There is nothing wrong with Xintiandi. Certainly the award-winning restoration of the central former French Concession with its historic buildings and unique 1920s villas is well worth a visit. But hardened fans of architecture, those fascinated by history and anyone who simply likes to imbibe a city on foot should not miss a chance to take in what locals call ‘the mini Xintiandi’.
Wukang Road, situated in the Xuhui district, was originally the project of John Calvin Ferguson, an American missionary who taught English. At the end of the nineteenth century, he thought that a road would make it easier for his pupils to reach school. Perhaps it never really occurred to him that the kids just didn’t want to learn English. Certainly his tendency to hold himself in high esteem is evident: he named the new road after himself.
Later, the name of the road was changed to Wukang Road – though John remains immortal through Ferguson Lane. Even by the 1920s he probably wouldn’t have recognised his little highway. The boom in Shanghai as a trading centre during the first half of the twentieth century saw the demand for housing for the concessionaries grow and grow. The grand villa-style houses favoured by the European residents that had taken off in the first decade of the new century pushed further out from the centre over time. Wukang Road and its surrounds subsequently offered plenty of opportunity for new development. But it’s not only this style of architecture that is to be found in the neighbourhood.
By the 1920s the European settlers had developed a taste from importing the brave new world of modernity. Buildings like the stunning 1924 eight-storey Normandie Apartments (later renamed Wukang Mansion) brought a little of the European metropolis into the suburbs. Originally consisting of 76 apartments, each with a unique layout, it was the height of urbane sophistication at the time. The building is so evocative of a lost era and is just one of numerous examples that immediately transport you back to that special time in Shanghai’s history. In fact, the whole neighbourhood is so atmospheric that it’s clear why certain popular mythologies have sprung up and, from time to time, the local press runs stories on how the Wukang Mansion or other buildings in the area are haunted.
Although Wukang Road is only about a kilometer long – making it ideal for a brisk sightseeing stroll- its neighbouring streets also offer so many fine examples of interesting twentieth-century architecture that it’s most definitely one of Shanghai’s hidden jewels. From bombastic renditions of English country cottages and sleek moderne villas to dramatic Art Deco, it is very much a de facto, living museum of the design culture of the twentieth century; even more interesting for occurring in such a curious context.
Only relatively recently have the Chinese authorities recognised the value of the locale and put in place appropriate protection. As yet, it is rather unspoiled by heavy tourism. But, unless you are a serious architectural historian, it is also difficult to find information on the plethora of intriguing buildings and their histories. So many of their stories were lost in the scramble to exit following the Japanese invasion and subsequent war. So maybe it’s better to take a romantic approach and simply let the place speak to you itself.
If possible, take time to linger and make sure you explore a little. So much of the really good stuff is not that well signposted. For example, the Xuhui Old House Art Center might not offer the most glittering programme of exhibitions, but its own magnificent interior is definitely worth seeing.