When I first came to Shanghai in 2010 for the World Expo, I remember being impressed by the remastering of the Huangpu banks from a messy industrial area into a modern and clean designed visitors park. At some point, I crossed to the West side D zone to see pavilions dedicated to technology. Then I walked on an elevated pathway overlooking a plaza containing three longs dry docks. I could not imagine at that time that those were the last traces of one of China's earliest shipyards.
History of the arsenal
When the Westerners won the Opium War in 1842, they surprised the Qing Dynasty army with their overwhelming firing power. This gap became even more obvious when the Empire faced the Taiping Rebellion in 1850 and would have most probably collapsed if the Western powers had not helped them out. The British indeed chose to secure their positions in China by standing at the Emperor's side against the Taiping. So they authorized the Qing to recruit experienced Western military mercenaries like Frederick Ward or Chinese Gordon who lead some of the Emperor's armies into battle. This elite corp was nicknamed "the Ever Victorious Army", due to its successes at war. Those soldiers were equipped with British riffles and trained into Western military discipline and helped raising consciences about the need for China to modernize. Among the promoters of technical cooperation with the West was Li Hongzhang (nearby), a prominent figure during the second part of the 19th century. In 1861, he joined other local officials and launched, with tacit agreement of Beijing, a policy called the "Self Strengthening Movement".
This was an attempt to fill China's gap with the West in terms industry, with priorities given to military arsenals and shipbuilding dockyards. In Shanghai, the Jiangnan arsenal was created in 1865, with a production of 4200 Remington type rifles by 1873. Chinese warships came out from its initial two dockyards, which become five in 1900, accommodating ships up to 500 feet long and 25 feet deep. The site covered 800 000 meters square. However, Chinese weapons and ships could not rival their Western competitors both in cost and quality. Reasons were the heavy bureaucracy and the plethoric use of foreign experts, who were not always skilled and could not be challenged by the Chinese. The failure of the modernization policy was completed by the rise to power of the conservative wing supported by Empress Dowager Cixi. This missed opportunity led to the fall of the Qing at the beginning of the following century, consecutively beaten by Japan and Russia before been overthrown by the 1912 revolution.
Republican and Mao eras
During the 1920s, the Jiangnan arsenal was run by the new Chinese Republic, with help of private foreign investments, and considered as a strategic asset by the new Chinese leaders. In 1937, the Japanese took over the premises although most of the production had been transferred to Chongqing by retreating Chiang Kai Shek. With the founding of "New China", the Jiangnan Shipbuilding Yard became one of China major ship production sites, then integrated in the state-owned CSSC Group. They produced numerous military destroyers, tracking ships but also gas carriers, bulk carriers and crude oil tankers.
For the 2010 Shanghai Expo, production was transferred to Changxing Island, at the mouth of the Yangtze. The area was redesigned and named "Jiangnan Square", dedicated to companies like Coca Cola, China Railway and of course CSSC. A theatre was built in one of the docks and a children space in the other. The main purpose of the square was to connect the pavilions to ferry services and subway to the other bank. The three dry docks were circled by the elevated pathway that I used on the day of my visit, giving a unique view on the China Pavillon and the rest of the pavilions. When the Expo was over, however, I was never able to access again this site as it was closed to the public until 1st July 2017!
Rediscovering the old shipyard
For some time now, there was something going on in this area with a new alley for pedestrians and bikes ready to open but under constant surveillance of security guards. When talking with some of them, I learned about the official opening of the path. No need to say I wanted to be among the first to go there and discover the new site. I was definitely pleased with this brand new public space. The interesting aspect of this new urban project is that the whole West Bank of the Huangpu River is now accessible for walkers, runners or cyclists, going from the West Bund Cool Docks complex, to the other side of the Olympic Water Stadium, way down South, along what used to be the Longhua airport.
The new promenade runs over some ten kilometers in a continuous river view. At the level of the former arsenal, the three remaining dry docks are visible at short distance from the top the 2010 Expo passerelle connecting them. In one of the docks, there is a military observatory vessel called Yuan Wang 1, which was built here in 1977 and reminds us of the industrial past of the site. This one is not open for visit at the moment but it migh well be one day, who knows. This type of ship is part of a series of seven military boats aiming at tracking intercontinental ballistic missiles and the course of military and communication satellites. The latest of this series were used for China's first man inhabited space program.
Inside the other ship slide, some of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo booths are stored like in a cemetery, giving another insight of the history of the site. The last dock is still in its Shanghai Expo configuration, showing access staircases to an inner theater. If you complete the view with the circling elevated pathway still around the former dock, you get a good feeling of the atmosphere of the 2010 Expo. If you want to know more about this event, you can always visit the nearby Shanghai 2010 World Expo Museum. It is a fantastic evocation not only of the 2010 Expo but of the expos ever taking place around the world. The 2010 thrill still floats there, reminding us of those exciting moments.
Walking along the new pathway along the Huangpu, I was impressed by the capacity of Shanghai to reinvent itself. The Jiangnan arsenal site is a perfect exemple of a this amazing energy into the future.