Posts Tagged ‘Hongkou

30
Aug
10

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

19
Aug
10

It’s a family affair

Along a quiet part of Huoshan Lu (霍山路), an old, wrinkled woman was parked by the curb in a rattan chair, quietly fanning herself. Surrounding her were two young mothers and a child entertaining herself with an empty plastic bottle. They were lying on a thin rattan mat as if they were in a grassy park rather than dirty asphalt throbbing with heat.

A few degrees cooler, it would have made for a lovely summer day.

“That’s our mother,” a man waved in the direction of the old woman. “And those are our wives,” another man affirmed.

The Jiang (江) brothers were part of a team of migrant labor from Anhui and Henan, dismantling and emptying all scrap materials from an old factory building slated for demolition. The ground floor served as temporary living quarters, together as a dumping and sorting ground for all the wood, clear glass, mirror glass and all other recyclable waste. In the distance, a group of shirtless men were playing cards and listening to a small transistor radio.

I chatted with them at length, charmed by how similar they looked and amused by the elder (or younger?) brother who peppered me with questions, upon learning that I was from Singapore, how he could move there and make big bucks. “In fact, how about you bring me over to Singapore?” he asked. Everyone laughed.

The following week, I returned bearing 2 copies of this portrait for them. The heat was unbearable and everyone had migrated into the building. The brothers were there, as were their families sans the matriarch. Pleased as punch, his wife pushed an ice-popsicle into my hand. “It’s too hot. Cool down, cool down!” she clucked. I stood there awkwardly holding the popsicle in one hand, camera in the other. Something had to give.

And so, their son, who was eyeing my cold treat, got to slurp down another popsicle. Everyone won.

August 2010

08
Jul
10

Scooter 1-2-3

Faster and sturdier than an electric bicycle, casual and a small enough an engine that a license is merely a formality. Anyone can learn to drive a scooter or moped (电动车).

It’s relatively quiet, efficient and fast. And affordable. A friend recently bought a black and red one, low CC Chinese-brand scooter for RMB 2500 (USD 368). “Liberating and a ton of fun!” he exclaimed, before tossing his man-purse into the scooter’s seat compartment, and put-put-putting off into the night.

But the best thing about the scooter is that unlike a bicycle, you can carry not just one, but two or heck, even three extra passengers.

Whether you’re travelling alone, with a buddy or as a family, a scooter gives you enough plastic casing, leather seating and that much horse-power, to take you places.

June 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

08
Jun
10

Walling the site

I stood completely disoriented in a vast track of demolished land running along Gongping Lu (公平路) and Tangshan Lu (唐山路).

I was retracing an old longtang neighborhood but found myself circling back to the same parking lot. It was common for flattened neighborhoods to be converted into parking spaces at RMB10 an hour, a temporary albeit profitable solution to utilize fallowed concrete spaces prior to actual construction 

Shoddy looking walls were often erected around construction sites to contain the dust and from prying eyes.

The wall surrounding this plot of land was almost complete, save for a gaping hole in the north end.

There, I found some men coating the wall with a fresh slab of concrete. From Subei (苏北), short for northern Jiangsu, they often worked 7 days a week. “Otherwise, how do you get this?” a worker said to me with a glint in his eye, motioning money with his finger tips.

It turned out that their main jobs were to build temporary walls for construction sites. In fact, they were responsible for much of the walling of major sites in Hongkou for the past year. 

Currently, they were preparing the site that will soon house one of many metro stops along Shanghai’s 12th subway line, steadily making the city’s subway system one of the largest in the world. I had earlier documented the demolition of another neighborhood for a separate Line 12 stop last year.

I squatted with the workers under the beating sun, watching them paint deft strokes of concrete while puffing away on cheap cigarettes. It was hard not to notice their leathery skins which were dark and shiny from hours under the sun. After sharing some waxberries (杨梅) I had on hand, I departed, leaving them to earn another day’s wages.

June 2010

22
Apr
10

Retrospect: No longer their city

I received a text message recently I thought note worthy.

It was from this old man in his 60s who was living in Hongkou, a site along Haimen Lu (海门路) I had visited since September 2009. I had documented the process of the longtang’s demise, as its footprint faded from live houses, to a half-demolished mess and finally, unrecognizable flat land.

The old man had wrtten, “New house is nice but far from Shanghai. Life is different. Take care, young miss.”

From the beginning, he was reluctant to share with me where he was moving to although I knew some of his neighbors had scattered to Pudong and Baoshan. He had no interest in a follow up but was pleased with the portrait I had given him.

The photo above was taken in September 2009 in the same neighborhood, of his neighbor, of the midget-like man who lived in a self-built house made of rubble and scrap.

When I asked him if he was going to relocate, he merely said, “Sure. I have to find another space. Any space. At the end of the day, this is not my city.”

September 2009

19
Feb
10

Carom precision

The balmy autumn afternoons seem so far away now that the cruel mistress that is winter taunts us with a wet chill that seeps into bones and dulls the heart. Compared to Northern China, which is gripped in its coldest winter in decades, Shanghai has it easy.

Still, I’ve never been a fan of this particular season as the gloomy blues come as quick as sunset and Shanghai is rarely graced with the kind of elegant snowfall that silences the chattering locals.

Yet, cold weather has never prevented this group of retirees from gathering for a game of carom (康乐球), a cross between billiards and table shuffleboard. With two sets of carom tables set up along the sidewalk on Zhoushan Lu in Hongkou, they attract the occasional tourist and plenty of neighborhood traffic. But their concentration rarely waivers. They are deadly serious about the game for there is a running score for the neighborhood players and money occasionally exchanges hands.

September 2009




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