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October 30, 2009

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Exploring old and new Xujiahui

THE commercial center of Xujiahui was built on land known as "Xu's junction," or more precisely, "property of the Xu family at the junction of two rivers."

It refers to the family of Xu Guangqi (1562-1633), a notable convert to Catholicism. Most of what is now Xujiahui in Xuhui District was once the ancestral home of Xu and his family.

Baptized by famed Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, Xu and his descendants donated large plots of land to the Catholic Church, including the site of St Ignatius Cathedral.

Pronounced in the old Shanghainese dialect, Xujiahui is called zi-ga-wei. During the 18th century it was known by Western residents as Ziccawei (English) or Zikawei (French) and is still listed in some contemporary guidebooks and literature as Zikawei.

With land donated by Xu's family and other property, the Society of Jesus established the grand cathedral as well as a complex that covers most of present-day Xujiahui. The mainly French Jesuits also built orphanages, monasteries, schools, libraries and an observatory.

The cathedral on what is now called Caoxi Road N. was one of the earliest structures, built in 1847, reconstructed in 1906. It is still called St Ignatius Cathedral, the street sign says simply "Catholic Church."

The cathedral was featured in the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg's 1987 film "Empire of the Sun."

Mass for registered believers is held every morning on weekdays and several times a day on Sundays.

It is open to sightseers on Saturday afternoons from 1pm-4pm.

Little Red House

In Xiao Hong Lou (Little Red House) on Hengshan Road, very close to Xujiahui, Nie Er composed China's national anthem, "March of the Volunteers." Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang sang into the microphone, and film stars and music idols like 1930s "golden voice" Zhou Xuan cut their 78s.

That house was the heart of China's recorded music industry, its music valley and cradle. It housed the first headquarters of an EMI subsidiary in China and later the Shanghai branch of the China Record Corp.


On the cathedral site is the Bibliotheca, part of Shanghai Library. Its distinctive villa architecture is listed as a protected building by the Shanghai government. In the 19th century the main building was the priests' residence. A smaller building housed religious books.

The city has spent four years renovating the interior: The result is a mixture of 1930s interior of cool marble and dark oak with an exterior from a much earlier period.

The library on the second floor houses the city's largest collection of old foreign language books, documents and encyclopedias. It has 560,000 volumes, transcripts and other historical documents in 20 languages dating back to 1515.

Visitors cannot enter the library without a Shanghai Library membership card. Free library tours are held on Saturdays from 2pm to 4pm.

Other notable structures include Xuhui College at 68 Hongqiao Road, now the Xuhui Middle School. Established by Jesuits in 1850, Xuhui College offered a complete Western curriculum, one of the earliest educational institutions in China to do so.

From 1949 onward, most of the large houses and estates in Xujiahui were converted into factories. The area was predominantly an industrial zone until the late 1990s when many state-owned factories were sold off and torn down.

Xujiahui now is a commercial district of downtown Shanghai. The site of a brick factory has become Xujiahui Park, completed in 2002. It contains a man-made pond, a brook basketball court and a children's playground.

In autumn and spring, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music stages free concerts in the park.

The main Xujiahui shopping district is centered around the intersection of such streets as Hongqiao, Huashan, Zhaojiabang and Caoxi roads. There are three supermarkets, six major shopping malls and nine high-rise office towers.

Everything from cosmetics to cars to cucumbers is available within five minutes, but Xujiahui is most famous for electronics. It is one of the biggest places to buy all kinds of cameras and electronics, including PSPs, XBoxes and other game consoles.

A five-minute walk to the north of this intersection takes you to famed Shanghai Jiao Tong University.


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