Posts Tagged ‘石库门

02
Jul
10

The street that became a gulf

On a balmy spring day, I had ducked in a narrow corridor to get away from the frantic market activity along the stretch of Anguo Lu (安国路), where the street market bustled with clucking chickens, flopping fish and a rainbow of vegetables and fruits.

I found myself in a compound with squat two-storey apartments. It was a mix of communal housing from the 60s and modest shikumen from the early 30s – non-descript concrete intermingled with old wood.

What struck me most was how neat and orderly everything was. Burgeoning blooms rested in small garden patches that lined a courtyard devoid of clutter and decorated with warm, red windows. What the space lacked in interesting architecture, it made up with a quiet and homey space that was bathed in sunlight.

I struck up conversation with two older men which naturally attracted more people. House-proud, the first gent said he had lived here his whole life, “giving” his apartment to the government after 1949, and reclaiming it in the 1980s.

When I complimented on the state of their residence, they beamed. The second gent pointed out, “We make it a point to be civilized (文明) and clean up after ourselves.” Furrowing his brow, he lowered his voice, “Not like the waidiren (外地人) (or out of state residents) who now dominate the houses across the street. The houses are old and have grown messy and dirty and they don’t take care of it.”

Others in the group nodded. A middle-aged woman lamented as she sorted her vegetables, “When more outsiders started moving into the neighborhood, locals would move out. Or maybe the Shanghainese could afford better housing elsewhere, and start renting their old homes to migrants.” She seemed confused about who to blame, then quickly added, “We renovate and upkeep our houses. Whereas they (outsiders) can be so uncivilized and dirty, destroying our surroundings.”

An old man tottered by and offered his two-cents worth, “Even the Shanghainese living opposite don’t like those outsiders.”

The first man jumped in, “If we can help it, we discourage landlords around here not to rent to outsiders. We prefer local Shanghainese.”

He then summed it up for me, “That street (Anguo Lu) is like a river that separates Hong Kong Island and Kowloon/New Territories.” Hong Kong Island is where businesses thrived and living standards are high, compared to New Territories which still has vast tracks of rural land. “We’re all the same city yet different.”

I didn’t respond, only smiled distractedly. I knew a few residents across the street, including a fish monger, a vegetable hawker and a store keeper. Like almost all the street hawkers in the vicinity, nobody was from Shanghai.

When locals refer to out of state residents, or waidiren (外地人), with such distaste, they usually refer to working migrants or labor from poorer neighboring regions. They could have lived here for years and be a permanent blind spot to society. Accustomed to harsh conditions, these migrants take on jobs that locals are less willing to carry out. They tend to be a little rough round the edges given their poorer living conditions. I’ve witnessed rather appalling behavior of construction workers near their living quarters. Enough said.

Of course, there are many wealthier waidiren, like my Wenzhou landlord who owns multiple properties across Shanghai. Or my work colleagues from Zhejiang, Guangzhou and Wuhan, who have called the city home since their university days. They refer themselves to “New Shanghainese” (新上海人). Locals tend to have mixed reactions to them, focusing more on the fact that they no longer feel they owned the city, than how much the city has thrived as a result of local migration.

I recalled a conversation with the fish monger from Jiangxi. In between naps in a plastic tub meant for containing fish, she told me that she felt sorry for many Shanghainese trying to afford property in the city.

“With the money a Shanghainese uses to buy a 90sqm apartment, I can afford a 3-storey house in my home village. At the end of the day, this is not our home and we will all go back. We may even have better lives in our villages.”

It was quite a revelation for me, putting the local vs. waidiren socio dynamic in new light. 

I left the compound after being offered snacks and tea. Whatever the local residents’ opinions, I appreciated warm hospitality and a chatty demeanour.

As I stood in the middle of Anguo Lu, engulfed by bustling crowds, I looked east at the compound where the Shangahinese locals lived, then west-ward where many waidren lived.

There I was, in the cacophonous street that had turned into a gulf, a reminder of the persisting divide that plagues the city.

May 2010

17
Jun
10

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

12
Jun
10

Behind the Camera: 席子(Xi Zi) on documenting Shanghai’s longtang (弄堂) and shikumen (石库门)

席子 (Xi Zi) is part of a group of local photographers actively documenting the fast disappearing neighborhoods of Shanghai. Widely published in China, he is familiar with almost every street in his home city, the history of the neighborhoods and architectural style of the shikumens. With a personal archive of close to 30k photographs, his work reflects a determination to record and keep alive, a conversation about the city’s living history.

Websites: Shanghaimage.com (Admnistrator) Duoban and Flickr (Personal)

*A basic glossary on architectural terms is available here. All notes in parantheses are by the editor.

SA: Tell us a bit more about yourself. How long have you been shooting street photography in China, specifically tracing Shanghai’s old houses and lifestyle?

席子: 之前对摄影完全没有感觉,1997至1999年间曾用只有35万像素的数码相机拍摄上海老建筑和街道,但是没有坚持下去,2007年夏天拍摄正在拆除中的苏州河边百年石库门弄堂-德安里,感慨这个城市变化之快,从此开始记录这个城市即将消失和正在湮灭的老建筑,弄堂和生活在其中的人和物。

我出生在上海,童年直到读小学都在上海,后去中国北方城市安阳,郑州读小学,直到高中回上海读大学,所以可以感受到一些中国南北或者沿海和内地城市的差异。

Initially, I had absolutely no interest in photography. From 1997-99, I used a 350k pixel digital camera to shoot Shanghai’s old buildings and streets, but didn’t continue thereafter. In the summer of 2007, I happened to photograph the demolition process of a hundred year old shikumen in a longtang on Dean Lane along the Suzhou river, and felt that this city was changing so fast. From then, I began to record Shanghai’s old architecture, longtang and its life/people that were about to disappear.

I was born in Shanghai and was here till primary school. I later moved north to Anyang and Zhengzhou cities (in Henan province) where I studied high school, and returned to Shanghai for university. Hence, I have always felt the differences between China’s northern and southern, and inland and coastal cities.

Continue reading ‘Behind the Camera: 席子(Xi Zi) on documenting Shanghai’s longtang (弄堂) and shikumen (石库门)’

22
Feb
10

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




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