2017-01-23 06:31:09
Shanghai Dwellings Vanish, and With Them, a Way of Life

China’s Communist Party celebrated its 95th birthday this summer with a lavish First of July gala at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In Shanghai, where the First National Congress took place in 1921, the occasion was noted in a more subdued way, with the promotion of a digital map of the important sites of the party’s heroic early years in foreign-occupied Shanghai.

The map is a simple affair. Clicking on a man wearing scholar’s robes, for example, sends a cartoon icon toddling off to the brick building on Lane 163 of Zizhong Road, where Chen Wangdao, one of the party’s founding members, translated “The Communist Manifesto” into Chinese. (A Chinese- and English-language app version will soon be available for smartphones.)

A problem for anyone contemplating a real-life pilgrimage to the urban shrines of the Communist Party: Much of the historic city depicted on the virtual map has been wiped off the real map of Shanghai by two decades of breakneck development. The few remaining buildings, among them Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s modest tile-roofed mansion in the former French Concession, stand in the shadows of 30- or 40-story towers.

On a recent visit, my quest to find Mao Zedong’s first address in Shanghai, on a street once known as the Alley of Benevolence and Kindness, ended in the Jing An Kerry Center, a 3.9-million-square-foot residential and office complex. The two-story rowhouse, where the future Great Helmsman once folded laundry and ate rice in an attic room, now sits between a climate-controlled luxury mall and the five-star Shangri-La Hotel’s steakhouse.

Fortunately, enough examples of Shanghai’s historic architecture have survived to give visitors a sense of what life was like when the city gave birth to the Communist Party. To walk through Shanghai’s last remaining shikumen (alleyway complexes entered through a stone-framed kumen, or gateway) is to return to the wicked, glamorous “Paris of the Orient” — and to get a glimpse of what has happened to Shanghai in the century since then.

My first introduction to shikumen came 10 years ago, when Peter Hibbard, the former president of the Shanghai chapter of the Royal Asiatic Society China, took me on a tour of an alleyway complex near the riverfront Bund.

“Up until the ’90s, 80 percent of the population lived in two or three-story shikumen,” Mr. Hibbard told me then, as we wandered through an atmospheric maze of mostly vacant homes. “They were basically city blocks that functioned as gated communities, with guards manning the front entrance. The whole essence of old Shanghai was that life was lived horizontally — all the activity happened at street level.”

Though the complex Mr. Hibbard showed me has since been razed, you can get an idea of what shikumen were like by visiting Xintiandi, a reconditioned alleyway complex located in the Huangpu and Xuhui districts, which were until 1943 the city’s French Concession. The houses at 76 and 78 Xingye Road were saved from the wrecker’s ball only because they played host to the clandestine First National Congress of the Communist Party. Turned into a memorial 30 years later, by which time the private residences had become a noodle factory, they are now a museum and the cornerstone of Xintiandi (the name means “New Heaven and Earth”), a high-end shopping and entertainment district.

On the second floor of a thoroughly modern exhibition space, the Congress is commemorated in the orthodox Communist way — with starkly lit wax figures displayed behind glass. The skinny rowhouses that brought together two European members of the Comintern, 12 future party bigwigs and a 27-year-old Mao have been preserved intact. Visitors walk through a lacquered partition into a high-ceilinged room with whitewashed walls. On a polished red floor, a dozen stools surround a long table, set with teacups and an open box of wooden matches — a staging meant to suggest the participants have just left. (The meeting was, in fact, cut short by the sudden appearance of a police informer. Mao and his colleagues fled before the police could raid, reconvening on rented sightseeing boats in the tourist town of Hangzhou.)

Wandering the lanes of Xintiandi gives a hint of the magic of the typical shikumen. Faced with bluish-gray bricks and adorned with elaborately carved, oxblood-red lintels, the rowhouses call to mind a radically compacted version of the terraced workers’ housing found in northern English cities. The tributary lanes, some only eight feet wide, were built to accommodate rickshaws and bicycles, rather than cars, making shikumen tranquil oases in the heart of a traffic-plagued city.

Commissioned mostly by Western developers, the first shikumen appeared in the 1870s, designed to offer wealthy families refuge from the flooding, famine and unrest of the countryside. The local contractors who built them drew upon the interior floor plans of traditional Chinese courtyard homes and local decorative motifs.

The Shikumen Open House Museum, a refurnished private residence in the north block of Xintiandi, demonstrates the beguiling collision of East and West that resulted. Leaving an exiguous forecourt — the equivalent of a front yard, generally used to wash and dry clothes — you take a big step over a wooden sill into a rectangular living room decorated with blackwood furniture and period photographs and paintings.

As you walk over creaking floorboards, soft jazz emanates from the horn of a gramophone. A woman’s sleeveless silk qipao hangs from a hook; a jade hair clip, a tube of lipstick and a jar of powder are neatly arranged on a dressing table. In the kitchen, bamboo baskets, long-handled colanders and a huge iron kettle are arranged around a potbellied coal stove. Halfway up a precipitous, dogleg staircase is the tingzijian, an unheated room often rented to bachelors. (Among them were the modernist writers Lu Xun and Yu Dafu, who eavesdropped on shikumen life from their 100-square-foot pavilion rooms). The upper floor is occupied by bedrooms, some with impressive box-style beds. The overall impression is of a luxurious, and surprisingly spacious, upper middle-class home.

It’s all beautifully staged, and terribly misleading. By the late 1930s, when the Second Sino-Japanese War caused a wave of immigration to Shanghai’s foreign-controlled zones, most shikumen homes became occupied by four families and sheltered an average of 20 people. As an idealized vision of rowhouse life, the Open House Museum is like Xintiandi itself. Until the 1990s, the area was home to 2,000 families. Their homes were gutted, and often completely rebuilt, to make way for a shopping district where you can buy a latte at Starbucks, a mug of pilsner at the Paulaner Bräuhaus or an eye-poppingly expensive silk scarf at the upscale clothing chain Shanghai Tang.

“Xintiandi is fake vintage,” said Ruan Yisan, the director of the National Research Center of Historic Cities at Tongji University and an architectural preservationist. “There aren’t many shikumen houses left in the city. Those that remain are the living fossil of life in Shanghai.”

Professor Ruan remembers his teenage years in a Shanghai shikumen fondly.

The day typically began with the “Cantata of the Alley,” the sound of night stools (bucket-shape latrines) as they were cleaned with bamboo sticks after being emptied by night soil men. Then the first vendors would arrive, selling hand-wrapped won tons, fried bean curd and fresh green olives, often delivered in baskets lowered from upper-floor windows. The alleys echoed with the cries of children running off to school, often within the same complex. During unexpected cloudbursts, the next-door grandma would rush to bring in clothes that absent neighbors had hung out to dry. In the summer, residents would gather after dinner to cheng fengliang (“enjoy the coolness”), trading gossip, playing mah-jongg and sharing slices of melon chilled in a water well.

“Nowadays, our apartments in condominium towers have no public spaces,” he said. “We don’t even know our neighbors.”

The shikumen, Professor Ruan believes, forged the character of the Shanghainese. Contact with foreigners and people from all parts of China made them cosmopolitan, and living cheek by jowl with neighbors made them into subtle long-term planners, capable of sidestepping day-to-day disputes while quietly plotting to further their own interests.

He tells me that when shikumen construction ended in 1949, Shanghai counted 9,000 alleyway complexes, housing up to four million people. The entire spectrum of Shanghai’s life took place in them: Shikumen housed nurseries and coffin makers, universities and Buddhist temples, hotels and red-light zones (the infamous Alley of Joint Pleasure was home to 171 brothels).

Demolitions began in the 1990s, and intensified in the run-up to Expo 2010. Most expropriated residents were offered — and accepted — relocation, usually to new residential towers up to an hour’s metro ride from their old homes. (Holdouts found themselves harassed, and in a few notorious cases even killed, by construction crews.) Professor Ruan believes that only 200,000 Shanghai residents continue to live in alleyway complexes.

“If you want to see what a typical shikumen is like,” he said, “you’d better hurry.”

I rode the metro to the Xinzha Road station and walked a few blocks to eastern Siwen Li (Gentle Lane). Built over a former cemetery by a Sephardic Jewish entrepreneur in 1914, it was once home to 11,000 people; now it’s down to 12 households. After I stepped through its threshold, the smell of exhaust was replaced by air redolent with frying garlic and stewing meat. Brownish gray-brick exteriors were plastered with peeling posters for “anticorpulence tablets” or scrawled with cellphone numbers of plumbers or fake ID peddlers. Many of the doors were daubed in red paint with the Chinese character “Kōng” (“Vacant”). Between concrete sinks used for washing clothes, bicycles leaned against walls. Somewhere a rooster crowed.

At the intersection of two alleys, a half-dozen residents had gathered on stools to pass the time. When I told one of them, Ni Wei Ming, 57, a taxi driver, that I had never seen the inside of a real shikumen home, he invited me into his. Though its floor-plan — forecourt for washing clothes, rectangular living room, steep rear staircase leading to second-story bedrooms — mirrors the shikumen home in the Xintiandi museum, it lacked its idealized glamour. Room partitions were made of plastic sheets joined by duct tape; cooking amenities were limited to a wok on a jury-rigged hot plate; the bathtub was a waist-high wooden barrel. Though the government had offered to buy it for 7 million yuan (just over $1 million), Mr. Ni told me he was holding out for more.

“That would be enough money to be comfortable,” he said. “But I’ll still have regrets. My primary school was here. I met my wife here — she lived on the same block. My children did their homework with the neighbors’ kids. There used to be a real feeling of community. Now there are only seven families left on my alley.”

Mr. Ni told me there was a rumor that a Hong Kong property developer planned to replace the complex with skyscrapers.

Seeing me back to the laneway — beneath the asphalt lie the original cobblestones — Mr. Ni lit a cigarette and let his gaze run down the row of carved lintels that marked the entrance to each home.

“You know, if they chose to save and restore this place, it would be better than Xintiandi,” he said.

(Since my visit, the municipal government has earmarked 260 historic neighborhoods for conservation. The Shanghai office of Chipperfield Architects will oversee the preservation of eastern Siwen Li’s buildings — minus, unfortunately, the neighbors who made it into a neighborhood. The life stories of the shikumen’s residents have been collected in a beautifully illustrated book by the French architect Jérémy Cheval.)

Other shikumen are scattered among Shanghai’s office and residential towers. Fude Li, where the Communist Party’s Second National Congress took place, is intact (Mao, who got lost in Shanghai’s back streets, failed to attend). The extraordinary Zhang’s Garden off West Nanjing Road, built by a Chinese merchant in 1882, has been saved from demolition because of its role as a community center for seniors. Less picturesque complexes, though, tend to be occupied by migrant workers, many of whom lack of residency permits, which makes the future of these homes tenuous.

Perhaps the quickest way to get an idea of the vitality of a traditional alleyway complex is to visit Tianzifang, a five-minute walk from the Dapuqiao station. In the late ’90s, the small factories and shikumen homes along Lane 210 on Taikang Road were occupied by painters, sculptors and ceramists. Their tiny workshops eventually became a complex of 200 street-level cultural and art sites, with older residents continuing to occupy upper-story apartments.

Though local residents lament that cafes, restaurants and small businesses have begun to replace artists’ studios, the district retains its original architecture and charm. The narrow cobbled lanes, shaded by trees and potted plants, are filled with window shoppers and diners who have stopped at a terrace to enjoy exquisite hand-brewed Japanese coffee (Café Dan) or a chocolate milkshake or a smoked salmon bagel (Kommune). Unlike Xintiandi’s international chains, Tianzifang is home to such quirky local businesses as Pureland, which specializes in hand-painted ceramic tile images of koi ponds, pagodas and other traditional Chinese landscapes, and Teddy Bear Family, a Thai restaurant where every surface is covered with plush toys.

Wandering around low-rise Tianzifang is an antidote to the soaring Shanghai of magnetic levitation trains and mega-skyscrapers. Like other shikumen, it’s free of cars, making it one of the rare places in Shanghai where you can stroll without having to watch out for a darting electric bike or a barreling Volkswagen taxi.

It’s a gentle reminder, too, of an irony of Shanghai’s recent history.

In tearing down shikumen, which fostered the canny interdependence of the Shanghainese, government officials are erasing the architectural form that saw the birth of the uniquely Chinese version of Communism.

The condominium towers that are replacing them, where next-door neighbors remain strangers, are breeding nothing but isolation.