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.