Old Shanghai: Zhang Yuan

Residents give their views on the area's redevelopment

Modernity seemingly stops at the entrance to Zhang Yuan (or Zhang Garden), located along Taixing Lu. North of the gate, less than a hundred metres away, is the Nanjing Xi Lu metro station, bright neon lights, bustling crowds, cafes and shopping malls. South of this rustic entrance, however, lies a completely different world – a historic longtang that once hosted public speakers voicing their opinions about the state of the nation following the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, which saw Shanghai and other Chinese cities opened up to foreign trade. It was also famous for being a film-screening venue in the late 1890s, before it became a pleasure park complete with roller-coaster rides in the early 1900s.   

We find Mr Cai, 81, chatting with a group of elderly women along the road outside their residences. He says that he's been living in Zhang Yuan for over 40 years now, and similar to the residents at Xiaonanmen, he claims that government had intentions to relocate everyone over two decades ago. Though the buildings look nowhere near as dilapidated as the ones in Xiaonanmen, Mr Cai is eager to be relocated, saying that the homes are at least a century old, and that the living conditions are poor. But we sense that it may also be because he's anticipating a windfall - he proudly claims that their properties are worth at least 10 million RMB due to their prime location in the city centre.   

Zhang Yuan 2-crop

Zhong Plaza, a trendy new compound that hosts bars and restaurants such as Starling and Tap House, recently sprouted up near Mr Cai's home, but he says that the new development hasn't affected the residents much. 'The crowd doesn't bother us. The roads here are busier now and there are too many cars parked along the side. I don't like that.' But that was about the only complaint he had.   

We wander further into Zhang Yuan and meet chatty Madam Li who gets excited when talking about the future of the area. She has lived in this estate for 39 years now, having moved from Hongkou to Zhang Yuan after her marriage, and she doesn't think that the development of Zhong Plaza is an ominous sign of imminent demolition for the residential buildings. 'I think the government may eventually get us to move out, but it's impossible that they'll tear the homes down – there's simply too much history and this is an iconic place in Shanghai. I think they'll turn these old houses into a museum of sorts, to showcase the rich heritage of this area,' she says.  

When asked if she would be willing to move out when the time comes, she surprises us with an emphatic, 'Yes! We'll definitely move!' She goes on to explain the sort of living conditions they have to endure, and invites us into the common kitchen area behind the entrance to her home. 'During periods of heavy rain, this place gets flooded. The drainage system is really poor,' she says, pointing at floor tiles caked in grime.