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Historic Clock Tower in Need of Renovation

The huge clock tower atop the Customs House on the Bund looks from the outside to be one of Shanghai's most prominent pieces of architecture. From the inside, it looks more like a dilapidated area.


The chimes that play "The East is Red" stopped working years ago, so tourists wandering along the Bund today only hear a tape recording of the song.


More surprisingly, the building's tiny, dank rooms are still home to some 14 families, mostly the offspring of aged Customs officials.


"I didn't believe it until I saw it with my own eyes," Zheng Shiling, a renowned architecture expert at Tongji University, said yesterday.


In his recent visit to the Customs House, Zheng was surprised by how severely the building's inside was damaged and distraught to learn the clock's carillon no longer works.


The building is owned and run by the municipal government, but that doesn't mean there is ready money for repairs.


Although the building's property managers declined to be interviewed, Zheng and some government officials are calling for the building to be properly renovated.


In contrast to its great-looking appearance, the building, which was built eight decades ago, is now packed with dozens of government departments and private companies -- including Shanghai Customs and Shanghai Dredging Corporation.


Most residents live on the seventh floor or below, where zigzagging corridors lead visitors from the clean office areas to alleys of residential apartments in the back of the building.


The residential corridor is lined with cracked walls, used furniture and weather-beaten doors.


"I have lived in the building for more than 50 years. The living conditions are terrible here and no one seems to care about us," an 85-year-old resident surnamed Zhou said.


Similar to the city's most dilapidated areas, her apartment doesn't have a private toilet or kitchen. Instead, she has to share facilities with several of her neighbors.


Zhou lives in a 13-square-meter room with her daughter and nephew on the seventh floor. The apartment was given to her by the government after 1949 when her deceased husband was an official with the Customs House.


"Originally, there were a lot of residents living here, but most of them have moved out."


She said she would like to move out herself, but can't afford a new apartment in the city.


Zheng said he would like to see the city relocate some of the companies in the building and all of the residents to make room for a proper face-lift to its interior.


Wu Jiang, deputy director of Shanghai Urban Planning Administrative Bureau, acknowledged that the government doesn't have such a big budget to protect the building.


The Customs House was built around 1925 in the Greek Neoclassic style. The most famous parts were probably its 10-story clock tower and the big clock that was built in Britain and fashioned after Big Ben.


(Eastday.com March 17, 2004)

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