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Once a bustling street, now derelict: the warm memories of a bygone era
2017-04-18
By Lu Feiran

Zhuhang Old Street was once one of the busiest places in Minhang, but today it’s called Hongmei Road S. and its history has pretty much been forgotten by younger generations.


Some believe that history can be traced back 1,000 years ago, when the area was called Zhujiagang. At least we do know that it was a busy commercial hub about 150 years ago.


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Zhuhang Old Street, formerly one of the busiest areas in the Minhang District, fell into dereliction. Plans are underway for the old structures to be razed and the area to be rehabilitated. — Chen Meiling


A typical old street in Shanghai usually comprises five factors: the street itself, a nearby river, a bridge, a temple and shops. Today on Zhuhang Old Street, the temple is gone, area structures are dilapidated and local residents are awaiting relocation under a redevelopment plan.


Dai Yongqin’s family has been living on the street for three generations, and she remembers its heyday, when commerce bustled, acrobats performed at street fairs and locals congregated in teahouses for entertainment.


“There indeed was a temple here,” said Dai. “It was called Dr Shi’s Temple to commemorate a virtuous doctor in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).”


The temple, however, was burned to the ground down during the war in the 1940s.


Most old residents recall Taishan Hall, where two temple fairs were held in its fore square every year.


Zhuhang was abnormally busy in the lead-up to the fairs. Vendors from far and wide came to rent stalls and book accommodation. Local residents who had spare rooms took the opportunity to make some extra money.


On the day of the fairs, festivities started at 5am with praying and incense-burning in the hall.


Street stalls displayed an array of handmade items of wood and metal. Local farmers brought their freshest produce to sell.


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“Apart from shopping, what we loved most about the fairs were all the shows,” said Dai. “Acrobatics, shadow plays, comedies and operas. We loved them all.”


Dai’s parents owned a grocery store on the street, and because of its location, it was extremely busy during fair days.


“My parents gave us children some pocket money and sent us away so we wouldn’t interrupt all their business,” said Dai.


She also fondly remembers an ancient wisteria tree whose flowers climbed along frames and covered nearly half the street. Some houses were completely buried in a sea of flowers, she said.


According to town records, the wisteria was planted about 400 years ago, long before Zhuhang developed into a town.


Older people loved to sit under the blossoms, drinking tea, while children played in the purple blanket of blooms on the ground. Climbing the tree was forbidden.


“It was an era without much entertainment, and when the wisteria bloomed, it felt like a festival unto itself,” said Dai.


In that era, people usually went to bed soon after dinner and arose with the dawn. A teahouse on the street was a popular venue for wiling away the hours and meeting friends.


“People were so energetic that they would walk for an hour to get to the teahouse to have breakfast,” said Dai. “And those who didn’t work would spend half a day there.”


The teahouse served green, black and chrysanthemum teas, and if the guests didn’t like that menu, they brought along their own tea leaves. Like many traditional teahouses, the site was also a venue for Chinese operas and other entertainment.


Dai said that she and her friends didn’t understand the operas very well, but they often sneaked backstage to play with costumes and props.


“We were quite naughty,” she admitted. “We would mess with the costumes, makeup and props, and run around between tables and chairs. Fortunately, the grown-ups were very tolerant of us.”


Next to the teahouse was the small Zhuhang Restaurant, which was considered the best eatery on the street.


“The dishes were very cheap,” recalled Dai. “The best meat dish cost only 0.35 yuan (5 US cents). The menu had boiled pork knuckles, deep-fried hairtail and braised meatballs with soy sauce.”


Locals in that age didn’t eat out a lot, so most of the restaurant’s business came from visitors. The noodle soup was the exception.


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Costing only 0.15 yuan a bowl, the soup was made fresh daily from pork bones. Just before serving, noodles, green vegetables and slice meat were added.


“In a time of periodic food shortages, nothing was more delicious than a bowl of noodle soup,” said Dai. “Nowadays, we can enjoy such things at any time, but that soup from the past still lingers in my mind as something special.”


Older residents can’t quite pinpoint when the old street began to deteriorate. The change came slowly as urban development rolled across the landscape of Shanghai’s rural suburbs. Most of the residents today are either old-timers disinclined to move and migrant workers looking for cheap housing.


Ten years ago, as the environment of the old street worsened, the wisteria was relocated to a another neighborhood. Nobody paid much attention when an icon of history was gone.


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Redevelopment plans for the area don’t include restoring Zhuhang Old Street to its former appearance. It will simply cease to exist. Migrants and residents alike will be relocated to new apartments before bulldozers arrive.


“I hear that the dismantling will start soon,” said Dai. “We respect the government’s decision. Memories of the past will be stored in my heart, and no matter where I am moved, I will come back to Minhang to see the wisteria.”


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