The rise of Rue Massenet: Part II

The rise of Rue Massenet: Part II

The historic-looking buildings on Sinan Lu give a nod to the area’s glamorous past, but are a modern invention
Historic Shanghai -- Sinan Mansions
At RMB 38,000 a night, the Sinan Masions villas are an ode to old Shanghai at very modern prices.
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Sometimes hard to believe, but the local government loves historic Shanghai. The movers and shakers in the city have an abiding interest in historic preservation.

Which brings us to Sinan Lu.

This neighborhood began as a cluster of colonial villas built in the 1920s. The inhabitants were industrialists, merchants, writers and revolutionaries, a “who’s who” of 20th-century Shanghai, all living within two square blocks (see “The rise of Rue Massenet: Part I”).

The heritage value of this site is incalculable, so when time came to restore the neighborhood to its former glory, the Luwan District set about the task with special diligence.

The government-formed Chengtu Holding facilitated the restoration.

The mainland Yongye Group and Hong Kong’s Chongbang Development were partners. Luwan District provided about one third of the total investment (reaching about RMB 780 million).

This was a big deal.

What we really want is for passersby to look across the fence and think: those people in the past really knew how to live.— Gina Ho, General Manager of Hotel Massenet

The project was called Hotel Massenet, and its representatives vowed to preserve historical architecture, protect the site’s cultural heritage and celebrate “the spirit of Shanghai.”

In 2003, the restoration officially began.

Making way for the new

In Shanghai, ambitious restoration always runs into obstacles.

Thousands of people still lived in the mansions along Sinan Lu and they were standing squarely in the path of progress.

Before the villas could be restored, the area had to be emptied.

Gina Ho, general manager of Hotel Massenet, recalled how the developers went from house to house and made bets on how many families occupied each one, counting electric meters in the hallways.

As it turned out, 1,040 families lived in Sinan Lu mansions, and some had been there for three generations.

It took eight years just to clear the homes.

Compensations were offered strategically, individually and in secret.

Many die-hard residents held on to their homes until partial demolition, local committee pressure, interruption of services and other incentives finally convinced them to move.

Eric Lam, chief engineer for Chongbang, was annoyed by the stubborn tenants. “I still don’t get it. It’s not like they own their homes. Why should they expect a lot of money?”

Sometimes hard to believe, but the local government loves historic Shanghai. The movers and shakers in the city have an abiding interest in historic preservation.

Building history from the ground up

It was at a meeting of Explore Shanghai Heritage society, that Lam discussed the technical procedures for the preservation of historical buildings. 

“First we tear them down -- top to bottom -- then we build them again from new materials.”

All interiors, the original floor plans, the antique brass, German tile and aged hardwood, all had to go. If any bearing walls were kept at all, they were totally resurfaced. Antique ceilings, floors, fixtures, doors, windows and stairwells were scrapped.

The historic Sinan Mansions are brand new.

Rules regarding preserved historic buildings are simple: they should look more or less like the original and rise more or less to the same height.

The rise of Hotel Massenet

If the “spirit of Shanghai” is the celebration of private privilege over public space, then the Hotel Massenet overachieved, presenting Shanghai with 40 gated ‘tract mansions’ behind security cameras, electrific fences and patrolling guards.

One night in a villa costs RMB 38,000. Monthly rent is set at 300,000.

“We haven’t closed a deal yet,” says Ho. “But, what we really want is for passers-by to look across the fence and think: those people of the past really knew how to live.”

Across the street from the Hotel Massenet there are still a few of the old houses left, vacated and covered in ivy. You can wander among them and still see signs of the former residents in the wild gardens and sash windows.

They will be demolished and "restored" in the second phase of the project.


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