The building at 393 Wukang Road was virtually unknown a decade ago, but it’s a popular stop on the street now.
It all started in 2009 when the municipal tourism bureau decided to copy the practice of cities around the world and establish visitor’s centers around Shanghai for World Expo 2010.
“The idea was to offer tourists a place to stop by and have a drink of water or coffee on Wukang Road,” recalls Shen Xuqing, director of the Wukang Road Tourism Information Center.
“We did a survey and then focused on the character of Wukang Road. The key word here is ‘old house’ so we gave this place another name — Xuhui Historical Building Art Center,” Shen add.
It’s made of two distinct parts built in two different eras for different uses. The older part is a four-story wood-and-brick villa built between 1912 and 1915. The newer part is a four-story reinforced concrete structure in the Art Deco style.
Poet and respected revolutionary leader Huang Xing lived in the original house for a short time in 1916. Huang had worked with Dr Sun Yat-sen to overthrow the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The revolutionary had only lived in the villa for several months and died there of disease at the age of 42.
The newer part was built in 1933 as the Shanghai headquarters of Shijie She, or The World Society, an influential cultural organization. The society operated a school on site for children of intellectuals, China’s future leaders. The Xuhui District government used the newer building to convert into the tourism information center.
The complicated history and entirely different architectural styles make it an interesting place to visit.
Today the older section now houses more than 20 families. The once spacious villa’s grand corridors are still there although much of this public space is now used as kitchens or storerooms. Nonetheless, there are numerous intricate details and passageways that reveal its grand past.
With a roof made of red tiles, the house has gray ovals on the exterior walls and a big garden on the south side. The wooden staircase with exquisite patterns is dusty, but still in good condition.
The original villa was designed in a neo-classical style and included a parlor, dining room and studio on the second floor and four large en suite bedrooms on the third, according to Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao, co-author of the book “Shanghai Wukang Road.”
“Although the space has been rearranged over the years it is still a well-preserved building. Some original fireplaces still exist,” Qian says.
After Huang died in 1916, the villa was used over the years as an exhibition hall, a library and a school by Shijie She, the society founded by Chinese intellectuals in Paris in the 1910s to promote revolution, science and new culture.
Shijie Xuexiao (The World School) recruited children of intellectuals to prepare them for further education in France. The main founder of the society, famed socialist and educator Li Shizeng, taught French in the school.
According to the book “Shanghai Wukang Road,” The World School was part of the society’s famous “Work-Study Movement” that sent many young Chinese to study in France beginning in 1919.
The movement provided China with several future leaders including Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.
As a venue for cultural exchange, the building hosted many international exhibitions. In February 1933, the society received British author and playwright George Bernard Shaw.
The government sponsored the Art Deco expansion in 1933 to fulfill the growing needs of the society’s activities. The facade features narrow slit windows, pale yellow plaster and grayish-brown brick.
It is highlighted by two white-on-white panels carved in low relief and titled “Science” and “Democracy.” They are still there today.
In 1963, The World School was renamed and relocated 200 meters down the street. But years ago the school decided to restore the original name and build an exhibition room to display its connection with Wukang Road.
Now the two-floor visitor center regularly hosts exhibitions and activities that are often related to old buildings. Guests can download pictures through Bluetooth, read history books or rent bicycles to fully explore the neighborhood.
“We have recorded stories told by those who had lived in the neighboring buildings,” Director Shen says. “We want to build a data base for old houses in the region. We have also invited historians, celebrities and elderly local residents to host regular ‘story telling’ events. They have been very successful and have attracted at least 100 people each time.”
Shen also says big bus tours have been forbidden from entering Wukang Road.
“During the World Expo we found these group tourists were not interested in Wukang Road. They came to Shanghai to see the Expo,” Shen says. “Wukang Road is for a niche market. It’s lovely for small groups of people, two or three, to wander and experience it.”
If you pass by, don’t be shy and take a look. Just remember this visitors’ center was once a leader’s home, an exhibition hall, a library, a school and a place where stories of yesteryear are told.