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Ancient town to come back to life
By Wing Tan

BY enjoying a show of Kunqu Opera in the Yiyuan Garden, sipping a cup of green tea in the tea house and exploring the past glory in ancient wood-carving buildings, people will be able to recapture the old days of the Cangcheng Ancient Town.

As one of Shanghai’s 32 historic and cultural sites, the ancient town, formerly a busy shipping center in Songjiang’s Yongfeng Community, is undergoing a major facelift.

In its heyday, it was a grain shipping center and a storage site of rice for the southern bank of Yangtze River. It was built along the canals, houses, temples and bridges that were mushrooming during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

A recent survey shows that Cangcheng has 129 cultural heritage sites. They are the gifts of history but also serve as a setback for its development, which is evident because it sits just opposite the prosperous Songjiang New Town.

“For a long time, we were a sideshow, a foil of the new town,” a director officer of the Yongfeng Community said. “But it also has a bright side — we have been given enough time to think about how to develop without destroying the heritage at the same time.”

In 2008, the renovation and protection project was brought onto the local government’s timetable. It is scheduled to invest 3 billion yuan (US$482 million) to renovate the old town and relocate about 10,000 families from old and dilapidated houses within 10 years.

Last May the old moat was dredged and planted with a riverside green belt. Last July the pipe system project under Zhongshan Road W. was completed. The Shuicicang Temple of Lord Guan is soon to be reopened.

But this is a mere prelude to the whole construction. Old houses, zigzagging lanes, local snack eateries and many other shops and sites are about to be revived on the 1,200-year-old main street, Zhongshan Road W., which links many of the district’s tourism sites.

These include Songfang Tower, a mosque in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Zuibai Pond Park and Du’s wood-carving mansion.

“We want these ancient buildings to tell their stories,” said Jiang Lei, general manager of the Cangcheng Development and Construction Co Ltd.

Behind him hung a bird’s-eye view blueprint of the renovated Cangcheng. Covering about 20 hectares, the small city is surrounded by water on three sides and is going to have old-fashioned shops, docks and bridges.

But Jiang admitted it is impossible to accomplish a 100 percent restoration. “The key is how to use and protect the 129 heritage sites properly,” he said.

Proper use of heritage

The first step is to dismantle the illegal houses built during the 1970s and 1980s. Then residents will be relocated gradually. The heritage buildings are going to be renovated and preserved.

“Dismantling and protection are only in the early stage. The more important thing is to attract investment and manage and operate the business,” Jiang said. “And it will take 10 or even 20 years.”

Du’s wood-carving mansion is a good example. Located on the north side of Zhongshan Road W., the building was established during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It is famed for its various delicate carvings on the doors, windows, posts and handrails. It took about two years to relocate its residents and renovate the building.

Today the mansion has become a folk arts center and a base for the district’s almost 20 intangible cultural heritages. Folk artists give performances such as dragon dances, Songjiang embroidery demonstrations, shadow plays and lantern dances in the house’s backyard during festivals and holidays.

In addition, more than 200 pieces of wooden furniture from the Qing Dynasty collected from the villages are on display, open for free to visitors.

“The success of Du’s mansion greatly inspired us,” Jiang said. “Each building has its own story, which touches generations.”

In the future, visitors can try weaving in Wang’s Old House, built in the Qing Dynasty; enjoy a show of Kunqu Opera in the Yiyuan Garden; learn Chinese calligraphy with masters in the great calligrapher Lu Ji Memorial Hall; play old-fashioned lane games; and even enjoy a fashion show in the old house.

“We don’t want tourists to take a snapshot and go,” Jiang said. “We want them to stay and listen to the old houses’ stories.”

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