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July 6, 2024

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Initially a tribute to Sino-Soviet ties, exhibition center retains prominence

SHANGHAI Exhibition Center, once the city’s tallest structure and symbol of Sino-Soviet friendship, marked a significant shift in Shanghai’s architectural and cultural landscape.

The center, formerly known as the Sino-Soviet Friendship Building, was the first major structure built in Shanghai after the city’s liberation in 1949.

It features Russian classical architecture, with a 110.4-meter-high tower that surpassed the height of the Park Hotel, then the tallest building in Shanghai.

From 2002 to 2011, the center served as the venue for the annual meetings of the Shanghai People’s Congress and the city’s political advisory body.

The original site of the center was home to Hardoon Garden, also known as Aili Garden — a private estate built by legendary real estate tycoon Silas Aaron Hardoon (1851-1931) for his wife.

Hardoon, a Baghdad Jew who arrived in Shanghai in the 1870s, became one of the city’s wealthiest magnates through shrewd real estate investments.

Built in 1910, Hardoon’s garden featured an elaborate landscape with traditional Chinese elements and ornate buildings. It was initially a public attraction but later became a private sanctuary due to overuse by visitors.

The garden hosted notable figures, including Sun Yat-sen. It was demolished and burnt during the war against Japanese invaders in the 1940s.

In the early 1950s, Shanghai residents developed a keen interest in Russian culture, influenced by Soviet songs, movies, literature and fashion.

In 1953, Chinese government decided to hold an exhibition in Shanghai to showcase Soviet achievements since the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The Shanghai government, after evaluating several locations, chose the ruins of Hardoon Garden for the new exhibition center.

Construction began in May 1954, and within just 10 months, the 80,000-square-meter complex, equivalent to about 10 standard football pitches, was completed despite challenging weather conditions.

The design of the building, influenced by Russian classical architecture, features a prominent central tower with a gilded spire and a striking red star at the top.

The architectural marvel, modeled after the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition Hall in Moscow and the Admiralty building in St Petersburg, became a symbol of Shanghai’s post-liberation era.

The creation of the glass red star atop the tower was a technical triumph, accomplished by local glassblower Tang Yuanhua after more than 30 trials to ensure it could withstand extreme temperatures. It still sits atop the center today.

The tower’s base, originally called the Central Hall, connects east and west wings that now serve as exhibition spaces, featuring grand staircases and a central plaza with a rectangular pool and musical fountain.

Upon its completion, the building hosted numerous significant political and diplomatic events.

In 1956, Chairman Mao Zedong met with Su Buqing, a celebrated mathematician and poet who served as president of Fudan University. In 1957, Soviet leader Kliment Voroshilov was welcomed with a grand display of neon lights.

In December 1957, Premier Zhou Enlai attended a performance of the Shaoxing Opera “Havoc in Heaven” in the building and met the actors, including Liu Xiao Ling Tong, who later became a well-known actor for playing the Monkey King in the TV series “Journey to the West.”

Over the years, the building has been renamed several times, reflecting changing political climates.

After Sino-Soviet relations broke down in the 1960s, a large statue at the base of the central tower, depicting two workers holding hammers and symbolizing Sino-Soviet friendship, was removed.

The building was renamed the Shanghai Exhibition Hall in 1968, and the Shanghai Exhibition Center in 1984. The center was recognized as one of the “10 best buildings in Shanghai from 1949 to 1989” and has continued to serve as a central venue for political, economic, technological and cultural exchanges.

A major renovation in 2001 preserved its architectural integrity while upgrading its facilities to meet contemporary needs. The revamp reinforced the structure to last another 100 years. More than 5,000 grams of gold were used to restore the central tower.

Since December 2021, the center has removed its fences to let the public admire the historical building up close. The internal courtyards have been transformed into several landscaped gardens for leisure walks and photography.


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