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September 16, 2017

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1930s Central Arcade gets a new makeover

A particularly well-lit arcade of the Edward Ezra Arcade at Nanjing and Jiujiang crossroads was widely covered by Shanghai’s English newspapers in 1930.

Recently, part of that estate was reopened to the public after a redevelopment project titled The Central. A huge glass roof which attempts to bring back the 1930s look will cover four historical buildings in the commercial block — Central Mansion, Meilun Building, Xinkang Building and Huaqiao Building — all built between 1924 and 1930.

“Encircled by Sichuan, Jiangxi, Jiujiang and Nanjing roads, this commercial block was one of the city’s earliest shopping arcades that was influenced by the early European classical arcade architecture such as Galerie Vivienne in Paris,” says Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao, author of the book “Shanghai Nanjing Road.”

The Edward Ezra Arcade, later called the Central Arcade, was designed with an iron frame and covered by a glass roof. Arcade architecture was a popular social center for the “new bourgeois class” which emerged in the early 19th century after the French Revolution and required urban public space for shops, cafes, salons and squares.

“The pedestrian arcade and crisscrossing blocks offered an attractive place for shops and pleasant lighting where people could stroll, browse and linger,” Qian says.

The estate was owned by Jewish tycoon Edward Ezra, according to director of research Wang Jian of the Institute of History at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. According to him, the Edward Ezra Central Arcade was mentioned at least twice in the city’s major Jewish publication The Israel’s Messenger in 1929 and in 1930, respectively.

“A handsome and well-lit arcade with shops on either side runs (that) parallel to the Szechuen and Kiukiang roads, covering an area of 5 mow. The site is divided up into four sections by the wide private Edward Ezra and Szechuen roads forming a covered way between Nanking and Kiukiang roads. The whole of the Ground Floor, with the exception of the Shanghai Stock Exchange premises, is occupied by modern shops with central heating,” a report in The Israel’s Messenger on February 7, 1930, said.

The report also noted that the exterior was designed by Palmer & Turner in a classical manner with well-proportioned openings, and the facade was designed keeping in mind the existing structure on the corner of Nanjing and Jiangxi roads.

That structure was Meilun Building that also came up in 1930. In the 1980s, two more floors that were similar in style were added to both the Central Mansion and the adjacent Meilun Building.

However, the popularity of shopping arcades in Europe declined with competition from large department stores or urban redevelopment. 

The Central Arcade in Shanghai also saw dramatic changes in its roles.

“After World War II which ended in 1945, a group of small vendors began congregating here selling pens, lighters, second-hand watches, clothes, etc. Soon after a large quantity of surplus American military goods was dumped here which gradually became a popular market known as the Central Market,” says Qian.

Shanghai filmmaker Pu Yu found a 1946 news footage about the market, which inspired her to make a documentary about the former shopping arcade. “The market had over 90 counters at pricey rent in the late 1940s. It was also seen in Hollywood director Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Empire of the Sun’,” says Pu.

An interesting bit about the shopping arcade came to light after the 1960s. A document at the Shanghai Archives Bureau claimed that the market later started selling “unusual, novel, rare and superior second-hand products ...”

“Products that were hard to buy elsewhere were often available in this market, which had 130 shopping counters in seven departments including clothes, medical appliances, chinaware and repair,” the archive report says.

“During the period when coupons were required to buy daily necessities such as rice, cooking oil or cloth, the market was virtually a huge ‘Taobao shop’ where locals enjoyed the pleasure of searching for goods and reasonably priced products,” says Pu.

It became an attractive market for defective goods in such a central location. The price was only half or even one-third of the market price, such as “nude batteries,” or batteries with adequate power but no wraps. Many locals found it economical to buy components one by one and then assembled a radio, an electric fan or even a bicycle.

“A bicycle cost 140 yuan (US$21) at that time (about four times a worker’s monthly salary), and a state-owned company with 200 workers was usually given a quota for bicycles for just two people. The Central Arcade did not need quota, and some customers would purchase all the parts and managed to make a bicycle at just 70 to 80 yuan,” Pu says.

The market could also fix “unrepairable stuff,” from plastic slippers, radios to table tennis bats used by Chinese world champions. The repair department later moved to Tianjin Road after the Central Arcade closed in 2005.

“The market on Nanjing Road was in the collective memory of all Shanghainese. Perhaps that is why my documentary enjoyed the highest viewing rate among the 400 episodes of old Shanghai stories,” Pu says.

Professor Qian laments that in the later part of its existence the market became chaotic and cheap compared with the glitter of the 1930s. As European shopping arcades had seen a revival over the past decades, professor Qian called for an overhaul of this majestic architectural complex, which was done by Shanghai Bund Investment (Group) Co Ltd.

After it’s completed around 2021, The Central will be a commercial landmark for upmarket shops and fine dining. The New York-based Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra recently opened a 500-square-meter Shanghai branch in the Meilun Building.

Zheng Shiling, a scholar on architecture and one of the experts supervising the project, says a glass roof will cover the cross streets of the project. While it may not be possible to restore its 1930s look, a corridor will link the historical buildings.

When the Central Arcade was “rapidly nearing completion” in the autumn of 1929, the China Press reported that there were many fine shops including a novelty store of Max Grill, who was the owner of the largest department store in Tsingtao.

“He is at present in Shanghai making arrangements to open on the first day of December a fancy goods and novelty store at 55 Nanking Road, Central Arcade, where he will stock all the latest novelties from Europe which he specially secured during his recent visit there,” the report said.

The story also noted that Grill was an old hand in the store business who “promises the Shanghai public something out of the ordinary, a novelty store that will be equal to those in the capitals of Europe, replete with all the latest hits.”

“History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes” is a quote often attributed to Mark Twain. The architectural history of Shanghai seems to confirm that.  

Yesterday: The Central Arcade

Today: The Central

Architectural style: Neo-classical

Built in: 1930

Address: 119-137 Nanjing Rd E.

Tips: Please note the similarity in architectural style between the Central Mansion and the adjacent Meilun Building.


Next building: Shanghai Power Company, September 30


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