Treaty of Nanking

Time warp

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 October, 2003, 12:00am

The steel man stands three metres tall, his chest sculpted in hard ridges, holding a pair of hoops above his head and looking sternly into the future. The future is a Soviet one and the steel man has been waiting for it since he was born in 1953, part of the Sino-Soviet Friendship Hall, one of more than 150 projects built in the 1950s to symbolise the co-operation between the two communist neighbours.

In 1984, the hall was renamed the Shanghai Exhibition Centre and, thanks to its location in the heart of the city, remains a popular venue for fairs and exhibitions. Last weekend, it was electronics and components - stalls full of circuit boards, personal computers and laser cameras beneath the chandeliers and carved, painted ceilings.

The hall is a smaller version of the Seven Sisters, giant buildings in Moscow with a design like a Christmas cake. There is also one in Warsaw, which many Poles wish to demolish, seeing it as a scar of the Soviet occupation. But it is likely to survive because of the cost of removing it and relocating the thousands of tenants.

Work on the Shanghai hall, designed by Soviet architects and engineers, began in May 1954 and was completed in March 1955. Three sites were considered - a former dog-racing track, a suburban cattle farm and the one they finally chose - the home of Silas Aaron Hardoon.

A British citizen, Hardoon was born into a poor Jewish family in Baghdad in 1849. After moving to Bombay, then Hong Kong, he headed to Shanghai in 1874 and made his fortune from trading opium and property, especially by buying a large section of Nanjing Road in 1884, when many foreign companies left suddenly because of the Sino-French war.

In 1886, he married a Eurasian, the daughter of a French sailor and a Chinese, and went on to become one of the richest men in Shanghai, serving as a director of both the International and French Concessions and leaving a fortune of US$170 million when he died, without an heir, in 1931. During the second world war, the Japanese army occupied the property and most of its trees were destroyed.

Today, the hall looks incongruous, surrounded by concrete and steel skyscrapers and the city's main east-west expressway. Its use as an exhibition centre may save it from the developer's hammer. In the meantime, the Soviet man is waiting for the future to arrive.