Behind the Camera: 席子(Xi Zi) on documenting Shanghai’s longtang (弄堂) and shikumen (石库门)

席子 Dongjiadu

gropius_photo席子 (Xi Zi) is part of a group of local photographers actively documenting the fast disappearing neighborhoods of Shanghai. Widely published in China, he is familiar with almost every street in his home city, the history of the neighborhoods and architectural style of the shikumens. With a personal archive of close to 30k photographs, his work reflects a determination to record and keep alive, a conversation about the city’s living history.

Websites: Shanghaimage.com (Admnistrator) Duoban and Flickr (Personal)

*A basic glossary on architectural terms is available here. All notes in parantheses are by the editor.

SA: Tell us a bit more about yourself. How long have you been shooting street photography in China, specifically tracing Shanghai’s old houses and lifestyle?

席子: 之前对摄影完全没有感觉,1997至1999年间曾用只有35万像素的数码相机拍摄上海老建筑和街道,但是没有坚持下去,2007年夏天拍摄正在拆除中的苏州河边百年石库门弄堂-德安里,感慨这个城市变化之快,从此开始记录这个城市即将消失和正在湮灭的老建筑,弄堂和生活在其中的人和物。 我出生在上海,童年直到读小学都在上海,后去中国北方城市安阳,郑州读小学,直到高中回上海读大学,所以可以感受到一些中国南北或者沿海和内地城市的差异。

Initially, I had absolutely no interest in photography. From 1997-99, I used a 350k pixel digital camera to shoot Shanghai’s old buildings and streets, but didn’t continue thereafter. In the summer of 2007, I happened to photograph the demolition process of a hundred year old shikumen in a longtang on Dean Lane along the Suzhou river, and felt that this city was changing so fast. From then, I began to record Shanghai’s old architecture, longtang and its life/people that were about to disappear. I was born in Shanghai and was here till primary school. I later moved north to Anyang and Zhengzhou cities (in Henan province) where I studied high school, and returned to Shanghai for university. Hence, I have always felt the differences between China’s northern and southern, and inland and coastal cities.

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SA: Can you share the appeal of this specific genre of photography?

席子: 因为本身是学工业设计专业,所以对美的事物包括建筑比较有兴趣,另外,童年曾生活在上海弄堂里(现在还住在原来的地方,只是老房子早已荡然无存了),对上海这个城市的历史有自己的感受,最重要是上海乃至整个中国城市建设非常快,一座建筑,一条弄堂,一个街区,甚至一条马路一个区域,“瞬间”就可能称为瓦砾,我觉得总有人应该为这座虽然历史短暂,但是有着辉煌过去的城市记录点什么,特别是那些不为人真正关注的民居,比如上海的石库门,除了新天地,田子坊之外,上海还有更多精彩的民居建筑,而它们已经被或即将被湮灭而少有人关注记录,正如郭博先生(日本一级建筑师,摄影家,郭沫若之子)所言:在我力所能及的范围之内,至少在它们临终前为它们留下一张遗照,逐渐成为了我的一种使命感…

Because I’m a professional designer, I am particularly interested in beautiful things including architecture. Also, I lived in a longtang as a kid (I still live in the same area, but my old family house has long disappeared) so I feel strongly about the city’s history. Most importantly, given the rapid pace of construction in Shanghai and all of China’s cities, I thought it was important that someone should record the short but glorious history of the city as each building, alley, block, road or district could become debris at any moment. (It is important) especially for residents who do not notice such things. Shanghai has so many more fascinating residential structures beyond the shikumens in Xitiandi (新天地) and Tianzifang (田子坊) but they have been demolished or will soon be, yet few Shanghainese have actually noticed and recorded them. As Mr Guo Bo* (A top architect in Japan, photographer, and son of Guo Moru) said, “It gradually became a mission of mine to capture, in my utmost capacity, the funeral pictures before they (Shanghai’s heritage buildings) die..”

* Editor’s note: Guo Bo (1920-) is the son of Guo Moruo (1892-1978) who was a prolific Chinese author, poet, historian, archaeologist, and member of the Communist Party.  Guo Bo participated in the design of Shanghai’s urban buildings and later became a famed photographer of heritage architecture.

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SA: Describe your shooting process.

席子: 比如董家渡,从2008年至今,因为有大片区域在拆除,所以比较多时间在关注,从一座建筑的消失,到整条街道的消失,再到现在整个街区的消失,都尽量记录,也尽量深入到建筑的内部和寻找一般人不会在意的视角去拍摄,在拍摄过程中可以感受到一条街道一条弄堂,虽然条件艰苦,但是从充满市井生活气息,到后来变成残垣断瓦,最后变成平地成为临时停车场是如何之快,不需要多久,不要说其中的某座建筑,就是街道名称也许没有多少人记得,比如芦席街,会馆码头街,猪作弄…

(I’ll use) Dongjiadu is an example. Since 2008, large areas were and continue to be demolished. I’ve focused much of my time on documenting as much as possible, the disappearance of each building, then the streets and eventually the entire block. I’ve also done my best to record the inside of structures and search for unique angles that others miss. In the process, one can feel each lane and each longtang. Although the conditions are arduous, (I wanted to) capture the speed of change from a live, bustling market place to ruins of broken tiles, which is finally flattened into a parking lot. No need to ask how long (the process) has taken, or talk about which building was affected, many people do not even remember the names of the streets such as Luxi Road (芦席街), Merchant Hall Harbour Road (会馆码头街) (or Shipping Merchant Road), Zhuzuo Lane (猪作弄).

SA: There are many foreigners who are equally interested in shooting the same subjects. As a local and long-time Shanghai resident, do you view Shanghai differently or are there similarities?

席子: 很少有人喜欢在自己城市“旅游”,比如我自己从没上过东方明珠,可能更少人去记录自己家门口的景致,所以更多的是外国人会去拍摄和记录上海其中容易被上海人,中国人忽略的地方,而我想我就抱持着一个旅行者好奇的心态去记录可能会更有收获,另外,又有着本地人特有的便利,比如可以被允许进入居民的家中或建筑内拍摄,至于拍摄上海的观点,外国人多少抱有猎奇的心态,而我更多的是对建筑,人文之美的感动和对历史的好奇。

Few people like to be tourists in their own cities. For example, I’ve never been to the Pearl Tower. Even fewer people would record their home surroundings. Hence, foreigners tend to be the ones photographing parts of Shanghai that Shanghainese and Chinese people tend to neglect. I think I carry a tourist’s curiosity when recording the city and reap bigger rewards. Also, being a local is convenient in gaining permission to enter people’s homes or construction sites. With regards to perspectives, foreigners mostly have a curiosity and sense of novelty when shooting Shanghai. For me, I tend to be drawn to architecture and the beauty of humanity, and remain curious about its history.

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SA: What is it you watch for when photographing and what strikes you the most?

席子: 最要注意的是安全,比如拍摄废墟或拆迁工地或者夜景,最深刻的印象是被人误解而报警,但是更多的时候是被接受的,也会有一些人主动介绍其中的历史和传说故事,也有很多时候会被当成老外,不是因为长的象老外,而是很多场景,他们认为只有老外会拍。

Safety is the most important thing when shooting in demolition sites or at night. A most memorable experience was when I was mistaken by people who called the police on me. But people have largely grown to accept (such behavior). People may even take the initiative to introduce the history, legends and stories. Often times, I am mistaken as a foreigner, not because I look like one, but because Chinese people often assume only foreigners would photograph such places.

SA: Do you have a favorite place in Shanghai after years of photography?

席子: 比如董家渡芦席街的“迪庐”,1923年建造的典型的上海石库门建筑,其中的雕花虽不奢华但也非常精美,为曾经的一个住户王老先生曾在洋行谋职的父亲所建造,王老先生自己毕业于圣约翰大学毕业,晚年蜗居在自己祖宅几平方的房间里,直到2009年圣诞前夕“迪庐”被彻底拆除…那时候他还没有找到安身之所…

There was a Shanghainese-styled shikumen on Luxi Road in Dongjiadu, which was built in 1923. The carvings (on the house) may not be extravagant but were very beautiful and built by its owner, Old Mr Wang’s father who worked in a foreign firm (back in the day). Mr Wang himself graduated from St Johns University (one of the most prestigious universities in Shanghai from 1879-1951). In his twilight years, he lived in his ancestral home of a few square feet, until Christmas eve in 2009, when the cottage was completely demolished and Mr Wang still had not found another place to live.

SA: What camera do you use? Do you have a preference for film or digital?

席子: Canon 5D Mark II, 曾用过Canon 350D, 没有胶片相机的拍摄经验,所以比较喜欢数码的便捷

Canon 5D Mark II. I previously used a Canon 350D. I don’t have experience shooting film and hence prefer the convenience of shooting digital.

SA: Are there any photographers that have stood out or influenced your work?

席子: 对摄影圈并不是太熟悉,比较喜欢的摄影师有,郭博,陆元敏,尔东强。

Horst and Daniel Zielske, Greg Girard. I’m not very familiar with the photography circle but I do prefer the works of photographers like Gou Bo (郭博), Lu Yuanmin (陆元敏), Deke Erh (尔东强), Horst and Danile Zielske, Greg Girard.

SA: You are an administrator of Shanghaimage.com, a site where photographers post and discuss their work on Shanghai’s old neighborhoods. Tell us more about it.

席子: 我们有着基本共同的爱好和视角,不过每个人的背景,拍摄技术和设备都不一样,所以出来的照片也是有比较大的差别,另外,我们的人数很少,感觉更多的摄影师都是在拍摄美女,花草至多是新天地,外滩,田子坊,也或者有和我们一样兴趣的本地摄影师不屑把自己的作品传上网络交流。

We all have a basic common interest and perspective, although everyone has different backgrounds, techniques and equipment. Hence, the resulting photographs vary significantly. Also, our group is small. There are so many photographers who shoot pretty girls, scenery or at most, (the overly touristy) Xintiandi (新天地), the Bund, Tianzifang (田子坊). Or perhaps there are photographers who share the same interests but are not interested in sharing and discussing their work on the internet.

SA: How do you think the next generation will view the history of Shanghai’s longtang and shikumen?

席子: 目前生活在石库门内的人们,更多是老人,外地来沪打工寄居者,未来一代上海人 应该没有多少是能如他们的祖父一辈在弄堂里,石库门里生活了,所以他们没有自己在弄堂里的童年记忆和真切的生活感受,所以他们对石库门的印象可能只能来自于新天地等旅游景点和历史图片影像,即使是还住在石库门内的人们,更多的是希望搬迁到新型住宅中,所以他们对这些建筑可能没有太多感情,当然,可能拆掉后他们会有些许怀念。这也是石库门没有能得到真正保护的民众基础。 现在更多的年青人人关注的是房价股票,很少有关注上海历史和老建筑的,至少我接触到的不多。

At the moment, it is mostly old people and out-of-state workers that live in the shikumens. The next generation of Shanghainese will not likely have any similar experience like that of their previous ancestors, so they will not have any childhood memories and feel of such life. They will probably learn about them in tourist destinations like Xintiandi or historical movies. For those still living in shikumens, many wish they can move into newer accommodations so they themselves have little desire to live in shikumens. Perhaps after the buildings are demolished, they will feel a little nostalgic. Nowadays, young people care mostly about real estate prices and the stockmarket, few pay much attention to Shanghai’s history and old architecture. Or at least, those that I have encountered.

SA: Do you plan to keep shooting Old Shanghai?

席子: 只要有体力,可以拍到只剩除新天地外的最后一座石库门 As long as I have the strength, I will keep shooting until there is only the shikumen in Xintiandi standing.

Visit Behind the Camera Interview Series to learn more about the work of other photographers.

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11 Comments

  • Reply June 14, 2010

    Katya Knyazeva

    This is a wonderful interview! The Great Gropiusx just a got a little closer ;-) I admire this documentarian’s scholarly perseverance and keen eye, and was pleased to find out we both look up at Guo Bo.

    • Reply June 14, 2010

      Sue Anne

      I had to look up Guo Bo (and his father) while I was translating and giving the point a bit more context. Where can I buy his book?

      • Reply June 14, 2010

        Katya Knyazeva

        The book is in the large 7-story bookstore on Fuzhou Lu (“Shanghai interest” section at the back of the ground floor) — or, a little cheaper, on Taobao.

        • Reply June 18, 2010

          Sue Anne

          Thanks Katya! I may look into picking up some books on Taobao and have a good read this weekend. That bag of yours arrived?

  • Reply June 14, 2010

    Adam Daniel Mezei

    Crushing interview, SAT! I love his responses, especially the whole bit about being an “insider-outsider” and his views about being a tourist in his own city. I’ll be following him now on Flickr.

    He doesn’t even realize it, but Mr. Xi is expressing a profound philosophical insight, if you ask me…

    • Reply June 14, 2010

      Sue Anne

      Hey Adam! Xi Zi is very humble, and he’s very honest and dedicated to his work. His huge archive will be very important in the future. I hope enjoy his photos, you should consider browsing in Duoban link which is much more extensive and the Shanghaimage.com link, the collective work is quite impressive.

  • [...] 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 [...]

  • Reply June 17, 2010

    Woods

    Of course there are many people hoping to live in more decent conditions (that’s something we often forget), but destruction should not be the only solution. That’s nice to see that even if nobody can really stop the destruction of Shanghai cultural heritage, there are at least some folks to document it.
    Great interview !
    — Woods

    • Reply June 18, 2010

      Sue Anne

      Thanks Woods, there are local Shanghainese very dedicated to preserving, at least, the memories of these places for the next generation. Yes, it is important to acknowledgethat many people currently living in those places would like to upgrade, lest we overromanticize the idea of longtang living, but a commitment to preseve and raise the standards of longtangs will do more good than harm. Just wish urban planners will put things in perspective. Cheers. SA

  • Reply January 3, 2012

    Fatboythin

    Sue-Anne, your interview reminded me of my street photography when I was living in Melbourne (Australia) in the late seventies. It brought back a lot of great memories and people.
    The touchy subject of the old Shanghai disappearing is a hard one to address. On the one hand there is all of the old, decrepit, unfit for humans buildings and then there’s the sentimental aspect of the history and architecture.
    As one writer said there must be a better way than destruction. I agree. But it isn’t going to happen.

    Nearly all people can’t be bothered with the difficulties and cost of renovation a home; let alone a few dozen suburbs housing a few million people! No. It’s not going to happen.

    It understanable why people are sad. Seeing such beautiful buildings being demolished so that developers can make big bucks with selling or renting apartments.

    For me I’ve become very aware of my own levels of sentimentality. And I’ve carved off about 85% of it. I don’t want to be burdened with that stuff anymore.
    Be kind to people and animals. Eat wisely. Care for your health. Write well. Do your thing well. Say good words. But sentimenality. I’ve changed horses and directions. And I feel better for it. Just like the people of Shanghai will (well I hope so) feel better for having somewhere better to live. Because some of those street photos of those people distressed me. If I was the mayor of Shanghai; I think I’d be on the same journey. Make the place a better place to live. Because the places in which we live reflect our inner lives.

    Declutter. Clean up. Renew. Way to go Shanghai!

    • Reply January 13, 2012

      Sue Anne

      @Fatboythin: Sorry I never responded directly to your comment. I am glad you chose XiZi’s interview to pen some thoughts, his work is most representative of the loss and lingering of Shanghai’s heritage architecture that is disappearing so quickly.

      It is true we can have an impact on our environment by living better lives and you have a wonderful philosophy as a start. Shanghai is overwhelmed by too many people, limited resources and a frantic pace that is leaving all of us breathless. It needs to slow down a little but how?

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