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July 30, 2009

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Preserving historic factories - the grand, not-so-grand and gradually falling apart

SHANGHAI, once China's manufacturing center, today has almost 300 officially recognized historic industrial sites. Pan Zheng visits three of them. A 126-year-old operating waterworks, the old Toyota textile mill and what was once China's biggest flour mill have been added to Shanghai's list of historic industrial sites.

The three sites are among 215 identified last month in a national survey, bringing Shanghai's total number of historical industrial sites to 290.

Putting them on the list means they are somehow to be preserved, but many of the sites are damaged, converted to other use or virtually in ruins.

Raising funds for preservation and deciding how to preserve the buildings are major challenges facing urban planners and conservationists.

Notables on the historical preservation list: the Yangshupu Waterworks in Yangpu District, the Machine Department of the Shanghai Toyota Textile Mill in Changning District and the Fuxin Flour Mill with branches in Zhabei and Putuo districts.

The waterworks built in 1883 is extremely well preserved, part of the textile mill built in 1919 is preserved but closed to the public for the time being, and only a few buildings are left of the flour mill built in 1902. Demolition is expected.

In recent years, some old factories have been turned into creative hubs or zones, such as Shanghai 1933, a former slaughter house in Hongkou District.

Not all sites are suitable for such transformation and regeneration, however, and there's a limit to how many creative hubs the city can absorb.

"Some of those newly identified historical industrial sites are not maintained very well," says Chen Xiejun, vice director of the Shanghai Cultural Relics Administration. "Many of them are left empty, rented out, even dismantled and converted into new residential buildings."

As China's first industrial center, Shanghai has a long history of modern industrial development.

The 215 sites were identified in mid June in Shanghai during the National Conference on Preserving and Utilizing Industrial Sites.

However, nowadays people know far less about local industrial heritage than its cultural legacy and other history.

Preservation and usage is problematic.

Old factories have been turned into about 300,000 square meters of creative zones, an ideal use that cannot be replicated everywhere.

There are still around 40 million square meters of unused old industrial areas - not all of them are historical gems.

"The problem is that our way of renovating and using industrial sites is a bit far away from common people," says Zheng Peiguang. He was instrumental in the renovation of the No. 10 branch of the Shanghai Steel Factory on Huaihai Road into a sculpture and arts center in 2006.

"We need some creation that is closer to ordinary people's lives," Zheng says.


Operating and well preserved, the medieval castle-like Yangshupu Waterworks was built in 1883 by British investors and designed by British architect J.W. Hart. It now belongs to the Shanghai Water Co.

Built of gray brick, it contains features of a medieval castle, such as crenelated roofs and turrets.

It was the first modern waterworks in China, and once was the biggest in East Asia. It covers almost 13 hectares and once sprawled more than 30 hectares in the 1930s.

Yangshupu Waterworks produces around 20 percent of Shanghai's water. It has four major lines of tap water. Maximum capacity is around 1.5 million cubic meters a day, compared with 300,000 cubic meters a day in the 1950s.

The complex has been modernized but retains much of its original appearance, including most old processing buildings, workshops and administrative buildings.

The impression is of a fortified castle in the Middle Ages. The outer walls are made of plain gray brick, with pink brick ornamentation.

It is the only group of buildings in the city in this style.

Textile mill

The Machinery Department of the Shanghai Toyota Textile Factory on Wanhangdu Road is well preserved, leased by today's Toyota Textile Co and closed for the time being. It could be turned into a museum of Japan's early business in China.

It was the first Japanese-invested factory in the country, built in 1919 by Sakichi Toyota, founder of the Toyota Group. The Machinery Department was opened in 1921.

Most of the original factory has been dismantled. The Machinery Department occupies 0.8 hectare and two main buildings - the original canteen and administration building - remain.

At first the department only repaired machinery for the factory but it later became an independent factory turning out textile-making equipment.

The factory was severely damaged when the Japanese army attacked Shanghai during China's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45). After the war, the department was confiscated and turned over to the adjacent Shanghai No. 1 Textile Machine Factory.

Flour company

Part preserved and part marked for demolition, Shanghai Fuxin Flour Co built in 1902 was the biggest flour mill in China.

It was established by the Rong family, one of the richest in China. Rong Yiren was vice president of China in the 1990s and his son, Rong Zhijian, used to be chairman of Citic Pacific, a Hong Kong-based conglomerate.

The Fuxin Flour Co used to operate eight branches, and the No. 3 and No. 7 branches were the most famous for their historic buildings.

But now only one building is left of the No. 3 branch on Guangfu Road W. as part of a residential area. There are reported plans to turn it into "Rong's Restaurant."

Last year, city planners ordered the three-story building moved 55 meters northwest to its current location.

It's the second-biggest building move in the city only after the Shanghai Concert Hall in 2003.

The No. 7 branch on Moganshan Road, Shanghai's first and most well-known art hub, is dilapidated and appears ready for demolition.

Many photographers have been attracted to the industrial "ruins" since plans for demolition were reported. Signs reading "Danger, No Repair" don't keep them out.


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