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December 22, 2010

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Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Taking a stroll from east to west in 'Little Shanghai'

Baroque facades and huge Chinese eaves are juxtaposed on this street. The bizarre, beautiful North Xinjiao Street mirrors Shanghai's Nanjing Road in the eyes of Professor Chang Qing.

After years of conservation work, the old street in Taizhou City of Zhejiang Province won him a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Honorary Award for Culture Heritage Conservation in late November.

The street is only 225 meters long, but the history behind it is lengthy and colorful, which is reflected by the strange combination of Western, Eastern and East-meets-West buildings that line the road.

"The street boasts a stunning variety of architectural styles," says Professor Chang, dean of Architecture School at Shanghai Tongji University, who began renovating the street in 2000.

"It's interesting that Western buildings perch around the end that is close to the port and traditional Chinese buildings stand on the other end near the old city," Chang says.

"They are vividly telling us how the street had gradually grown from the old city to the port area after it opened and trade boomed in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)," he adds. "The same has happened to Shanghai's Nanjing Road where Western buildings gather near the river, the Bund."

I first entered the street from the "Chinese end" on a late November night. The street was dry and warm. At first glance it only gave an impression of another water town like Zhouzhuang in Jiangsu Province or Zhujiajiao in Shanghai, although excellent lighting enhanced the beauty of those big Chinese eaves and complicated carvings.

As I walked further along the street, imposing Baroque facades in a rainbow of white, gray and red-brick colors emerged. The nice lighting added a fancy touch.

Although I have visited buildings in almost all exotic styles in Shanghai, it was shocking to actually see buildings of sharply contrasting styles in one short street.

Professor Chang says the interesting architectural phenomenon shows the Western tendency to influence the East after the opening of the city.

The region around North Xinjiao Street used to be a port city named "Jiaojiang" on the mid-coast of Zhejiang Province. The street was originally a path connected to the port by the Jiaojiang River in the north.

By the end of the Qing Dynasty, the street, together with the surrounding areas, formed a group of commercial blocks near the pier. Merchants and missionaries from abroad got involved in the real estate investment. With shops, restaurants and residential houses mushrooming, the region got a nickname - "Little Shanghai."

However, the street declined as a new district came into being in the 1980s which attracted young people to work and live in. In 2000 the local government decided to renovate the historical street which lacked modern facilities such as a proper sewage system.

The project was completed in 2005 and awarded the prize only recently because the UNESCO panel wanted to study the impact of renovation after at least two years.

After wandering among the baroque facades, I headed back to the Chinese end and was enchanted by several lovely mini yards where ancient Chinese ornaments were well preserved and green grass was budding from between original giant stones paving the ground.

It was a short street full of surprises and I was most surprised when entering an ancient temple where a group of elderly local people were enjoying a "live concert" performed by local residents.

It was interesting because in most similar cases in China, renovated historical streets are only for tourists and locals are forced to relocate far away from their original homes.

"We offered the more than 400 residents a choice to live in new apartments just a walk away after the renovation began," says local tourism bureau chief Li Xiufu, "so they can still enjoy the old street, which is full of old people performing shadow boxing every morning. Young people love to take wedding photos here."

Today the street is dotted with shops of all kinds and closely surrounded by multi-story residential buildings where the former street dwellers now live. Before the renovation started, Professor Chang interviewed every family living on the street to understand their living conditions.

Around 40 percent of them, mostly senior residents, had an affection for the street and were reluctant to move far away.

"A 90-year-old woman had a clear memory of the 1920s and 30s and even drew a map of signature buildings and scenery in the neighborhood," recalls Chang. "So I want to make the street a collective memory for the locals today. This is also an experiment."

The UNESCO panel reviewed the renovated street as "an historic enclave in the middle of a rapidly developing modern city."

"Our panel of 10 experts were impressed by the reviving of traditional customs, which made the century-old street a living part of local daily life again," says Du Xiaofan, a cultural heritage conservation specialist from the UNESCO Beijing Office.

On the morning of the day I left, I visited the old street again when it was drizzling and breezy. The humid street had another look in the daytime.

I wandered back and forth from the Qing-style end to the baroque end to fully taste the layers of history condensed on the short street, on the place once called "Little Shanghai."


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