disappearing Shanghai

Hefei Road, Downtown Shanghai, November 2013

Much has been written about Shanghai’s dizzying building boom. Like any city experiencing a rapid influx of wealth, traditional homes here are constantly torn down to make way for high rises and condos. This is one example.

Just outside the frame on the left were construction workers on their break, idly watching as I stepped through a rusty gate to snap this shot. If you look closely, at the end of this path are homes still in use. You see that a lot during transition periods, people living around their former neighbors’ torn down homes.

These alley/lane communities are called shikumen (“stone gate” in Mandarin Chinese) because every entrance boasts a stone gate, usually with the year it was built carved into it. A blend of Western and Chinese architecture, they first appeared around 1850/1860s. Unique to Shanghai, I’ve read that they were built in the city’s foreign concessions to hold the influx of people from other parts of Shanghai and neighboring provinces Jiangsu and Zhejiang, all trying to get away from the Taiping uprising.

Any urban wanderer in Shanghai will encounter shikumen over and over again, and notice that while some are as lively as ever, many are also being torn down. I find them fascinating. It seems to be a common obsession – old, fading objects slated for destruction. I have unconsciously, gradually, built up a photo collection of just of tarnished shikumen walls alone.

This part of old Shanghai is disappearing. I don’t generally condone nor condemn the new taking over the old – it’s just how things have always worked in any country’s history of economic development and urbanization, though it would be ideal if beauty and heritage was respectfully incorporated into the new.

What does bother me is instances when I know the residents have been coerced to move and/or unfairly ‘compensated’. And I do wonder about the very real impact on the elderly stemming from the loss of their vibrant lane community. It’s like a tiny village in there, where everyone knows each other’s business.

…but then again, these instances are also how things have always worked as well, isn’t it?


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