As the birthplace of many of China’s earliest industries, Shanghai has many valuable historic buildings built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They include former company headquarters, earliest chambers of commerce, luxury residences and the earliest middle schools. The mostly wooden and brick structures have fine ornamentation that is rare in modern buildings. Some of the decor have special meanings.
Shanghai has 4,422 protected historic structures, including 29 national level sites — far more than any other city in the country. Some 3,266 of the city’s protected structures were built after 1840. But only a few have truly been protected.
“Many of the buildings were damaged or destroyed during redevelopment, while preservation efforts for other buildings suffered due to lack of government funds,” said Hu Jinjun, director general of the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage.
Apart from some historic buildings related to famous figures, many of the structures have been dismantled or damaged to give way to modern urban development. Some have been demolished despite protests from both residents and media while others have been abandoned so they rot and collapse.
Some developers have even dismantled shikumen buildings in order to rebuild them in a similar style to make more money. Jianyeli Lane on Jianguo Road in Xuhui District is a prime example. A developer has razed most of the original homes that had been granted heritage protection in 1994. Now the lane mostly contains newly built villas for lease.
“They are actually fake historic buildings with no value,” said Ruan Yisan, director of the National Historic Cities Research Center of Tongji University.
Ruan says another trick developers commonly use is to hollow out historic buildings, leaving behind only the original gates, roofs and front walls.
Li Zhen, a historic building protection professor with Tongji University, says a lack of money, awareness and technology has put many structures at risk.
Each year, both the city and district governments allocate funds to protect heritage buildings, but it’s never enough due to the large number of structures and the high cost of restoring each one, Li says.
The city government spent 50 million yuan (US$8 million), for instance, to restore the Shanghai Concert Hall, built in 1930 on Yan’an Rd E. Restoration work included moving the whole structure about 66 meters to make way for subway construction in 2003.
Furthermore, many of the historic structures are in the heart of the city where developers can make significantly more money by redeveloping such sites.
However, there is still a gleam of hope.
The local legislative body has approved the first draft of the Shanghai Cultural Relics Protection Law, which stipulates owners of protected buildings cannot change the facade, structure or inner decor of the buildings.
Both the owner and government department responsible for the building’s protection will be penalized for breaking the new law. The city has also begun installing sensors on historic buildings, including Longhua pagoda, to better protect the structures.
Maritime Merchant Guild
Area: about 500 square meters
First built: 1761
Location: 38 Huiguan Rd
This was the city’s earliest chamber for shipping bosses during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It was once the biggest and most luxurious club in the city. It included a two-story stage and a 200-square-meter assembly hall in another building.
The building is now in poor condition. Six demolition workers in charge of removal work of other nearby buildings now live in the former chamber. Cats and mice run across the stage that was once used for Peking Opera performances.
First built: In 1860s by Shen Yisheng, a shipping merchant from Fujian Province
Location: Huayi Street
The 150-year-old downtown home was nearly torn down in 2012 by real estate developers, but the district government intervened following media reports. The roof and walls of the three-story wooden structure have been removed, but some delicate sculptures of flowers and patterns on pillars and beams and other relics have been saved.
Jianyeli Lane, with its stone gates and dormer windows, is typical of traditional Shanghai housing. It was granted heritage protection in 1994. However, about 3,000 residents and some businesses were relocated from the 260 original apartments that suffered structural problems like rot. The developer then razed and replaced most of the original buildings to turn the area into villas for lease and commercial space. Some original materials — including 40,000 bricks — had been used in the new buildings.
Minli Middle School
First built: The structure was built by brothers Qiu Xinshan and Qiu Weiqing, two paint industry tycoons, in 1920 at 412 Weihai Road. There were originally two homes here but one was demolished in the 1990s to make space for new classrooms.
Current location: 57 meters southeast of the original location.
The three-story structure was rolled on rail tracks to the new location in 2009 to make room for a commercial project which is still under construction. The heritage structure is expected to become a landmark of the new project.
The neighborhood has nearly been torn down after some 1,000 residents were relocated. The neighborhood will become a public park. Several shikumen stone-lane buildings will be rebuilt and used as stores or cultural centers inside the park. The neighborhood was never listed for protection by the city’s cultural heritage authority. Most of the homes were dilapidated before demolishing work started.
Known as the crumbling Secluded Library, this was home to Lu Xixiong, one of the greatest scholars of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It is believed to be the city’s oldest residence identified thus far. It also contained a famous library, and there still are some books and crumbling furnishings on the second floor. It is one of eastern China’s three ancient libraries. The other two are in Ningbo and Nanxun, Zhejiang Province.
Three seniors own and live in the building.
St Mary’s Hall (St Mary’s girls school)
Area: 64,000 square meters
First built: 1923
Location: 1187 Changning Rd, near Zhongshan Park
This was China’s first girls school. Famous graduates included Eileen Chang (1920-95), a renowned contemporary writer. Six former school buildings were dismantled by a developer in 2009 under protests from nearby residents. Only a bell tower that was listed as a protected building remains. A Changning district education official said the developer had the right to demolish the other buildings because they were not protected like the bell tower.
Former Shanghai Chamber of Commerce
Area: 9,000 square meters
First built: 1912
Location: Suzhouhe Rd N. The building was originally composed of exhibition halls, shopping malls and a chamber of commerce. The chamber had more than 100 members from Shanghai and Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. It had two three-story concrete buildings in a baroque style. It was once the most popular gathering place for the city’s business circle. The building was put under the hammer in 2005 with a starting price of 100 million yuan (US$16.05 million) but there were no bidders. It remains in a shabby condition along Suzhou Creek.