Archive for the 'The Lives Within' Category


Echoes and the crunch of broken glass

What is the appeal of an abandoned building?

A common question posed by every other person who happens to be squatting or doing brisk recycling scrap business, to me when I come snooping around. They sniff at the building, then at my camera, and scratch their heads. These are the friendly ones. The hostile ones literally chase you out, they tend to be the ones that have the most to hide: their status, their business, their families.

My answer is it depends.

The mood has to be right: The people, disinterested enough to leave you alone. Each floor seems to unveil something different, not just the view outside. There is the matter of the right music on Ipod. I sometimes like Explosions in the Sky, Bach’s Partitas for Violin No.2, Bob Dylan and even Guns and Roses. Music that complements the gravitas of the situation at hand. Heck, have you ever mounted narrow staircases with no banisters to Lady Gaga? Exhilarating.

The environment and atmosphere: The air and garbage has to be dry enough so any stench would not be so overwhelming that your hands are preoccupied shooting rather than covering your nose. A sun-drenched room is the best, where rays bounce off walls and broken mirrors on the floor.

The foundations have to be steady: Concrete floors are safe, though one has to watch for cave-ins; spots where soft cardboard is piled deceptively high that when you step in, the bottom is actually compost paper and your foot sinks right in. Wooden floors are tricky. Very tricky. I tried it in a large mostly-abandoned European house in Hongkou before, where half the wooden floor was sunken in. Each creak of the rotting wood gave me heart palpitations.

Common sense dictates that you wear shoes, not slippers. I once stepped into a trio of fluorescent light bulbs which exploded under my slipper sole. My screams reverberated through the floor as the glass bits flew into my feet, it took me 10 minutes to extricate myself. 

The potential spectacular view: It may not be the Vue Bar on Hyatt on the Bund, Glamour Bar or New Heights off the Bund strip. But you can always be surprised. With the sweet spot, you could stand there for hours alone with your thoughts, the quiet air punctuated by the occasional blare of the tanker on Huangpu River. In this case, the view of Pudong skyline, like some far away land and era, from this abandoned building will not exist in a few years. Unforunately, urban development will throw up more buildings near the river front, obscuring any view for unfortunate tenants living further behind.

Finally, the stories of chance encounters: Sometimes, squatters, recyclers or neighbors may tell you the history of the building and the neighborhood. This particular building used to be the Shanghai Yaming Lighting Company, established in 1923 and was the first lamp manufacturing enterprise in China. It subsequently created a joint-venture with Holland’s Philips Lighting. The factory subsequently closed and became a hotel. Yet, the outline of where the company name used to be on the building front is still visible.

When I was there, a simply-dressed woman in her 60s, carrying an umbrella, was staring at the building, lost in her own thoughts. It turned out that she had worked in the factory assembling light bulbs before the Cultural Revolution. She was then in her 20s. She later became a teacher and is now retired. In a matter of months, she will be emigrating to America to join her son and husband, both at Ivy League colleges in Boston. “I heard this building was going to be torn down,” she sighed wistfully, “I thought I come for one last look before I leave China.” 

July 2010


Small town Shanghai: Who’s left?

You don’t have to wander too far from Shanghai to find interesting small towns, that is, ones that have not converted into tourist villages of Disneyland proportions.

An hour-long bus ride from Longyang metro stop (龙阳地铁站) on Line 2, deep into Pudong (浦东), we found ourselves in the town of Dayuan (大团镇) in Nanhui (南汇).

Towns in China have developed with a banal similarity common in suburbia America. The same fading welcome signboards, the same layout of buildings, shops and houses populate next to the highway – all of it, engulfed in swirling road dust. There is nothing particularly outstanding about Dayuan town but there was plenty to explore once you push into the interior.

The dynamic of urban and suburban sprawl applies aptly when you compare metropolitan Shanghai and suburban towns like Dayuan. In the town’s older neighborhoods, you see a mix of elderly and children with a conspicuous absence of the robust working age group of 18 to 25. The young and mobile have migrated to the metropolitan cities in search of more interesting work and that bit of excitement.

The elderly living in Dayuan tend to have lived in Shanghai for a long time, some migrating from the city center to the outskirts. They while their time away playing cards or chess, drinking tea, cleaning and strolling on the grounds. They live modestly, sometimes growing their own food, diligently recycling what they can into an accoutrement of knick-knacks like dried leaves as broom bristles or using plastic bottles to store loose grain.

A 15 minute walk off the highway where we were dropped off, we found ourselves in a leafy lane hugged by old houses, new shop fronts and the occasional factory space.

In one of the small lanes, we found an old man making old-style cloth shoes in his living room. He measured pieces of paper on cloth, used glue of his own concoction – entirely organic – and glued the layers together and eventually sewed them by hand and machine. 88 years old, he lived in Shanghai his whole life. His living room was stacked high with rubber soles, scraps of cloth and paper. And while his movements were slow and deliberate, he was still alert and humorous, indulging us in great detail of his craft.

In another old-style Jiangnan (江南) house with curbed rooftips, which once served as a sock production unit decades ago, I found a husband and wife couple quietly snipping away stray threads off bags of socks. When asked if they were still in the business of producing socks, they laughed. No no, the wife said, we just get paid a bit of money to clean up loose ends and pack them before they get shipped out. Their relatives continue the socks production business but at a real factory.

As are most small towns, everyone is friendlier and warmer. Come sit down and have a cup of tea, indulge in a tale or two about the history of their lives or the town.  An old man sang and played his erhu (二胡) for us while another showed us his shockingly large collection of junk electronics harking back to the 60s.

There was no better way to spend the day, under leafy trees in the summer sun. And if you collect stories like me, be it large cities or small towns, the stories are always entertaining yet meaningful.

June 2010


A Photographer’s Eviction from the house on Yulin Road

From a distance, the row of European-styled houses stood out along Yulin Lu (榆林路) in Hongkou district (虹口区)– burning brick red against squat shop houses and gleaming condominiums. The place has been designated as a heritage site, according to a plaque that hung outside, which offered little beyond a perfunctory description of “simplified classical style … garden residences” built in 1927.

Inside, more than half the rooms had been abandoned because the wood on the walls and floor had rotted. Signs of previous occupation were rare, save for the occasional celebrity or government poster, and drawings in what was once a children’s nursery. There were also several expired eviction letters taped to doors.

Yet there were persistent stragglers living there, evidenced by dried fish and laundry hanging in the hallways.

On the occasions that I have entered the premise unencumbered, residents left me alone. Once, an old man stared at me blankly from his window above before closing it.

One visit was marked by a dramatic eviction of our own. Exploring the cavernous empty rooms with 2 other photographers (one of whom was 席子 Xi Zi interviewed here), we split up to document the various wings.

I was teetering in a corner of a room whose floor had caved in when I heard aggressive shouting. Peering out of the side of the window, I saw a security guard shoving my friends across the courtyard while they resisted and pleaded to complete some shots. Volumes were raised in a staccato of Shanghainese as arms pushed and pulled. Some residents stared at the drama with little interest.

I crouched back against the wall, clutching my tripod to my chest as my heart beat wildly.  I was determined to finish shooting the abandoned rooms and as long as they didn’t know I existed, I had some time.

I moved swiftly but quietly from one room to another, careful to stay clear of the windows lest I be seen. Just as I hear the main gate slam shut against my friends, I heard someone shout from above,

“There’s still one more! A girl! Find her!”

I froze against the window then surveyed the situation. A resident and guard began striding to the various houses while shouting to their informer, “Where? What floor?!”

After a few jerky shots, I packed up my equipment hoping to find another exit. Barely steps away from the door, I slammed right into one of the guards. We stared, shocked and wide-eyed, at each other. Without thinking, I gave him a bright smile and shook his hand,

“Happy new year, sir! So sorry to bother you. Are you having a good day? So sorry to bother you! Thanks and goodbye.”

I sped walk toward the main gate, while the guards just stood there scratching his head. My friends looked equally confused at my grinning face, and we moved on to another house.

January 2010


Lessons from shooting 2010 我在上海 世博特刊 (Part 2)

I’ve been wanting to share stories from a photo shoot I did for <<2010 我在上海 世博特刊>> “2010 In Shanghai: World Expo edition” but preferred to wait until the travel magazine hit the stands.

I wanted to capture children of fishmongers, poultry and vegetable hawkers at the Hongkou market, whom I’ve photographed many times before. With the adults’ expressed permission, I found myself in the longtangs amidst screaming kids, facing one hilarious challenge after another. Here are some humbling lessons I’ve learned, applicable, to all photographers.

Continue reading ‘Lessons from shooting 2010 我在上海 世博特刊 (Part 2)’


Lining up the tiles

He had a smirk on his face that came as quick as it disappeared. A winning hand perhaps?

It was hard to tell with the room thick with cigarette smoke and the clattering sounds of mahjong tiles on wood.

I had ducked into the hallway of a 3-storey house. Standing next to a large wooden red door, I heard low murmurings that gave way to loud yelps of triumph. It was a victory so spectacular that people were yelling back and forth with loud thumps of the table signaling another go at Lady Luck.

I knocked hesitantly, wondering if I was walking into some gang-related activity. A middle-aged man opened the door with a cigarette in his mouth and frowned at me. Behind him, the frenzy behind muffled doors revealed China’s all-time favorite indoor activity: mahjong.

A game of mahjong, poker or anything that involves the thrill of hedging money will draw neighbors and friends round a table like that of a free buffet. A winning hand would inevitable draw chuckles, hoots and backslaps.

But it seemed that the mahjong table had entered the 21st century. The whole contraption was mechanized such that with a touch of a button, the middle section would open up and you could dump your tiles in to be automatically shuffled. Another button would elevate your arranged tiles into 4 lines in front of each player. The entire contraption started at a modest RMB 1,500, ready to light up and boogie at your pleasure.

December 2009


Homework is an unending journey

The entire country is in a perpetual state of self-improvement so as to reach the next level of the socio-economic ladder.

Since time immemorial, each generation worked to widen the proverbial door for the descendants, they had believed was closed to them. When they tell you Chinese people are hardworking, they didn’t make up that stereotype. It’s true.

As a child in China, one is never free from the clutches of school homework, even on a weekend. If it’s not multiplication tables, it’s copious Chinese text to copy and memorize.

That’s all one ever does. Memorize.

Meanwhile, pencil to paper is all you can do to make the time fly by before playtime, even if all the answers were wrong.

If you’re a more naughty or reckless child, you’d hide the workbooks away and lie about them being completed. Of course, adults always catch on. Who are you kidding? Parents did it growing up too, and rarely succeeded. I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said, “Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.”

That’s when you hear the parent chasing the child around the room, sometimes wielding a threatening slipper. “Sit down! Stop running! Do your work!” A hard thwack on the bum to set you straight and a firm thump of the table to drive the point home.

Sometimes, you can hear the yelps, laughter and wails of pain from the next alley over.

November 2009


Home owner, house father

I had never met a resident in the longtang (弄堂) who owned all three floors of his shikumen (石库门).

The structure is traditionally narrow – the door opened into a tiny flight of stairs that led to a large living room and a small bedroom, followed by a small kitchen and an equally small shower/toilet on the third floor that was recently installed. Many residents in longtangs do not have their own toilets.

Yet for all the space the gentleman had, one could not help but notice all the clutter.

It was everywhere. Boxes, books, soft toys, clothes, appliances and more bits and bobs were crammed into every crevice that mapped the living room into a topography of an even larger mess. Abashed, he apologized for the state of the room.

He worked at the shipyard and lived with his college graduate daughter who stared blankly at me as I spoke with her father at length. His wife had passed on a while ago due to diabetes. I did not probe. The man cooked and cleaned when he can and at the moment, was taking care of his unemployed daughter who had a slight cold from the winter chill.

January 2009


All they need is each other

The room could only be described as unremarkable.

Enclosed by bare and washed-out walls, there was a simple bed, a table and a chest of drawers with the minimum of houseware. It lacked a woman’s touch but I didn’t want to probe as to the whereabouts of his wife.

Mr Song was a chatty fellow, as some retired men are when you catch them in a moment of leisure. He agreed to show me his home, a tiny room on the second floor of a shikumen (石库门)*, where the stairwell was dark and the steps impossibly narrow. He was situated along a very busy and crowded thoroughfare along Baoding Road in Hongkou.

His grandson, Xiaorao, a mischievous and energetic boy, was playing with his toys on the bed. Mr Song lives with and cares for the boy while Xiaorao’s parents work and live in Baoshan, 2 hours north of Shanghai. This was a common living situation for many families in China.

Sliding into his 60s, Mr Song has lived in this house since he was born. He was very animated when talking about the history of the area. After a long explanation of the significant presence of Jews and other Europeans during the Second World War, he then pointed north and exclaimed, “Did you know there were Indian people living in the building two blocks over?”

I assumed he meant Sikhs** who were hired by the British to guard property and people during the days of yore when Hongkou was populated by Europeans as early as the 1920s.

“No, no. I meant the ones that sold milk from door to door.” He later said that as a child, he used to sneak through the gates and watch the Sikhs milk goats in the courtyard. As if the thought had just popped into his mind, he sniggered cheekily at the memory of lost youth.

At that moment, Grandfather and son looked so alike despite the gulf of decades between them.

* Shikumen (石库门), or translated as “stone gate”, is a style of housing unique to Shanghai that blends Chinese and Western structural styles.  The influences could be found in everything from intricate carvings in wooden doors, stone archways and door steps.

** Sikhs were known as 紅头阿三 (hong tou a san) or literally transated, “red head a-san”, the ‘a-san’ being a colloquial term for a 3rd class citizen in the 1930s. Sikhs were idenitified by their turbans (red turbans worn by police and patrollers and yellow by guardsmen). The Sikhs were regarded by the Chinese (and Europeans) to be of a lower class because of their servant status.


Her home. A long history.

She left most affairs to her son whom she lived with. She slept on the first floor which was neat and well kept while he slept in the attic that had a single bed and an alarming amount of junk. Next to the son’s bed was a giant biscuit box which served as an ashtray.

Her bedroom was the main room of the house where I imagined people gathered when visiting. It was warm and welcoming. [Another view here.]

Like many enduring “nail houses”, mother and son wanted to ensure they got every penny they deserved from the government for relocating. The son was well-tuned to the exact value of his house.  His mind raced  like a human calculator as he broke down the intricacies of longtang real estate. Don’t you be calling them victims. They know their rights and the value of their property.

They were destined for Baoshan in northern Shanghai, an industrial town known as home to the state conglomerate Bao Steel. It seemed many newly relocated residents from the metropolis have moved out there.

I asked the elder lady if she was sad to move. She smiled and said thoughtfully, “Such is life. Why be sad? I hear at our new house, we get our own bathroom and there are nice facilities.”

She then pursed her lips and concluded, “Besides, we’re surrounded by rubble. Winter is coming. It’s cold without the neighboring houses.”

November 2009


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

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