Shanghai is considering setting upan association for its old towns
in a bid to protect them better,
according to experts.
China currently has 252 national levelold towns, including 10 in Shanghai, and276 national level ancient villages with
two in Shanghai.
“The biggest dilemma the city’s old
towns face are the developers, who
are keen to build faux-old commercial
streets in the towns to make quickmoney, leaving the truly old and originalarchitecture aside,” said Ruan Yisan, aTongji University professor and director
of China’s Ancient Architecture ResearchCenter.
“The prevailing logic is that you
need to develop tourism and boost the
economy to protect these towns, which
is so sad. If money is the ultimate goal
and when the end justifies the means,
those old houses we want to preserve
will be the victims.”
The city’s cultural heritage buildings are protected by laws, but enforcement
is patchy. Some heritage buildings are
rebuilt while others are destroyed to
make way for new developments.
Last month, an 85-year-old shikumencomplex with 119 buildings in Hongkou
District was found being dismantled.Shikumen refers to a Shanghainese style
of architecture that combines Chinese
and Western elements. Almost half of
the homes were knocked down before
the government stopped the demolition
company due to public complaints.
Last year, a century-old home on
Wujin Road, where Sun Yat-sen (first
president and founding father of the
Republic of China) once gave a speech,
was listed to be removed, according to
the urban planning bureau. But, once
again, complaints led to the building
Experts said the residents in these
old houses usually don’t understand
the importance of their homes. Poor
facilities make life inconvenient, thusthe majority believe that newer is better,which may be true when it comes to
mobile phones, but it’s certainly not the
case when referring to buildings.
Tan Yufeng, general engineer from
the City Cultural Heritage Research
Center, referred to two 2005 cases, onein Nanxiang old town, Zhejiang Provinceand the other in Shanghai’s Fengjing
water town, as examples.
He said they were applying to have
Nanxiang listed as a national level old
“Nanxiang has two very beautiful oldtowers dating back to the Northern SongDynasty (960 AD-1127), which under
the criteria would have earned a bonus
point on the application, but we wereastonished to discover there was a three-story house set up illegally beside one tower,” Tan said.
He said the illegal structure meant they had to cancel the application.
Ruan said he has long advocatedusing original materials and skills whenrestoring old buildings to their former glory.
“Don’t invent, add or renew ‘old things’ to an old house without doing
research,” Ruan said. “Don’t brag thatyou revived Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD)architecture because no one alive has
ever seen such buildings.”
Although Fengjing has been listed
as a national level old town, Ruan said
it’s a poor example of preservation.
Three bridges in the town’s center were
made with concrete instead of stones, he said, adding the windows in many
houses have been restored in a modern
way rather with the ancient tenon-and-
mortise technique. A stickler for detail,
Ruan also said the roofs look all the
same, while in the old days each house
had a different roof.
Despite the problems, Ruan still saidthings have improved greatly in the past30 years.
“At least today no one would propose
to dismantle an old town,” he said.
During the 1980s, Ruan said he arguedwith numerous local governments thatwanted to dismantle old towns and buildnew neighborhoods.
He made field trips to old towns inZhejiang and found the rivers were badlypolluted by nearby textile factories.
“I wanted to have talks with the local
governments, but the officials shooed
me away, accusing me of disturbing
public order,” he recalled.
While Tan also said the situation is
better today, he adds that heritage
architecture protection is too often
associated with money making.
“People are developing the ancienttowns, but as they are doing that they aredestroying the truly old houses to build
new things that look old,” he said.
Another problem is that the cultural
heritage protection department is not
involved in decisions about which old
buildings are demolished.
“Under the Protection Ordinance of His-torical, Cultural Areas and Outstanding
Historical Buildings, only the land
planning and the housing management
departments have authority to make
decisions,” Tan said. “This explains why
some old houses in Shanghai are openly
Neighboring Zhejiang and Jiangsu
provinces have launched protection regulations tailor-made for ancient
towns and villages, but Shanghai hasn’t
Business management is another
challenge. Each old town is run by
a development company, but each
company’s board chairman is the town
“The company doesn’t have much
autonomy,” Tan said. “Plus having
the government involved means it
takes longer for decisions to be made.
These development companies are all
struggling hard, most are running a
Over the past six months, Ruan said heand his team of experts have visited 16
ancient towns to do thorough research.
At a recent conference in the city aboutprotecting old towns, Ruan urged the
government to set up an association ofthe city’s old towns so that they can worktogether on both the preservation and
Ruan’s suggestion isn’t new. In 2013, heparticipated in the joint UNESCO World
Heritage application project of 10 old
water towns in Zhejiang and Jiangsu.
“There are more than 100 beautiful
water towns in the Yangtze River Deltaregion that I’ve researched,” he said. “Thesetowns are intact and still original.”
Ruan said he’s optimistic about
preserving old towns. He once joined
the renovation project of Xinchang in
the Pudong New Area.
“Villagers always complained about poor public facilities in the town, butafter we added sewage pipes and installedelectric wires, we found young people
started coming back,” the professor
said. “This tells us if the infrastructureis improved and life becomes convenientfor the locals, the place can be alive
again. Old towns offer people a new way
of living; it’s not backwards at all.”