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June 20, 2011

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Squalor in middle of tourist attraction

SHROUDED in mist and drizzle, Cai Shiqun, 85, stood watching as workers laid granite stones - costing 16 yuan (US$2.47) each, they boasted - on historic Duolun Road.

Hundreds of visitors swarmed along the popular cultural street in Hongkou District yesterday as six months of renovation work came to an end.

Tourists were eagerly photographing the old Shanghai shikumen-style houses, an architectural style that combines Western and Chinese elements, and sipping coffee beside newly erected bronze statues of famous celebrities who it is said lived in the street.

Passing by "old" shikumen buildings, where the ochre red color is not from brickwork but paint on a concrete exterior, Cai headed down a dark, narrow alley, leading into the "true" Duolun Road.

Away from the tourist-friendly buildings lies a rundown complex, where genuine shikumen homes stand next to more modern buildings, where long cracks running down the walls let rain in, where garbage heaps pile up against walls and residents hang their clothes outside the windows to dry.

This is home to more than 300 households, who struggle during the plum rain season to collect water that pours into their dilapidated apartments, while most tourists are busy photographing the other side of the street.

Song Yuehong, a 55-year-old householder, pointed to a piece of graffiti painted by a resident on a wall, a huge red eye accompanied by a Chinese character for "danger."

Next to the graffiti, a long crack extends from the ground to the top of the wall, damage which Song and many other residents believe has been caused by almost constant renovation projects.

In the past three years, developers have carried out four renovation programs along the 550-meter long street, in a bid to establish it as one of the city's top tourist attractions.

Problems with materials and efforts to improve authenticity have meant the work has been repeated, and householders insist the frequent drilling and digging next to their homes have damaged the buildings.

The developer, a Fujian Province-based company, has told the residents that it cannot afford to relocate them.

The problem is complicated by the fact that protected historic homes dating back to 1924 are scattered among more modern residences.

"The future for Duolun Road is unclear," said Yu Chunjun, an official with the street's management office, which oversees major renovation projects to the street.

"There are too many historic buildings along the street under the protection of the government. The developer cannot remove them to make space for future development."

In a previous plan, residents were to be relocated so the land could be used to build new batches of apartments and stores, available to buyers, said Yu.

But even with a budget of 2.5 billion yuan, the developer still could not afford to relocate the 300-plus households because many demanded expensive apartments, beyond the scope of proposed compensation packages, claimed Yu.

In the face of this stalemate, the developer called a halt to the project, and opened up the road to antique and jade vendors.

Residents, meanwhile, are left looking for more cash to be put into the area. "We can only hope that more developers with abundant funds will join and bring major changes to the street," said Yu.

Duolun Road is said to epitomize historic architecture of the last century in Shanghai.

In the early 20th century, many famous Chinese writers, including Lu Xun and Mao Dun, lived there.


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