Shanghai is an unusual place. Its hybrid of Eastern and Western cultures, and its mix of history and modernity are found nowhere else in the world. With a history of more than 6,000 years, the city is the birthplace of the unique hawaii (Shanghai-style) and the cradle of the country’s civil aviation industry. It is also where the Communist Party of China was born. In this series, Shanghai Daily explores some of the city’s origins and important firsts in the country.
The West Bund waterfront area in Shanghai’s Xuhui district is always bustling with art galleries and related cultural activities. Gone, however, is the drone of aircraft engines.
What is now a park on the banks of the Huangpu River was the site of Longhua Airport, one of the birthplaces of China’s civil aviation industry. In the 1930s and 1940s, the airport was the largest in the Far East.
The airport, opened in 1922 as a converted military training base, hosted the takeoff of the country’s first domestic flight in 1929: a roundtrip flight from Shanghai to Nanjing in neighboring Jiangsu province.
By the end of 1933, the airport was also serving as a seaplane base. The track was extended to 1.2 kilometers in the middle of the decade.
Work to transform the former airport site into a public green space began in 2015. The resulting 14.5-hectare Runway Park converted the runway into lanes for pedestrians, bicycles, and cars.
It is a sunny autumn morning. I’m walking in the park, with golden leaves underfoot. I pick up a three-pointed leaf and it reminds me of an airplane. This is not a geometric coincidence. Runway Park’s designer specially selected trident maples to line the park’s three lanes due to the aeronautical shape of the leaves.
The park is so close to downtown Shanghai and yet so far away. It’s quiet here, amidst a relaxing landscape of trees, wetlands, lawns, and a sunken garden. There is even a playground for the kids. This verdant paradise is a scenic escape from the concrete jungle.
The history of Longhua Airport is not completely lost. Original materials from the airport have been used in the design of the park. Damaged sections of the runway, for example, have been repurposed into pavers and benches.
As night falls, airplane wing-shaped lantern poles and lights on the ground outline the historic track.
Zhu Ying / SHINE
The main tribute to the old airport is the preservation of its terminal building, built in 1946. It is included in the Shanghai Architectural Heritage List.
The terminal, used as a restaurant and public restrooms after the airport closed, now sits idle, awaiting its next incarnation.
After the end of World War II and the defeat of the Japanese occupiers, Longhua Airport’s power supply, radar and communication systems were upgraded. The airport became the busiest aviation hub in China, but the largest international airport in Asia.
It was a stopover for many international flights. Northwest Orient Airlines, for example, began service at Longhua Airport in 1947, stopping there on routes from the United States and Japan to the Philippines.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Shanghai Aircraft Maintenance Factory was established on the airport site. In 1950 and 1951, the factory repaired 17 of the 29 existing civil aircraft in China.
The former aircraft manufacturing plants have been converted into the West Bund Art Center, a group of influential art galleries and design firms.
Opposite the center is the Tank Shanghai art park, which highlights five tanks that were transformed from decommissioned aviation fuel containers into a center for contemporary art.
The main gallery of the Yuz Museum, founded by the late Sino-Indonesian businessman Budi Tek, was converted from a hangar of the former aircraft plant. Its massive structure showcases installations compiled by Tek.
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE
Longhua Airport operated as a civil airport until 1966, when all remaining passenger services were transferred to present-day Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport. But the site hasn’t lost all of its aviation services.
Planes can still be seen landing and taking off from a helipad located between the West Bund Museum and the West Bund Art Centre. The helipad was built in 2008 for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Today it is used exclusively by medical, police and firefighting services.
During my walk, I see groups of elderly people having a picnic on the lawn, young people playing Frisbee, and children rolling down a sloping meadow. I think it’s a perfect way to celebrate an important part of history.
If you go:
• Track Park
Address: At the intersection of Yunjin Rd and Longlan Rd
• Tank Shanghai Art Park
Address: 2380 Longteng Ave.
• West Bund Art Center
Address: 2555 Longteng Ave.
Tips: Take Subway Line 11 and get off at Yunjin Road Station.