Then and now: the Sinan Lu villas once home to celebrities and spies

Shanghai has a rich and long history, with echoes of the past reverberating into the present day

Photograph: Katya Knyazeva
Shanghai has a rich and long history, with echoes of the past reverberating into the present day. We take a look at historical buildings, then and now.

Research courtesy Historic Shanghai and Katya Knyazeva.
Then (1920s): Rue Massenet
Photograph: courtesy Katya Knyazeva (Russian gymnasts outside the Russian Officers' Club at No 123 in 1931)

Then (1920s): Rue Massenet

A collection of 51 garden villas built in the 1920s on then Rue Massenet (now Sinan Lu), the area that we now know as Sinan Mansions was once a buzzing neighbourhood home to what Historic Shanghai calls 'a fabulous brew of the old characters of Shanghai' from all over, including revolutionaries, celebrities, politicians, spies and warlords. 

                                      Image: courtesy Katya Knyazeva (map of the neighbourhood, 1939)

Some of the biggest names of the 'hood included one of the 'Four Great Dan' of Peking Opera’s golden era Mei Lanfang and communist revolutionary Zhou Enlai, who later became the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China – the word is, opposite Zhou the nationalist secret service took a place to spy on him. 

Things changed pretty drastically for the affluent neighbourhood after 1949, where many residents left or were forced to leave. By the 1960s, the mansions went from housing two families each on average to around 15 – a number of whom would live there for generations until the birth of Sinan Mansions.

Now: Sinan Mansions
Photograph: Yang Xiaozhe

Now: Sinan Mansions

After catching the eye of government developers in the '90s, during almost a decade, over 1,000 families who lived in the mansions were moved out and the villas were torn down – except for Zhou Enlai's former residence, which was conserved thanks to its status as a museum – to make way for the Sinan Mansions development in 2011. 

                                                                         Photograph: Amy Snelling

Calling itself an 'Open Air Museum', the cluster of new-builds are designed to look like the originals that once stood, with a WeChat guide highlighting areas of historic interest. Still, set up with the wealthy in mind, Sinan Mansions houses a Xintiandi-esque collection of restaurants, bars and shops as well as a swanky (with the prices to match) hotel, Hotel Massenet. 

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