In-between F&B hotspots Wujiang Lu and Fengshen Li sits a quiet shikumen compound called Zhang Yuan (张园, "Zhang Garden"). For expats, it's best known as Zhang Yuan 99, a complex where Tomatito, Little Catch Poke Cafe, and naked Hub are based. Its history runs a little deeper than that. It's where the first electric light in Shanghai flickered on; it hosted the first Western-style group wedding; and it was the location of the first public speech by a woman.
After a series of proposed renovations however, roundly expected to occur in 2018, the area will be Shanghai's latest "next Xintiandi."
High Hopes for Low Architecture
Zhang Yuan is widely regarded as Shanghai's largest, best preserved, and most diverse shikumen compound. It still houses a tight-knit 'old community' lifestyle, right in the center of Shanghai, even as modern skyscrapers and shopping malls shoot up around it. Despite its prime location, the houses here are worn-out and cheap to rent.
Enter the municipal government, which has presented a plan to the area's residents for massive renovations. In 2018, the core area of Zhang Yuan — the middle 56,307 sqm area to be precise — is slated for massive restructuring, re-imagining the place as a commercial hub: The "Xintiandi of Jing'an." Currently, the government is planning to organize consultations among residents regarding compensations and relocation. If the majority of the residents vote "yes", then local government will carry out their plans.
The general feeling is that Zhang Yuan has seen better days. Over the most recent decades of massive change and development in Shanghai, Zhang Yuan has lost its glamour. A few residents that I talked to are not even completely aware of the big plans for their neighborhood. The younger ones tend to be unconcerned — not surprising as some of them can't even read the characters quickly fading from the building facades. Older residents, having witnessed the best times of their neighborhood and how it has fallen into disrepair, have already put big price tags on their properties.
Some residents are clearly struggling at the poverty line, with migrant laborers and elderly citizens comprising the majority of the tenant population. At night, the inside of Zhang Yuan is lit up by just a handful of street lights. You can see residents cooking or doing laundry outside of their front doors in between the grimy alley lanes. Around the corner in the dazzling shopping malls, diners hover indecisively between having yakiniku or dana pirzola for dinner.
A Bygone Center of Shanghai's Cultural Life
Zhang Yuan's history is a rich store of anecdotes and a LOT of monumental "firsts". The legacy of its former occupants is still recorded on a few crumpling stone plaques here and there. Originally named "Arcadia Hall", Zhang Yuan was built by a British merchant in the late 1870s. Its modern name came in 1882, when it was sold to Wuxi businessman Zhang Honglu as a private garden, and expanded to over 40,000 square meters at its zenith.
From the time it opened to the public in 1885 up to the early 20th century, Zhang Yuan was regarded as the most well-known place for entertainment activities and cultural diversions in Shanghai. Basically, a really big garden with tons of fun — until things got a bit political, of course. The now-Wujiang Lu was also part of it. Aside from being the first choice of venue when foreign circuses came to town, it was also the first place in Shanghai to have electric lights installed; the first garden to host a Western-style group wedding; and the go-to choice for "cut off your queue" parties. ("Queues" were the dominant male hairstyle during the Qing dynasty.) Several far-reaching historical events occurred in Zhang Yuan. Ones rarely talked about today.
The idea of the Xinhai Revolution is said to be have been birthed here, as political activists organized large-scale public meetings at Zhang Yuan back in the late 1890s. In 1901, a student named Xue Jinqin jumped on stage during an anti-Russia gathering, marking the very first time a woman delivered a public speech in China. She was only 16 years old. The iconic speech was praised by newspapers and paved the way for Chinese women to become involved in politics. Fast forward to 1917, when renowned painter Liu Haisu launched China's first nude painting exhibition in Zhang Yuan — a controversial gesture that also made him a pioneer in introducing nude models to teaching Chinese art. Liu was slammed by art academics at the time but now, decades later, we have a museum named after him.
Throughout the decades, and despite the social changes whirling around it, Zhang Yuan has embodied the characteristics of classic Shanghai. The eroded calligraphy inscribed on the lane house façades are fading, though, and the areas is gearing up to represent a very different Shanghai. Pay this one a visit before it's gone entirely.