The rise of Rue Massenet: Part I

The rise of Rue Massenet: Part I

Today they're the glossy Sinan Mansions, but these old buildings once housed opera stars, government ministers, philosophers and spies
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Historic Shanghai -- Sinan Lu -- previewOne of the few Sinan Lu mansions left standing.

In Shanghai history, in the midst of the jazz age, 51 garden houses were built on Rue Massenet in the center of the French Concession.

It was a nice development.

Each house had a sharply pitched roof, prominent attic and wide sash window bays. There were unique and delicate variations in the architecture and good integration with the surrounding landscape.

Camphor trees planted in the 19th century were incorporated into the large gardens.

The villas sold quickly. On average, there were about two families per house.

Rubbing shoulders with Shanghai elite

This was not an ostentatiously wealthy neighborhood compared to the vast gated estates on Rue Lafayette (now Fuxing Lu), where the Kungs and the Soongs lived. But from the beginning Rue Massenet (now Sinan Lu) hosted an extraordinary assemblage of revolutionaries, political figures, writers and artists.

In fact, there has never been a neighborhood like this. Ever.

There has never been a neighborhood like this. Ever.

Mei Lanfang, the dazzling opera star, lived at No. 87. He was the most popular performer in the China.

Feng Youlan, the most famous living Chinese philosopher, lived on Rue Corneille (Gaolan Lu).

The governors of Jiangxi and Hunan provinces, generals and politicians from the Kuomintang government kept houses (and mistresses) here. Tycoons, economists and spies lived in adjacent mansions.

Rubbing shoulders with warlord ministers and Japanese fascists were the outstanding intellectuals and leaders of the left.

Lu Han, Yunnan head of resistance movement against Japanese occupation, had a house at 44 Sinan Lu. Sun Yat-sen’s house was down the block.

Zhou Enlai lived next door to the headquarters of the communist party. The Kuomintang secret service rented a mansion across the street to monitor Zhou.

For 20 years, the lead actors of Chinese revolution and modernization were housed, rather comfortably, within two square blocks.

And then it was over.

Sinan Lu's liberation

After Liberation, the rightists and the foreigners ran away or were given the boot.

The mansions at Sinan Lu had already caught the eye of government developers, and their interest was neither sentimental nor historical.

Some celebrities stayed on to see their houses occupied by the needy -- or privileged -- proletarians.

In the late 1960s, there was another wave of evictions, purges and new tenants: this time, they were Red Guards and their wards.

Cooking fires were burnt on parquet floors. Shacks, work sheds and makeshift dwellings sprang up in the gardens or leaned against pebble-washed mansion walls.

The average population of the mansions had grown to 15 families per house.

In the 1980s, the market economy brought scores of ad hoc buildings. The new Chongqing expressway shaved off the corners of several old mansions.

But even disheveled, crowded and bereft of its luminaries and affluence, Sinan Lu mansions were still charming and quintessentially Shanghai.

On a block between Fuxing Lu and Jianguo Lu, thousands of families supported a host of local artisans, canteens and shops, living and working in a faded genteel time capsule in the center of the city.

The neighborhood was porous: citizens would zigzag between the mansions, with chickens running about the gardens and ivy crawling along the walls.

As China opened to the West, emigrants who once lived here revisited their homes; some found their relatives. There was talk of revitalizing the neighborhood and restoring the old mansions.

But the mansions at Sinan Lu had already caught the eye of government developers, and their interest was neither sentimental nor historical.

By the late 1990s, a different kind of revolution was being plotted on Rue Massenet.


Katya Knyazeva is a journalist and fine artist born in Siberia.
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