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September 16, 2023

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A stroll down Yuyuan Road is more than a stroll. It’s a trip through Shanghai’s essence

AUTHOR and scholar Xu Jinjiang knows almost every stretch of Yuyuan Road that connects the Jing’an and Changning districts, one of the busiest areas in Shanghai.

The retired researcher with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences recently published his new book “Civilization of Shanghai City” (上海城记), his third book on the road.

The work discusses the relationship between urban development and people it affects. Xu believes the road epitomizes the melting pot of old and new, tradition and modern in Shanghai.

It also sets a good example about how we should deal with old zones in a metropolis.

Shanghai Daily talked to Xu about his new book and his nostalgia for his neighborhood.

Q: Why did you choose Yuyuan Road as a starting point to study Shanghai?

A: Mostly because it’s the place where I once lived. To me, it’s like a “toy” that I can enjoy not only as beer and skittles but also from an academic viewpoint. You won’t get bored and you will always find new things even if you have roamed a thousand times.

I believe that the history and stories of Shanghai lie in this road. You could say that Yuyuan Road is a key to studying the city. You know enough about one road and then you go on to others, and when you learn 10, 20 to even 30 roads in the city, you’ll begin to grasp what happened in the sea of history.

Q: What do you think is the most fascinating about Yuyuan Road?

A: I absolutely love its complexity. During the first half of the last century, the road crossed foreign concessions, which means that different political and cultural influences met there. The congeniality and conflict that resulted created stories more exciting than fiction.

It was a place where the heads of different political parties lived, where spies were extremely active and where assassinations happened occasionally — a place where writers such as Eileen Chang lived to write great works.

Typical Shanghai lane culture also developed along the road. The layout of the lanes on Yuyuan Road was quite special. Townhouses inhabited by middle-class families occupied most areas of the lane, but often they were punctuated by grand villas with magnificent gardens occupied by the rich and powerful. Their different lifestyles and thinking affected each other and created the unique lane culture that somehow still lingers today.

Finally, Yuyuan Road is a community rather than a commercial area. It has schools, hospitals and other amenities that allowed residents to spend their whole lives there. The lifetime stories are very, very fascinating.

Q: How do you study the road?

A: My method comes down to four aspects: cultural relics, documents, senior residents and field work.

Relics include old construction and sometimes ancient trees. Documents include both written and video content, which I have collected from libraries, archives and memoirs. Senior residents still carry living history in their minds, usually dating from around 1949 but not much earlier, which is a pity. And field work usually means walking to discover new elements.

Now my biggest problem is that many documents aren’t accessible to the public, such as the architectural plans of some old houses. I hope that one day such information will be made available, at least to scholars doing research.

Q: Have you received any help from Yuyuan Road locals during your research?

A: Yes, residents, both older and younger, have helped me a lot. In fact, they have started a chat group online to share what they know about Yuyuan Road and its development, which inspires me a lot.

One of the locals is the owner of a lighting shop, and she made me a light board with my name on it to celebrate the release of my new book. People are the treasures of Yuyuan Road.

Q: What do you think is needed as the city continues to modernize?

A: When making decisions on urban planning, we should always put people and culture first. On the one hand, it’s necessary to improve living conditions, but on the other, we need to understand why some elderly people grasped their door plates and cry when moved out of their old homes.

Vast urban renovation has meant people losing the homes where they have lived most of their lives. We should cherish the nostalgia they feel. We don’t want to protect culture just for protection’s sake, but ultimately for its people.

Q: What do you think of current city renovation plans? Is there room for improvement?

A: In my opinion, yes, there is still space for improvement.

In the beginning of urban renewal, some old areas were razed and replaced with new buildings. Then heritage considerations came into play, and we began to protect single buildings, even as their surroundings underwent radical change. Nowadays, some heritage sites are kept whole.

However, I still feel that it is not enough. People have been moved out for renovations. Houses remain, but residents are gone. Communities become scenic spots. That’s the part that I don’t like.

Many people love their old homes, old neighbors and old communities, and their needs are as significant as those of sightseers. I hope that, in the future, their needs will be taken into consideration.

Q: What are your future research plans?

A: The “Civilization of Shanghai City” is a bit of a theoretical work about urban planning. For my next book, I want to talk about something more accessible to the public. It could be a sort of guidebook to Yuyuan Road and its communities, introducing its scenery, gardens and constructions. I also want to write a book about the history of how the road started as a rural watertown and evolved into a Shanghai landmark.


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