisscrossed with farm fields, villages, graveyards and small rivers in the early 1900s, the neighborhood of Rue de Ferguson quickly grew to be an idyllic, convenient community graced by garden villas and apartment buildings during the 1920s and 1930s.
Experts at time referred to it as “the only well-planned, high-quality residential area in old Shanghai,” where expatriate and Chinese merchants, politicians and celebrities had lived. The list of notable individuals who have lived on Wukang Road include silk tycoon Moh Shangqing, Kuomintang ministers Chen Lifu and Chen Guofu, Chairman Mao’s second wife He Zizhen and renowned writer Ba Jin.
The road is also where world-famous architect I.M. Pei spent his childhood and where an article that triggered the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) was drafted.
“Wukang Road wasn’t very attractive before the 2007 project,” says Jiao Tong University professor Wang Lin, who was vice director of the Planning Bureau’s Historic Conservation Department when participating in the project.
“Just like any of Shanghai’s historic roads, it was quiet and with stories to tell, but it looked lonely and decayed. Few would have noticed it or wanted to stay here,” Wang says. “Many people knew about the Wukang Building (Normandie Apartments) but few were aware of Wukang Road.”
She says the Wukang Road project resulted from the city’s groundbreaking 2005 plan to establish 12 historical areas and 144 historical streets in downtown Shanghai. The 144 streets include 64 that will never be widened in order to preserve their original look and the old buildings flanking the roads.
As one of the 64, Wukang Road was selected for the first revamp.
“We wanted to pick a simple residential street rather than a complicated commercial one for this ‘experiment’,” says Guan Yetong, who played an important role in the project as director of Xuhui District Urban Planning Bureau.
“Finally we chose Wukang Road because it wasn’t too long and it’s basically neat with very simple business. And it was also an important street, like a fish bone for the whole neighborhood.”
Tongji University professor Sha Yongjie, a Harvard University graduate, was commissioned as chief planner for the project.
Wang says the project included many small details, such as adding trees and replacing dustbins. This required the involvement of more than 10 municipal, district or community-level governments.
“This is why we hired Sha,” Wang says. “We needed one person with a background in architecture and urban design to supervise everything.”
With a limited budget, Sha’s team paid close attention to restoring the crossroads of Wukang Road and several historical streets as well as surrounding walls and gateways to residential areas. They also removed ugly shop signs and condom vending machines that were in front of historic buildings.
The modern facades of some 1980s buildings were replaced with more natural materials to go well with the idyllic style of this neighborhood.
“With professional guidance from myself and fellow architects, the restoration has had a great impact without costing too much. This helped us gain the trust and support of residents,” Sha says.
“Wukang Road has always been a quiet road. We have made some small, proper changes and luckily few mistakes. We did a small thing, but it was well-done,” says Sha, adding that the project has won a state-level award for excellence in urban planning.
Wang also can’t help put smile when speaking about the impact of the project.
“Wukang Road looks more beautiful than ever, but people think nothing has been done here,” Wang admits, chuckling. “Then it seems as though something has been done to improve the atmosphere of the road, but without ‘upside down changes,’ which we historical preservationists fear most.”
Shanghai entered its “golden era” in the 1920s and early 1930s, which shaped the urban scene of a city once known as “Paris of the East.”
Architectural scholars believe two regions best represent this metropolis in the Far East — the Bund as the city’s economic engine and the western area of the French Concession as an upscale residential community.
After completing two series about the Bund, I’m moving westward. Like the local government, I also choose Wukang Road as the starting point to explore the old “new French Concession.”
Please join me in discovering some long-forgotten stories.