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October 17, 2015

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Faded palaces and stores prime candidates for retro revival

I couldn’t help but feel a bit nostalgic on reading reports this week that one of Shanghai’s Cultural Palaces in Putuo District would be shutting its doors for much-needed renovations. The story was really just a newspaper photo with a caption, underscoring just how irrelevant these Soviet-era buildings with grandiose and idealistic names have become in modern China.

Many of these buildings have long ago fallen off the map for both locals and out-of-town visitors, despite their Disney-esque quality that makes many seem like theme park attractions in today’s Shanghai. As a history lover and also someone who actually visited and used many of these establishments when they were still relevant, I would propose that local officials take advantage of this need for repairs to do something different with these sites as they undergo renovations.

Such a move could put these vintage destinations back on city maps, providing an interesting new destination for local residents and out-of-town visitors to modern Shanghai if they are packaged and promoted properly.

I’ve never actually visited the Cultural Palace on Caoyang Raod that’s being closed for repairs, but the site is apparently still popular among locals for outings and other entertainment. It was built in 1959, just 10 years after the founding of the current China, when the country was still on relatively good terms with the Soviet Union.

Accordingly, the building has grandiose Soviet-style architecture featuring a sharply rising gate with a pillared tower at the top to match its lofty role as a palace for cultural activities for everyday people. The style is reminiscent of Shanghai’s other main Soviet-era relic, the massive Shanghai Exhibition Center with its towering main hall on Nanjing Road W. That building was completed in 1955, and for decades was Shanghai’s tallest building.

Other buildings with similar Soviet-style names, if not actual architecture, include two Shanghai Children’s Palaces, one on Yuyuan Road and the other Yan’an Road W., both set up in the 1950s in former mansions as a place for children to learning performing arts. Then there are the Friendship Stores, which have largely disappeared, though there’s still at least one antique-oriented branch in the Jing’an Temple area.

Some of my earliest memories of China revolve around these places, both in Shanghai and in Beijing when I first came here in the 1980s. During that time, the massive Beijing Friendship Store on Jianguomenwai Street was a regular stop in my weekly routine, as it was one of the few places to buy foreign-style food products in China. I was also a regular visitor to the Soviet-era Friendship Hotel in Beijing, as it was one of the few places with a barbershop that catered to Westerners.

During my brief tenure as a tour guide in the early 1990s, I also took several of my groups to one of Shanghai’s Children’s Palaces. On entering the building, we were always greeted by smiling teachers and cheerful youngsters, who performed various acts of singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. Of course most of us believed that the show was an act put on for foreigners, but that didn’t stop it from having a certain charm.

Fast forward to the present, when most of these buildings and establishments have become largely hidden and neglected. Despite living in the city for six years, I have never set foot in any of the buildings I described above except for a couple of visits to the Exhibition Center, once to attend the Shanghai version of the National People’s Congress and the other time to attend a book fair.

I’ve been tempted to look inside the Jing’an Friendship Store once or twice, but I’m always in a hurry and put it off for another time. The reality is that the store looks quite dated, at least from the outside, and there are far more choices to buy antiques and other arts and crafts at better prices and with more selection. I’ve never even considered visiting a Cultural or Children’s Palace, usually because such places are often closed to the general public and chase you away if you actually try to visit.

At the end of the day, these places really do have an important role to play in documenting Shanghai’s history, as they’re some of the few remaining relics of a brief era when everything was grand and bold, and everything belonged to the masses. I doubt too many people actually wish for a return to that era, which is perhaps why many of these buildings and the styles and ideas they represent have become so neglected. Still, perhaps the city could find a way to refurbish and style them in a retro sort of way that might appeal to a younger generation, providing a new historical attraction in this city with such a rich and colorful past.


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