Archive for January 10th, 2010


大展鸿图: Achieving excellence

The room was neat with its distinctly light turquoise-colored walls and dark wooden furniture.

It took a while to decipher the characters on the poster but it means 大展鸿图 (da zhan hong tu), “make your outlook brighter” or “achieve excellence”. With a soaring eagle over romantically painted mountains, it reminded me of motivational posters which had inspiring quotes like: “Perfection: To improve is to change; tobe perfect is to improve often (Churchill)”. It seemed like appropriate inspiration for one living in Shanghai. The city’s pace remains unrelenting and can be ruthless for the under-motivated and under-achieving.

With the demolition of the surrounding houses, the family of two (mother and son) now have an open lawn filled with smashed bricks, which allows sun to pour into the main hall of the house. Now that a cold snap has enveloped Shanghai, it also means the house will be colder without the insulation of the community of alley houses.

November 2009


If walls could talk

It was unusually quiet in this particular longtang*.

For one, the cold snap has more or less driven everyone indoors to huddle around heaters, that is, if they were not already swaddled in thermal wear.

It was also not yet dinnertime, hence the absence of kitchen activities like the rinsing of vegetables and the firing up of woks. It was certainly much too chilly for its residents to be taking quick showers by the public sinks as they do in warmer climates.

This particular longtang seemed very self-contained, unlike the large networks of alleys I frequent that weave and interconnect to form an unending and sprawling community that housed several hundreds of people.

Perhaps it was its location along a quiet part of South Gaoyang Lu, far from the Hongkou’s bustling centre.

Yet if you stood there long enough, albeit in the cold, the soundtrack of a longtang community will come to you in a soft buzz until you distinguish them household by household. In the background, a drama serial was playing on the television. Mahjong tiles were being rearranged and tap-tapping on the table. Children were giggling and a sharp scolding ensued after.

But the noise never grew to a cacophony. Minutes later, still not a soul. A sight and sounds (or lack thereof) rare in Shanghai.

* Longtangs (弄堂)are traditional alleys and lanes lined with houses styled in both Western and Chinese influences unique to Shanghai. They are known by different names in other cities i.e. hutongs (alleys) (胡同) or siheyuan (courtyards) (四合院) in Beijing.

December 2009

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January 2010