Baoshan District in northern Shanghai, best known as the home of China’s steel titan Baosteel, also has attractions with deep cultural roots, from museums of art and design to rural towns, and a new town that looks like old Scandinavia.
Luodian, in north Baoshan, is a popular part of the district. The trading town has a 700-year history. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), an entrepreneur named Luo Sheng opened the town’s first store and inn, which prospered due to their proximity to waterway commerce.
Markets and other businesses opened and, by the end of the Yuan Dynasty, there were about 700 businesses in Luodian. Producing cotton cloth became the most important industry. The town also became a key location for trading cotton and other textiles.
Today, with some patience, you can still find traces of wharves that were one of the foundations of a past economy so prosperous that the town was widely called “Golden Luodian.” The town was also famous for making dragon boats.
The town’s importance, however, meant that it was the site of battles during nine major wars from the beginning of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).
The battle against Japanese invaders raged in Luodian for 37 days, destroying more than 1,200 houses and historical buildings and killing many people.
“This town is built from the wreckage. It was a sad beginning since, even though we decided unswervingly to create a better future, we are now no longer as we were. Still it is a vibrant and charming town, I believe,” says a local official.
The town is now divided into old and new areas, each with its own charms.
Luodian New Town is quickly emerging as a culture magnet with some northern European flair.
Take Metro Line 7 about half an hour from downtown Shanghai to the northern Meilan Lake Station and you’ll find yourself amid old Swedish-style architecture and a tranquil lake reminiscent of the fairy world of Danish author and poet Hans Christian Andersen.
The area, also called Luodian Northern European New Town, covers 6.8 square kilometers. Its green area, with lawns and forests, is equal to the space built upon.
The new town includes a winding causeway that’s reminiscent of the beautiful Su Causeway in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. The 2,000-meter causeway is planted with silk trees and acacia trees that frame views of beautiful Lake Malaren, a man-made lake of 200,000 square meters.
The town’s main street features fashion boutiques and designer brands while other areas includes restaurants, pubs and entertainment facilities.
In recent years, the new town also attracts a lot of couples with its exotic architectural style to take wedding pictures at Lake Malaren Shanghai Painters’ Village and Lake Malaren Asian Wedding Photography Bases.
Not quite like picturesque water towns popular with tourists, Luodian Old Town is slightly shabby. It takes some work to find the charm under the ordinary veneer, but it’s there.
The center of the old town still has some ancient bridges, memorial gateways and homes that reflect its past glory, while the whitewashed houses and tree-lined waterway banks are enjoyable.
The area’s rich cultural heritage was not wiped out by wars, and can still be seen and enjoyed by visitors to Luodian. There are many artists and artisans who are dedicated to preserving this heritage.
Luodian is famous for the many artistic types of lanterns that are made in the town. Steel wire frames are covered with different material such as silk, paper and chiffon to give life to vivid figures.
Zhu Lingbao, 71, has been creating lanterns for 30 years and he remains passionate about the art. Every year during Chinese traditional festivals like the Chinese Lunar New Year and Dragon Boat Festival, Zhu barely has time to eat and sleep. He has to prepare his newly designed lanterns for the locals in Baoshan to showcase.
“To make a lantern takes not only time but a lot of energy and thought,” he says. “You have to think about which color or fabric the lantern is going to ‘wear’ and it involves many traditional crafts including paper cutting, carving and Chinese painting.”
Luodian started as a small fishing village, and when the fishermen came home late, they needed candles to guide them. Because of the wind, they usually make a cover for the candles, giving birth to the first lanterns. Later on, the lanterns became more and more sophisticated so that in the Ming Dynasty, they were more of a piece of art than a practical light.
During the Qing Dynasty, lanterns became so popular that not only professional craftsmen but also amateurs started to make them.
Hundreds of kinds of lanterns bloomed including those resembling architecture, birds, flowers and almost every imaginable type of object. One tall lantern had 13 layers with more than ten candles inside.
Today, lantern culture is still popular among the Luodian residents. They have lantern-making classes for students and during weddings or festivals the locals like to hang out lanterns to make the celebration more joyous.
“Luodian lanterns are so colorful that sometimes people may find them a little gaudy or not as sophisticated as lanterns in Suzhou that used to be hung up in palaces. But it’s very different. In Luodian, the lanterns are always used in celebrations or sacrificial ceremonies, so the color ought to be distinct and dazzling,” Zhu says.
Local craftsman like to use their life experiences in the town in the creation of lanterns, rendering each lantern a unique expression with styles — exaggerated or lifelike — that tell a story or are inspired by the vibrant culture of the town.
During this year’s Dragon Boat Festival, nearly 300 lanterns with folk art characteristics made in Luodian lit up Lake Malaren, with the Yangwang Temple Fair set widely considered the most notable.
Zhu made this set of lanterns, with a total length of 18 meters, over three years.
The Yangwang Temple Fair set showcases the grand occasion of in Luodian’s past with live bands, a parade, people bustling around having a look, horses and more. Zhu designed everything in accordance with historical accounts he could find and asked a painter to create the images.
In the lantern set, each outfit, figure or tool was made to a 1:6 scale so that people would learn more about the history and tradition of Luodian in a vivid way.
The original Baoshan Temple was built in 1511 and known as Tang’s Villa, but Tang’s descendants later changed it into a Buddhist temple. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times, and in 2006, the government started construction on a new one in an ancient style.
The new Baoshan Temple, with sublime architecture and quiet gardens, is so tranquil you can even hear the bells chime on the roof in the breeze.
The temple is in late Tang Dynasty architectural style and constructed from African rosewood.
“There are more than 13,000 cubic meters of timber that have been used in its construction and there is no rush to complete it. Each part of this temple goes stringently by the late Tang architectural style, according to references and books,” says Shiliang, the abbot.
The temple covers a total area of 12,000 square meters and it is almost finished. A temple park with a wooden pagoda are expected to be added in about two years.
Baoshan temple was constructed without any nails, instead using mortise and tenon joints to connect the timber.
“In the past, there were so many wars and battles that it is hard to find wooden architecture well preserved, so now we want to build one,” says Abbot Shiliang.
Visitors are not allowed to burn candles or incense in the temple to protect the wooden architecture, according to officials.