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November 16, 2009

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Longtangs get Expo face-lift

IT'S full speed ahead with downtown construction, renovation, prettifying and sprucing up to get ready for World Expo 2010 Shanghai.

Renovations range from the lofty Bund landmarks to the smallest sycamore-shaded corners - the longtangs or lane communities.

Longtangs are Shanghai's signature architecture and not many remain as land is developed and showcase skyscrapers take their place.

They are the shoulder-to-shoulder, intimate homes and neighborhoods of ordinary people and they are the heart of the city.

Foreigners may be charmed by the signs of domestic life in these crowded residences - clothes hung out to dry, makeshift vegetable stands, squash vines on a trellis, cats wandering around, tiny restaurants and businesses, and home-made extensions or yards where old people sun themselves or play mahjong.

But these untidy evidences of authentic, somewhat down-at-the-heels life have long been a thorn in the side of Shanghai governments - they are the opposite of what cosmopolitan Shanghai likes to call "civilized" behavior and living.

The Expo theme is "Better City, Better Life," so it behooves the government to improve the lives of its citizens living in longtang.

There are less charming aspects of lane living, to be sure - like rubbish thrown outside, odors, communal facilities, chamber pots and decades-old drainage systems.

Xuhui District is tackling these problems with a major renovation of one of its most densely populated longtang areas.

Hunan Subdistrict covers 1.7 square kilometers of the heart of the city, including Fuxing, Huaihai and Changle roads, among others.

The two-year, 50-million-yuan (US$7.3 million) project is overhauling 164 longtang communities.

With 30 neighborhoods left to go, the aim is to finish everything by Spring Festival and in time for the six-month Expo opening on May 1. Shanghai's longtang life will be promoted and visitors will want to see the real thing.

So longtangs are getting a face-lift; they're getting cleaned up and provided with plumbing. Laundry is no longer to be hung out to dry on bamboo poles from windows - there will be designated areas.

Encroachments like vendors, home-built enclosing walls and other obstructions on the central of the pathway are removed. Business can still operate, but indoors. Ramshackle extensions are torn down.

Every effort is made to restore the areas to their original appearance.

The project has been held up by Chinese media and neighboring districts as an example to follow, as it combines historical restoration with fundamental renovations of water and drainage systems.

"All our longtangs lie in a special historical protection area," says Cai Wei, director of renovations in Hunan Subdistrict.

The elderly represent around 30 percent of the population, a particularly high proportion, she notes.

"They have special security and comfort needs. We had to devise a renovation that would welcome visitors during the Expo to enjoy our historical heritage, while improving the reality of people's living conditions."

The result is far from shabby chic. While renovators recognize that it's not about giving everything a new lick of paint, it all does look very new. The lanes have mostly been repaved, and external walls retreated.

In some historically important areas the original grainy Shanghai plaster texture has been brought out.

Moreover, residents have been told to shape up and end their sloppy habits.

"Every longtang has set up its own self-elected and self-regulating committee to make sure nothing goes awry. The many exits and entry points in these non-walled residence communities are considered a threat to security. They are now guarded by local volunteers," says Cai.

"With the elevation of the physical environment, residents also take more pride in being more civilized. Once we create the right support for the residents' everyday problems, like laundry racks, bin covers and so on, they're happy to cooperate," says Cai.

The nuts and bolts are handled by Xufang Construction, a state enterprise, and this has been a learning process for them.

For the past four years the company has been renovating longtang across downtown Shanghai.

Historical documentation of the past is scarce in these communities, however, renovators have drawn on collective memories of the residents, old photos and old craftsmen.

According to Cai, the oldest tradesman consulted was in his 70s and "though the materials we used were new, the skills were traditional."

Even where documentation does exist, as for 288 Wuyuan Road (former residence of famed cartoonist Zhang Leping), renovators have no qualms in merging new creations with old restorations.

Xufang Construction has commissioned stone engravings of Zhang's most famous character, Sanmao, to decorate the community.

With the latest improvements, more of Shanghai's charmingly unselfconscious areas are disappearing. In their stead will be more modern facilities and a gleaming tidiness.


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