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July 20, 2019

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Former residents walk down memory lane

ZHOU Jingruo, 63, is trying to find former neighbors who once lived in a residential complex on Nanyang Road in Shanghai’s Jing’an District. After the complex was demolished two decades ago, neighbors who had lived there for about half a century were dispersed and lost contact.

Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the Nanjing Road W. business zone, Nanyang Road is a narrow backstreet unknown to most people. Yet the 500-meter lane between Shaanxi Road N. and Tongren Road has a history of 113 years.

Covered with the crowns of Chinese parasols, the two sides of the road are packed with a kindergarten, several snack shops, fashion stores, an American-style rib house and the backside of Plaza 66.

For Zhou, memories lay behind the fences, where some century-old houses remain intact, even though his own home is long gone.

His house, now the Plaza 66 site, was Nanyang Residential Quarters, built in the late 1930s. The construction there resembled old townhouses in North America.

“Houses in Shanghai at that time were usually equipped with wooden window panes, but most of ours had steel panes, which were a favorite feature of the house,” Zhou said.

Before being relocated about 10 kilometers from Nanyang Road, Zhou and his family had lived in the complex for more than 40 years.

“Back then, families were close to each other and developed strong mutual trust,” he said. “I remember that some families always left their doors open. We children used their homes as clubhouses and they never got angry.”

Such sweet memories motivated Zhou to try to find old neighbors. Social media sites make the search easier than ever. Within two months, he managed to get in touch with dozens of old schoolmates, playmates of his sisters and many other old neighbors.

Sun Yan was one of them. Her maternal grandparents fled their hometown, Changzhou in Jiangsu Province, after the Japanese army invaded the city in the late 1930s. They moved to Shanghai and settled on Nanyang Road, where she was born in 1953.

“My grandfather, who had factories in Changzhou, decided to leave the house to my uncles, and my mother had no right of inheritance,” Sun said. “But then, all of my uncles left Shanghai and never came back. One even left twin daughters for my mother to raise. That’s why I got to stay in the house until relocation.”

Zhou and Sun recalled that many of their neighbors were small business owners. Some owned factories in neighboring cities; others opened clinics or shops.

One of the more memorable residents was a doctor named Chen Fangzhi. He was director of public health in the ministry of home affairs under the Kuomintang government. In his 60s, he opened a clinic in his home and neighbors were his patients.

“But the one I miss the most is a lady surnamed Jin,” Sun recalled. “I have ever known a woman as tender and elegant as she was. She dressed in simple qipao and had gold-rimmed spectacles. She was kind to all the children living in the lane.”

Most of the residents’ fortunes could never compare with the Pei family, who lived in what was known as the “white mansion,” and the Zhang family in the “red mansion.”

Zhou and Sun still remember things about both families.

Today the two mansions have been listed as “immovable historical relics” of Shanghai, among a few other lane houses on the road.

The “white mansion” is now the Pei Mansion Hotel. A high fence gives the mansion great privacy. From outside, there is no building in sight at all. But a walk through a narrow gate reveals a three-story white building at the end of a large garden.

Built in 1934, the house was originally owned by banker Tsuyee Pei, father of architect I.M. Pei, designer of the Louvre Pyramid in Paris.

The “red mansion” is a Queen Anne-style villa with red bricks on the facade. Also built in the 1930s and now hidden in a lane, the mansion has retained its interior decor, including a lion-head sculpture on the staircase handrail.

The house once belonged to Zhang Lanping. It has since been restored by She House, a studio that specializes at handling old houses.

A reliable source who declined to be identified said the two mansions and a “green house” on Tongren Road all belonged to three people from the same pigment company, who were linked by marriage. After World War I, the owners were Pei Runsheng, brother of Tsuyee; Zhang Lanping, financial officer of the company; and D.V. Woo, owner of the “green house” who made his fortune in the pigment business.

After the “red mansion” was built, Zhang named it Gai Lu, which means “the terrace house.”

The source said the Zhang family actually built another house behind the “red mansion” to hold all the family members and servants. But that structure has since been demolished and today is the site of the Guolu Building on Beijing Road W.

“Gai Lu went through a lot before it was finally sold,” the source said. “Parts of the mansion were taken over by a zipper factory, and later a copy machine factory and a hostel.”

Most of Zhang’s descendants have since emigrated overseas.

Among the hoi polloi of the old lane, a reunion is being planned in October, with former neighbors coming from far and wide.

“Some of them are over 80 and don’t remember many neighbors,” Zhou said. “But the sweet memories of Nanyang Road still remain with all of us.”


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