Shanghai's Sinan Mansions: To get rich is glorious, in case you hadn't noticed...

by David Perry
Posted: September 14th, 2010 | Updated: September 14th, 2010 | Comments
Sinan Mansions Two fixtures in the Shanghai English-language blogosphere—Sinan Mansions, a very high-end renovation project encompassing a sizable swath of prime French Concession real estate ("very high-end" = RMB 40,000/night for a stay in, well, a mansion). The development takes its name from Sinan Lu, a beautiful tree-shaded French Concession street, and the equally beautiful prewar villas that once housed some of Shanghai's wealthiest families in the 1920s and '30s. The villas fell on hard times in the war years before falling on arguably harder times following the 1949 communist triumph—after '49, holding private property became grounds for persecution and many old homes had been subdivided into small apartments by the time of the Cultural Revolution (1968-1978).  Even up until just a few years ago, many of the villas remained in that state, courtyards dedicated to the drying of laundry and parking of old bicycles, former parlors and dining rooms serving as lodgings for entire families. And then the developers got their hands on them... and the result, to be unveiled this fall, would appear to be the polar opposite of Mao-era revolutionary communal ideals and a very literal-minded embodiment of  Deng Xiaoping's reformist declaration that "to get rich is glorious." All this within a stone's throw of the former residence of Zhou Enlai, the PRC's first foreign minister and Premier, which will remain in its original state as a museum commemorating the history of the Communist Party in Shanghai. What would Mao Zedong's right-hand man Zhou say? Perhaps "China is an attractive piece of meat coveted by all … but very tough, and for years no one has been able to bite into it... until now! 'Cause David Laris has totally tenderized and marinated that beauty and he'll be serving it up braised in a to-die-for sauce right next door to my old crib!" (He really said that, by the way, at least some of it.) For Elaine Chow, however, whose family actually lived in one of the villas before the revolution, the transformation is personal—and tinged with a sense of loss. In Xintiandi for people too rich for Xintiandi":
...not only will my grandmother's house be demolished - the start date for building the other side of the street is "after Expo" - I won't even be able to wander in or around it at will anymore. The closest I can get will be when I'm buying a sandwich from Funky Chicken or splurging on a drink at The Alchemist (both will open in October sometime). When it's remade into at best a retail outlet; at worst another hotel room/villa, that part of my family's history will have been completely wiped off the street. Hell, I won't even be allowed to take pictures. When preparing the photos for this article, I snapped a shot of the "Hotel Massenet" sign, a guard hurriedly rushed over to me. "You're not allowed to photograph here!" he said, waving me away. "I'm on the street though - the sidewalk, isn't this public?" I protested. "You're not allowed," he repeated, adding with a warning, "Don't cause trouble." "Wealth Land 2.0 is because - maybe a little ironically - my grandmother lived there when it was Wealth Land 1.0.
Chow doesn't indulge in self-pity; she's well attuned to the layers of irony that almost any consideration of China's turn from Maoism toward capitalism (with Chinese characteristics) engenders:
I suppose though, the only reason I care that this is becoming Wealth Land 2.0 is because - maybe a little ironically - my grandmother lived there when it was Wealth Land 1.0.
Still, her personal take on the area's storied history and its onrushing future incarnation as "Wealth Land 2.0" is an affecting read. St. Cavish, on the other hand, has no personal stake in neighborhood history, though his career as one of Shanghai's best food critics means that he does have a strong professional interest in the food & beverage developments on tap at Sinan Mansions. Thus, in Big Developments: Sinan Mansions, after a matter-of-fact description of the overall project ("It has transformed a large swath of the French Concession from a neighborhood of stately mansions, garden residences, and villas scarred by 60 years of neglect into a gleaming tribute to wealth"), St. Cavish reports on Sinan Mansions' dining sector, neatly terming it a "plebe concession" where
...regular enough people can sit down at Coffee Tree, eat pizza at the new California Pizza Kitchen... or dabble in side-by-side projects from Shanghai's three F&B busybodies: Kelley LeeEduardo Vargas, and David Laris.
St. Cavish's take on Sinan Mansions is generally straightforward and unsentimental, noting that "an optimist might even see it as an example of the local gov't newfound appreciation of its colonial buildings. There is not an intact neighborhood like this anywhere else in the city." Chow likely wouldn't disagree with that, at least objectively. Still, it's impossible not to feel sympathy not only for her feelings on the matter, but for all those families who have, over the years, had a personal connection to the neighborhood and who now will be relegated to the sidewalks and, perhaps, a table at David Laris' Funky Chicken (alongside the hungry ghost of Zhou Enlai). Welcome to Shanghai circa 2010, party people! By the way, both St. Cavish and Chow feature some nice images in their posts... so go check 'em out: Big Developments: Sinan Mansions and Sinan Mansions: For better or for worse, this is Shanghai now.
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