Nanjing Road: A walk down memory lane

I have walked through Nanjing Road many times on my way to Bund and remember passing by shops using loud speakers to sell jade brocades, tourists speaking different languages and dialects, and young boys hurriedly chucking flyers and cards in my handbag.

But my interest in Nanjing Road started when I found a 1929 map of Shanghai that highlighted the market value of different zones in the city. A blue-toned, T-shaped zone of Nanjing Road all the way to the Bund was the city’s most expensive area that year.

Nanjing Road was constructed in 1851 as “Park Lane” — from Bund to the racecourse on today’s Henan Road. It was widely called “Ta Maloo” which translates into “Great Horse Road.” The Maloo was extended to Zhejiang Road in 1854 and stretched further to Xizang Road in 1862 as the race course was relocated twice — the last one in today’s People’s Square.

According to “History of Shanghai” that was published by Shanghai Municipal Council in 1921, English missionary Walter Henry Medhurst suggested that “the settlement road names should be made intelligible to the tens of thousands of natives who had crowded into the limits for safety from the Taiping Rebellion.” Thereafter, Park Lane was renamed Nanjing Road after the ancient Chinese capital city.

In 1945, the local government renamed the former Bubbling Well Road to Nanjing Road W. — and the other end became Nanjing Road E. The entire stretch came to be known as Nanjing Road that stretched 5 kilometers. The street became so prominent that it came to symbolize old Shanghai, and nicknamed “Shi Li Yang Chang” or “10-mile-long foreign metropolis.”

“‘Shi Li Yang Chang’ was probably apt but this street was not just a foreigners’ street,” says Tongji University Professor Chang Qing.

Chang is the author of the book “Origin of a Metropolis — A Study on the Bund Section of Nanjing Road in Shanghai.”

“Archival photos show that the eastern section of Nanjing Road, from the Bund till Henan Road, was more foreign-owned and had a Western look, while the street scenes from Henan to Xizang roads were more Chinese. Nanjing Road gradually took its shape after enduring long-time contacts and competitions between Chinese and Westerners on social and urban space.”

The 1934 version of “All About Shanghai A Standard Guidebook” notes this principal retail business street in Shanghai was “designated by an eminent American author as one of ‘the seven most interesting streets in the world’.”

“Few roads can rival Nanjing Road in terms of colorfulness and richness it embodied,” says Shanghai historian Xiong Yuezhi, editor-in-chief of the book “General History of Shanghai.”

“Many of China’s modern facilities made its debut on this road, such as the gas and electric lamps, trolley cars, elevators and skyscrapers, as well as neon lights and large amusement parks,” he says. “I can find no words to describe its former prosperity. It was a place to show off political power where big celebrations were often held. A galaxy of celebrities left their traces, too. It’s where Dr Sun Yat-sen concocted spectacles, Albert Einstein lectured on theory of relativity, Bertrand Russell gave a speech on cross-cultural comparison and Charlie Chaplin had his silk shirts tailor-made.”

Early last century Nanjing Road was upgraded to a world-class shopping street after Chinese merchants built four modern department stores — concrete structures with modern equipment and high towers — along the street.

“At night they were illuminated by thousands of electric lights, and helped make the upper part of Nanking Road a ‘great white way.’ Most significant of all, they answer to a demand and are crowded by shoppers, many of whom were visitors to Shanghai from other cities. They mark both the gradual process of the modernization of China and the growing prosperity of Shanghai,” F. L. Hawks Pott described in his 1928 book “A Short History of Shanghai.”

Today Nanjing Road is still crowded by visitors from all over China and the world, who can be seen enjoying a bottle of “old Shanghai yoghurt,” or buying a plastic Oriental Pearl TV Tower or taking photos with a man attired in old Shanghai-style suit besides a vintage car.

“You will regret if you don’t come to Nanjing Road during a Shanghai trip. But if you do come, you might have mixed feelings,” says Ding Qimin, deputy director of the Bund Subdistrict Office. Ding grew up in the Nanjing Road neighborhood and now works in the department responsible for urban management.

“I often played on Nanjing Road as a young boy in the 1980s and can still recall the ecstasy I felt every time a new department store opened. It’s a street where you can feel the prosperity of a metropolis,” Ding says.

Nanjing Road underwent several rounds of renovations, the most famous being converting the stretch between Henan and Xizang roads into a pedestrian street in 1999.

“A new round of urban restoration is being planned for the four big department stores, and several other historical buildings will open to the public for use as lifestyle center or hotel,” he says.

Urban Regeneration

It’s been two years since Shanghai Municipal Government issued an executive order for urban regeneration with the aim of building a global city. This has led to mixed use of land, revitalized urban areas, and introduced a new lifestyle.

Tongji University Professor Zheng Shiling says Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street and Yuyuan Garden Shopping District in the 1990s were the two earliest cases of Shanghai’s urban regeneration practices. They were followed by other well-known projects including Xintiandi, Tian Zi Fang, M50, Sinan Mansions and Waitanuyuan.

“Nanjing Road, with more than 100 years of history, was renovated into a promenade extending over 1 kilometer. This is considered to be one of the earliest promenades in China that combines shopping, street space and traffic organization,” recalls Zheng, who was the chief architect for designing Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street.

“We adapted the idea of ‘golden line’ from French architect Jean-Marie Charpentier to put all the facilities such as chairs, dust bins, street lamps and advertising all on this ‘golden line.’ We also cleared many ugly advertising signs that looked like beer bottle caps and fly swatters along the street. It not only improved the environment but also promoted the economic development. I hope the pedestrian will be extended all the way to the Bund in the future,” Zheng adds.

Earlier this year Bailian Group, owner of the four big department stores, announced a strategic cooperation with Alibaba to attract more young consumers. They released a renovation plan for the century-old shops. Highlight of the plan will be a glass dome and a gallery in the air to beautifully link the 1936 Sun Sun Co to two new buildings.

“We had the plan 10 years ago and now it is time to finally make it true,” says Zhuang Qian, deputy CEO of Shanghai No. 1 Department Store comprising Sun Sun Co and two neighboring buildings.

“We are facing strong competition from newer department stores and online shopping. We want to win back young consumers by adding old Shanghai elements into the interior design, such as jazz, alleyway houses, platane trees, etc,” says Zhuang. “Glancing through the building’s archives, I admired my predecessors, the old-time managers of the four department stores. There’s so much to learn from them whose ideas were ahead of their times.”

“In the beginning, Nanjing Road was perhaps like an innocent country girl who gradually grew into a modern, fashionable woman in the 1920s and 1930s. In the following decades she managed to dress herself up with everything to keep her vitality. Now I think she’s learned to choose what suits her best. She will finally become an elegant, intelligent woman, I hope,” says director Ding.

Professor Qian Zonghao, who authored the book “Nanking Road 1840s-1950s,” notes another analogy of this legendary street narrated by early Shanghai expatriates.

“They said if Bund was like a bow, then Nanjing Road was the arrow, flying westward which has been the direction that has guided Shanghai’s urban development for a long period of time,” he says.

So after exploring the bow-shaped Bund, I decided to walk westward along the 19th-century Nanjing Road that is undergoing a 21th-century regeneration. It’s a significant journey in our city that has developed from an ordinary port city into an Oriental metropolis.

The first part will focus on the former Park Lane, today’s Nanjing Road E. from Bund to Xizang Road.

Let’s follow the arrow of Shanghai.