Sinan Mansions: An Open-Air Museum of colonial architecture in the heart of Shanghai

Some of the items exhibited in the Shanghai History Museum are linked to the history of Shanghai’s colonial buildings now considered examples of architectural heritage and protected under national and municipal regulations. Tourists walking in the streets of the ex-French Concession cannot miss the plaques attached to colonial buildings informing about their year of construction and their original function, but not everybody knows that a neighbourhood of the ex-French Concession has been transformed into an open-air museum. The Sinan Open-air Museum offers the opportunity to understand how European colonial heritage is managed and reframed in contemporary Shanghai.

“We pass on historical style to new generations by creating history with you” (我们传承历史的方式就是与你们一起共同创造历史, Women chuancheng lishi de fangshi jiushi yu nimen yiqi gongtong chuanzao lishi): this is the slogan of the Sinan Open-Air Museum (思南露天博物馆, Sinan lutian bowuguan), a museum with “no walls, glass windows or enclosure, and no admission tickets” in which Western-style buildings, streetlights and ancient trees constitute the main exhibits (Fig. 1). Opened on 30 December 2016, this museum aims at introducing to the public different types and styles of colonial residential architecture from the beginning of the 20th century. How did this museum come to be and what does it tell us about the city’s management of European colonial heritage?

Fig. 1: “We pass on historical style to new generations by creating history with you”. The advertisement board for the Sinan Open Air Museum in the Sinan Mansions historic neighbourhood. Picture by Laura Pozzi, May 2019.

The Sinan Open -Air Museum owes its name to the street on which it is located, Sinan Road (思南路, Sinan lu), formerly known as Rue Massenet, built in 1912 after the third expansion of the French Concession. Originally a rural village, the area was developed by the French authorities in order to meet the needs of the nouveau-rich, politicians and cultural personalities for elegant houses in the city. The neighbourhood around Rue Massenet was the first one in Shanghai to be entirely designed by architects and urban planners. The Belgian real estate company Yipin developed the first section of the neighbourhood, still called Yipin Village (Yipin cun, 义品村, between 1912 and 1936), but more mansions were added in the nearby area. Only houses with European features were allowed (Fig. 2). This explains the variety of styles represented among the fifty-one buildings of the Open-Air Museum, including individual garden houses, modern mid-rise apartments, stacked garden houses, etc.

Fig. 2: One of the mansions of Yipin Village, now part of the Sinan Mansions development area. Picture by Laura Pozzi, May 2019.

Famous Chinese and foreign personalities lived and worked in Rue Massenet and the nearby streets: international Peking opera star Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳 (1894-1961) lived in 87 Sinan Road between 1933 and 1959; poet Liu Yazi 柳亚子 (1887-1958) lived in 517 Middle Fuxing Road between 1932 and 1940; and general Feng Yuxiang 冯玉祥 (1882-1948) had property rights over 517 Middle Fuxing Road (now Sinan Books, a celebrated bookstore and intelligentsia’s meeting spot) (Fig. 3). Zhou Enlai 周恩来 (1898-1976) also lived here, and his house is now a museum (73 Sinan Road). During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) most of the inhabitants of these mansions left Shanghai to move to Hong Kong. At the end of the war, Rue Massenet was renamed Sinan Road. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, politicians and intellectuals remained the main residents of these villas and apartments, but during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) low-income households moved into the structures. After 1978, the area was declared an “historical relic”, but it took twenty years for the city government to decide how to manage these heritage buildings.

Fig. 3: Sinan Books, now one of the most famous bookstores in Shanghai and a meeting point for local and international intellectuals. The building, owned by General Feng Yuxiang (1882-1948), was donated to the government by his wife in 1951. Poet Liu Yazi (1887-1958) lived here from 1936 to 1940, and from 1946 to 1947. Picture by Laura Pozzi, May 2019.

The reconstruction of the area started in 1999, when it was chosen as a pilot project of the “Preservation and protective renovation of the urban constructions of Shanghai” (上海城市建设保留保护性改造 Shanghai chengshi jianshe baoliu baohuxing gaizao). Later it was also selected to be part of the national project “Special Fund for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Cities” (历史文化名城保护专项资金, Lishi wenhua mingcheng baohu zhuanxiang zijin), and another local pilot project called “Protection and Improvement of Shanghai’s Characteristic Historical and Cultural neighbourhood and excellent architecture.” (上海市历史文化风貌街区和优秀建筑保护与整治, Shanghai shi lishi wenhua fengmao jiequ he youxiu jianzhu baohu yu zhengzhi). The major renovation works were completed in 2010, just in time for the Shanghai Expo, when the area was transformed into the historical neighbourhood now known as Sinan Mansions (思南公馆, Sinan gongguan). In these ten years, 1047 households were relocated to other buildings, the mansions have been refurbished and rebuilt, and some of them have even been rotated a couple of degrees to fit the plans of the developers. The result is a 70,000 sqm area, 30,000 sqm of which is covered by buildings, which contains four functional zones: a luxury hotel, boutiques, apartments, and enterprise mansions.

The Sinan Mansions effectively became another of the many isles of luxury and wealth in Shanghai, but interestingly the city and the developers still brand the area as a cultural heritage zone. The establishment of the Sinan Open-Air Museum is a way to amplify the cultural aura of the neighbourhood. The museum is composed of a permanent exhibition which explains the story of this street and of the people who lived in it. This small gallery provides visitors with names and details about the most eminent dwellers of the mansions (Fig. 4). Visitors can use the Wechat application to download information about the buildings; furthermore, the museum management organizes monthly walks conducted by volunteers. While the mansions are presented as cultural relics, all of them host private businesses – mostly restaurants, bars and shops – and there is the sense that to have a drink in one of these buildings is the best way to enjoy their history.

Fig. 4: A permanent exhibition explains the main features of the Sinan Mansions project and provides visitors with information about famous people who lived in this area before the 1950s. The exhibition also describes the cultural events that have been organized in the Sinan Mansions since 2010. Picture by Laura Pozzi, May 2019.

While the Sinan Open-Air Museum provides the opportunity to visitors to know more about the history of the neighbourhood, its establishment should also be understood as a marketing strategy. Speaking about the Open-Air Museum to a journalist of China Daily, the brand director of Sinan Mansions stated that “the prominence of Sinan Mansions stems from its links with celebrities and politicians.” By emphasizing the connection between the buildings and the Chinese personalities who lived in them, the Museum supports the “cultural Sinan” brand that developers created to sell the luxury services offered by Sinan Mansions. For instance, the Yonghe Group’s marketing campaign for selling apartments in this neighborhood is “History inspires people” (历史撼动人心, lishi handong renxin).

The making of the Open-Air Museum in the Sinan Mansions is an interesting case-study for project ECHOES. While institutions such as the Shanghai History Museum condemn foreign imperialism and colonialism in China, outside the institutional setting colonial heritage is often reframed as a symbol of high-culture and luxury. The municipality and private investors are interested in creating an idealize and romantic vision of life in colonial Shanghai to sell their product by promoting anecdotes about famous Chinese personalities and cultural interactions between East and West, while repressing more traumatic memories related to the colonial era.

In conclusion, the restoration of heritage buildings underplays the revolutionary discourse endorsed by the state, promoting instead a version of history in which colonialism is glorified as an epoch of culture and luxury which visitors can now consume by wandering in the alleys of the Sinan Mansions or, if their wallets allow, by buying an apartment haunted by the ghosts of the city’s colonial past.

Author: Dr Laura Pozzi