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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.