To be honest, I’ve resisted writing about the Sinan Mansions development because it’s a bittersweet area for me. On one hand, it contains a piece of history really dear to my family that’s about to be torn down and redeveloped into a bastion of ostentatious Chinese wealth. On the other hand, I do like fine dining and fancy cocktails – both of which will be in abundance there – and what else were they going to do with it?
I don’t know, keep it as is but renovate it into much needed, nice homes for the middle class in an area that – let’s be honest – really could do with less luxury and more mixed income city planning? Ha! As if.
Alright. I suppose my feelings are more bitter than sweet.
Sinan Lu is a residential stretch of road located in the Luwan district and walking distance from both Tianzifang and Xintiandi. Most of the mansions there were built in the 1920s and 30s and housed Shanghai’s elite – including the political figures of Sun Yatsen and Zhou Enlai. In fact, Sinan Mansions is located right around Zhou Enlai’s house. Consequently, that’s the only land in the area developers won’t be touching (it’s a museum, you know).
The rest of the mansions, 49 in total, have been or will soon be rebuilt in the style of all Chinese faux-restorations: ripped out of their foundations and completely rebuilt in a similar, but scrubbed form. In this case, most of the gray brick/maroon will be turned into tan stone/cherry oak(ish) and everything will be rotated a couple of degrees. Smart Shanghai already went into the details of what will be built there: a 40,000RMB a night hotel (with villas instead of hotel rooms), high-end service apartments and a F&B/retail area which will soon be populated by some of Shanghai’s biggest restaurant-owning names – Laris, Vargas and Lee.
In short, beside the food street (which St. Cavish calls, quite rightly, “a plebe concession”), this is going to be a Xintiandi for people too rich for Xintiandi.
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.
When my family was based in pre-war Shanghai, they lived right across the street from Zhou Enlai. In fact, the window in the Zhou Enlai museum that looks out at my grandmother’s old digs contains a cute little placard about the “Kuomingtang spies” next door. (It should be noted that, as with all civil wars, there were both KMT and CCP amongst my family tree).
When my family first came to live in China again about 14 years ago, we revisited Sinan Lu and ticked off numbers until we found our old house. It was now home to five or six different families. When we told them about how our relatives had lived there before the war, they welcomed us in and helped us locate my grandmother’s old room. One older lady told us how they’d moved here in the 1950s, and explained how the floors had been divided up.
We have visited a dozen or so times since – it became something of a ritual when I’d come back from college to go and take a picture or two. Each time, my dad would talk at length about how great it would be if our extended family could find the deed and pool up enough money to reclaim it from the government. It would be quite a project – like everything on the street, the structures were old and ill maintained – but that was part of the appeal. We did end up finding the deed, but balked at the bureaucracy needed to get the place back (in case you’re interested, this is what it takes). And as Shanghai property prices rose higher and higher, the chances of us owning this bit of prime real estate got smaller and smaller.
Still, I don’t think the hope that, some day in the future, we’d figure out some way really died until earlier this year, when I stumbled upon Sinan Lu again and found the half-built Sinan Mansions. A real estate agent told me that the developer (in some way related to the Shanghai government) had bought the entire street. Could we buy one of the houses the developer was making? No, they’re only for rent. Exorbitantly high rent.
It was quite crushing.
Even more crushing is knowing now that, 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.”