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Garden of delight

ZHANGYUAN Garden has had a rich, long life from its beginnings as a fashionable public garden to becoming a community center and helping preserve the city's culture, Nancy Zhang discovers.

One of Shanghai's oldest entertainment centers is getting a new lease of life in preparation for World Expo 2010. Opened to the public in 1885, Zhangyuan Garden is now a downtown community center - one of the biggest in Shanghai. Its rich, long life from its beginnings as a fashionable public garden to becoming a municipal office, and now a community center has mirrored the evolving Shanghai city life. From next month its celebrated ground floor sitting room will be turned into a museum to showcase its history.

On Taixing Road, near Nanjing Road W, Zhangyuan Garden opened as a community center last January. It was instantly popular with local residents from the many pockets of protected longtangs in the area. Set in historic architecture with a mix of late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and Western styles, it has a unique character and has attracted keen interest from the Chinese media nostalgic for community lifestyles disappearing with the longtangs in much of the city.

On Friday mornings, the sound of opera fills the hall, while retirees paint, practice calligraphy, and learn paper cutting. Some afternoons foreigners come to practice Mandarin with "new Shanghainese" - out-of-town white-collar workers. During the week housewives rent the sitting room for fan dancing and old people eat lunch for free. Subdistrict authorities have offices there to help with youth and family problems.

"Our activities are for residents in the area to showcase and encourage local Shanghainese culture. We also want to involve young people and foreigners, and show them how valuable our culture is," says Hu Lixing, an official from the Nanjing Road West Subdistrict.

Most Fridays, 96-year-old Tang Kaijie can be found at the Cultural Salon on the second floor. There he practices calligraphy, a lifelong hobby, to the acclaim of the 20 other retirees in the club. Tang has lived his entire life in the neighborhood. At the age of seven, Tang met an antiques collector who lived upstairs at his longtang. The collector gave him 50 books of calligraphy to practice with.

"When I finished those, he gave me 50 more," Tang remembers chuckling. He recalls the old Shanghai of his boyhood. "The lanes were empty then, no cars. A rickshaw was considered a luxury and there were Indian security guards everywhere."

Tang remembers back then that Zhangyuan Garden was one of a number of Chinese gardens that became the primary places of public entertainment. Yuyuan Garden was another.

In the late 1800s, Zhangyuan Garden's five-story Arcadia Hall was the tallest building in Shanghai and could accommodate up to 1,000 people for functions. The grounds stretched over 25 hectares. It was built in 1872 by a British merchant, but when it fell into the hands of a Chinese entrepreneur, Zhang Zhuhe, it was extended and thrown open to the public.

In contrast to traditional Chinese garden culture, these new gardens offered modern, visual entertainment.

China's first ever electric light show was held in the Zhangyuan Garden in October 1886, according to a paper on late Qing Dynasty entertainment by professor Xiong Yuezhi of the Historical Research Institute at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. There was also traditional Peking Opera, flower shows, dining and gambling. Mei Lanfang, one of modern China's most famous Peking Opera stars, gave his first Shanghai performance at Zhangyuan Garden.

But it retained some of the elitist aura of traditional Chinese gardens which belonged almost exclusively to the literati. They were the fashionable haunts of courtesans, businessmen and literati as well as political enthusiasts.

The founder of the Republic of China, Dr Sun Yat-sen, delivered a speech at the Zhangyuan Garden in 1916 on local autonomy.

From 1910 onwards, however, downtown indoor entertainment complexes featuring taller buildings and movie screens, such as the Great World in People's Square, eclipsed the gardens.

In 1918, Zhangyuan Garden became private residences. After 1949 only part of the building was left ranging through three levels and this was occupied by government bureaus and householders, a kindergarten and a dormitory for teachers.

The Education Commission was the last government department to occupy the building. As it looked for places to host educational and cultural events, it discovered that Zhangyuan Garden was the ideal choice, says Hu. Sometimes events were hosted there, and six years ago Tang had a chance to look inside the building for the first time.

"I thought that it was a very well designed house, so big, so many floors," says Tang.

At the end of 2007, the subdistrict officials decided to turn it into a community center. It took them four months to renovate the building for everyday use. The restoration is not historically accurate - new layers of paint cover the dark wood beams and faux 1930s sofas line the sitting room. But that hasn't stopped the Zhangyuan Garden from recapturing something of its heyday as a cultural hotspot. As well as coverage in the press, it has become a favorite setting for Chinese films, documentaries and television dramas about old Shanghai.

Unlike those old buildings that have been preserved under glass, Zhangyuan Garden is home to the changing demographic of Shanghai life.

As well as looking after retirees, it is an activity center for returned overseas Chinese, who are often high profile, successful businesspeople or celebrities, according to Hu. Street authorities are encouraging the flow of ideas between overseas Chinese, locals and foreigners. This April they hosted a Lifestyle Forum where an Italian Chinese gave a popular talk on the art of perfumery.

There are also increasing numbers of white-collar workers in Shanghai from other parts of China. They have formed a "new Shanghainese" club based at Zhangyuan Garden to help each other put down roots, make new friends and advance careers.

For the Expo, there are plans to turn the sitting room into a museum about old Shanghai. This fixed exhibition will last until the Expo closes late next year. In the meantime, the regular activities will be moved to another restored French villa in Gubei. The upper levels will continue to host the multicultural activities typical of this city.


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