Update: A Photographer’s Eviction from the house on Yulin Road

House on Yulin Lu 榆林路 00

Note: This was originally published on 6 January, 2011. I have since updated it upon new details revealed.

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.

House on Yulin Lu 榆林路 02

House on Yulin Lu 榆林路 03

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 have left me alone. Once, an old man stared at me blankly from his window above before closing it. I tried speaking to a few passers-by within the compound which remained tightly guarded each time I was there. The only ones who would respond were migrant workers occupying old dusty rooms for cheap rent but they too knew nothing.

House on Yulin Lu 榆林路 01

House on Yulin Lu 榆林路 04

Neither did the guards whom I had sweet talked, cajoled and flattered on occasion to let me enter the previous times. One had boasted that he had even turned down CCTV to shoot a documentary. I thought it was such utter rubbish. Regardless, he adamantly refused to let me in.

One visit resulted in a successful entry though ended by a dramatic eviction. 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 where the 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 knew that once they caught me, it would be a while before I could make it back past the gates.

I moved swiftly but quietly from one room to another, careful to stay clear of the windows lest I’d 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 at 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

A Photographer's Eviction from the house on Yulin Road 02

Update:

For years since I was thrown out of the compound, I have tried to track down the exact historical details of this row of villa houses. Online searching in Chinese got me nowhere, only that it was listed as a “garden villa”. There were online speculations of Jewish businessmen who had developed the place since it was after all near the Jewish Quarter in the 1940s. One even said Victor Sassoon had a hand in it. During concession days, the area was very much under the protection of the International Settlement; Ward Jail was only a few blocks away on Ward Street (now Changyang Lu). I had no reliable information to concoct some kind of historical timeline, not even friendly neighbors who lived around the compound could tell me anything before 1949.

But thanks to Xi Zi who caught an old photo from an exhibit featuring materials from the Russian photographer VD Zhiganov who had documented the Russian Community in the 1930s and eventually published a book in 1936. The exhibit was held for only a short two days in May 2014 at the former Russian Orthodox Church on Xinle Lu that was timed to coincide with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit in Shanghai.

Over breakfast, he smiled and showed me a snapshot on his phone, “Look. It was a Russian school.”

Zhiganov Russian School Yulin Rd

I thought back to what I had observed on the first floor of one of the apartments, evidence of an old nursery was everywhere. Huge posters of smiling Chinese babies, children’s drawings hanging over a then-defunct fireplace and on salon doors. It remained a school even after the Russians left and the Communist Party took over.

I felt like I had come full circle, a small gap in my knowledge bank closed. Happily closed.

It’s time to go pay the place a visit again.

May 2014

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13 Comments

  • Reply June 17, 2010

    Woods

    I bet that the last shot was definitively worse the risk !
    The colorful image of the little girl blowing bubble in this dilapidated room gives a very strong feeling. Well done !
    — Woods

  • Reply June 17, 2010

    Svend

    Oh, I’m sure he did. You can have such a winning smile.

    Take care.

    /S

  • Reply June 17, 2010

    Adam Daniel Mezei

    Aye, ti’s a film scene, to be sure, matey!

    I can just imagine it happening, though, SAT, though I believe I speak for our entire little Revolutionary Collective when I say we’re beginning to get slightly worried about you as you gobble up ever-increasing multiples of risk. I realize this is entirely necessary given how it is your life’s work, but perhaps you’ll consider carrying about some mace, a brass pair of knuckle dusters, or perhaps ask that cat from a few snaps back to temporarily borrow his nunchukus, in case any guano hits the proverbial fan at some stage with one of those Anhui-bred security guards?

    Signed,
    A Concerned EU Fan

    • Reply June 18, 2010

      Sue Anne

      Ha, thanks for the concern, Adam. But guards generally won’t touch a female and contact rarely extends beyond a bit of shoving. Granted you see fistfights on the streets, it’s mostly men. Hence, no need to carry protection. I’m quite safe.

  • Reply June 24, 2010

    Kirk

    Wow.. really wanna check out this place.. !

    • Reply June 24, 2010

      Sue Anne

      Hey Kirk! Do wander by, but if you want to shoot, don’t carry your gear too conspicuously. Best to go alone too. Good luck! The first shot is taken from the opposing buildig, you should be able to hike up to the roof with no problem. It’s on Yulin Lu off Dalian Lu. Nearest metro is Yangshupu Lu on Line 4. Be careful and let me know how it works out.

  • Reply November 26, 2010

    Mikecheck

    gorgeous photos. your subtle colour is so nice.

  • Reply June 28, 2014

    Lyle

    I explored Yulin lu today and I couldn’t find this. Right by the intersection with Dalian lu is a huge demolished site filled with red bricks, so I have a feeling that it was recently demolished. I might be mistaken but I did walk along the whole street and I didn’t spot it anywhere else. Its sad how these interesting buildings are slowly disappearing!

    • Reply June 28, 2014

      Sue Anne

      Hi Lyle,

      Glad to hear you were in that neck of the woods. This specific neighborhood was gone by mid 2013, there are some buildings that are kept, like a school. There isn’t too many nice buildings along Dalian Lu, next time, I recommend you walk through Changyang Lu, then pop along Zhoushan Lu (where the previous Jewish Quarter used to be) where there are some nice old houses, take in the Jewish Refugee Museum nearby then turn the other way of Zhoushan Lu towards Tanggu Lu where there are plenty of markets. Drop me an email at shanghaistreetstories_at_gmail.com and I can send you a walking map.

      Also, opposite where you were, there were these villas (sorry the link has no photo) that the demolition guys were living in. There were letters previously to preserve them, then some time lapsed and they were quickly torn down. Now everyone is up in arms again.

      Dismantled ‘Chin Woo’ buildings to be rebuilt
      By Yang Jian | May 27, 2014, Tuesday | PRINT EDITION
      FOUR dilapidated buildings in Yangpu District with possible links to the Chin Woo Athletic Association have been dismantled, but will be rebuilt on the same site later this year, cultural heritage officials said yesterday.

      The structures — three villas and a Spanish-style building that some people claim were once home to the association founded by Chinese martial arts master Huo Yuanjia — date back about 100 years and had fallen into disrepair.

      Local authorities had planned to demolish them in 2011, but the project was canceled after the public appealed for them to be saved. Despite the reprieve, the buildings were not given protected status as no one could prove they were owned by the association.

      Huo (1869-1910) became a national hero after achieving international success as a kung fu fighter. His life story was told in the 2006 movie “Fearless,” starring Jet Li.

      Huo established Chin Woo just months before he died. It was one of the first public institutes for the previously arcane martial arts.

      According to Xue Liyong, an expert on old Shanghai, the four buildings date from 1916 and were likely the second center for the association after Huo’s death in 1910.

      The original headquarters were destroyed by a typhoon in 1915, he said.

      Despite their poor condition, the buildings had many attractive architectural details, including Gothic doors with glass windows.

      Regardless of the provenance, an official from the Shanghai Cultural Heritage Administration said the buildings will not be demolished, as the century-old structures “deserve protection.”

  • Reply June 28, 2014

    Lyle

    I explored Yulin lu today and I couldn’t find this. Right by the intersection with Dalian lu is a huge demolished site filled with red bricks, so I have a feeling that it was recently demolished. I might be mistaken but I did walk along the whole street and I didn’t spot it anywhere else. Its sad how these interesting buildings are slowly disappearing!

  • Reply July 27, 2015

    Owen

    Wonder if you’ve ever been to the abandoned school near Changhai hospital in Yangpu? Heishan Lu I think, used to be the Shanghai Library. Huge unguarded place (as of October last year), slogans and portraits of Marx, Engels still on the walls, shoes, sports equipment, even some writing on a blackboard from a class years ago. Scary but fascinating, don’t know what’s become of it now.

    • Reply September 30, 2015

      Sue Anne

      Sorry for my late reply Owen, I don’t think I’ve visited the Changhai Hospital, and when you say the Shanghai library, you’re referring to Hengshan Lu but that’s not in Yangpu. Still, sounds very intriguing.

      I have seen the Sacred Heart Hospital http://www.virtualshanghai.net/Photos/Images?ID=1881. Very interesting architecture.

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