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December 27, 2011

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Savoring the sights in Old Town

THE Old Town area is the historical core of Shanghai that included the old walled city, and visitors can still appreciate life in the slow lane along narrow winding streets, with names like Cotton Street, Ham Street and Dog Meat Street. Chen Ye goes for a stroll.

History professor Gu Xiaoming recently paid a visit to the Old Town area and says he cannot recognize many places in the former Nanshi District.

"I really enjoy wandering about in the old neighborhood, because each street is a piece of history," says the retired professor from Fudan University. "And the vibrant daily life there represents what real Shanghai is and used to be."

However, fast urban development has made dramatic changes to the historic area, the oldest part of Shanghai, since Nanshi District was merged into Huangpu District in 2000.

Still, all history hasn't been bulldozed and there are places where one can appreciate narrow, winding streets with colorful descriptive names like Cotton Street, Dog Meat Street, Ham Street - indicating past and current functions.

The former Nanshi District was the historical root of Shanghai. It included the old, walled city as well as the nearby docklands on both sides of the Huangpu River.

"(Nanshi) Old Town is the real birthplace of Shanghai culture," says Professor Gu, from the Cultural Heritage Protection Department of Fudan University. "And most people have some connection."

In old Shanghai, Beishi (north of city) was said to be "the paradise for foreign adventurers" and Nanshi (south of city) "the heaven for local entrepreneurs."

The Old Town area contains many intriguing and famous elements.

Shiliupu (16 stores or docs) Dock used to be the biggest port in China and East Asia. At one time as many as 27 docks were planned for fishermen, salt dealers, farmers and merchants. But actually 16 were needed, and soon Shiliupu Dock became a popular market.

Gu contrasts the Old Town area with the Lujiazui in the Pudong New Area, which he says "is not a successful example of reconstruction because the entire area lost its own characteristics and became a financial center for people living a fast-paced life."

Fortunately, the Old Town area has retained some of its characteristics.

Today's Jingye Middle School is the original site of Shenjiang Shuyuan (Shenjiang College) built in 1748 in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

In 1851, the city's earliest commercial theater Sanya Hall was established at the intersection of Sipailou Road and Fangbang Road M. Further, the Second People's Hospital is the first Western medicine hospital established by Shanghai locals.

Even today, the well-known Bus No. 11 still plies a loop that takes in tourist destinations such as Yu Garden, Wenmiao and the Bund.

Professor Gu has taken part in many conferences about how to rebuild the Old Town area to retain its original appeal.

"Reconstruction is good but maintaining an appearance consistent with history and improving internal structures and facilities is better," Gu says.

Quaint names

Many of the streets in the area retain quaint names that describe their original (and current) functions; many are named after the goods sold on the streets. Huayi Street sells cotton and textiles, Gouyu Alley sells dog meat, Huotui Street sells ham, Luxi Street sells reed mat, among others.

"Different types of structures require different restoration methods, but they should retain the general appearance or style of the period; an authentic feel is more important," says Ruan Yisan, a celebrated urban planning professor at Shanghai Tongji University.

In the mid-1990s, the area was designated for two areas - new neighborhoods and old neighborhoods.

One decisive criteria was the old shared toilet facilities (no sewage system): Those with shared toilets belong to the old neighborhoods and would retain the original glamor; and the ones with independent toilets are in new neighborhoods and can be restored.

"I always asking myself whether good reconstruction and preservation should make this old town a golden egg," Ruan says. "The answer is absolutely 'no'."

If reconstruction aims to benefit the tourism industry, then rebuilding these old houses and structures becomes meaningless, he says.

There's no rational plan for land use, he says, adding that sometimes it's easier for the government to knock down an old building and make way for development than to restore it.

The Old Town area is valuable as a cultural and historical resource that should be left for future generations to appreciate, Ruan says.


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