“Oei, boy!” The uncle motioned for the boy of about 10 who had the attention span of a gnat. “Didn’t you go to school with this kid?” The boy stared fleetingly at the photo of another young boy frozen in front of a giant scaffolding, then nodded.
“I knew that boy in the picture was familiar,” the older man said. He left an oily thumbprint on my photo board, and tried to erase it, only to make the smudge worse. I waved it off. No bother, I said to him. It’s meant for people to probe and point anyways. The photo boards threatened to slide off the two chairs I had pulled from a scrap pile with rusty nails. One was missing a leg.
The second location of my Roving Exhibit was a purposeful decision. Coming full circle, the photos I had taken of Dongjiadu (董家渡) less than a year ago, were on display for a riveted audience of 5 in the Shangchuan Huiguan (商船会馆) or Merchant Shipping Hall. It was a symbolic gesture. Only the Hall was left, its entire radius of old longtang shikumen housing had been flattened and demolition continued westward. Over the months that I shot in Dongjiadu, I met and photographed the children who lived in the surrounding flats and treated the demolition site as their personal playground.
They were gone, of course. Scattered to the winds. Or to Pudong and Baoshan, to be more specific, distant suburbs of metropolitan Shanghai. I recalled that day, the children chased after bulldozers which were carting away tons of bricks and stone, pretending it was an imaginary battleground. Peasants were scrambling all over the place like mice in a field, scavenging for scrap steel.
None of the three men who held court over my photos were Shanghainese or native to the neighborhood but they remember. One man and his family from Anhui lived next to the crumbling Hall, the only structure left unharmed for preservation (though the interior has all but rotted). He was thin and quiet with large sunken eyes. His louder and more opinionated colleague hailed from Chongqing and was a local tour operator who had lived in Shanghai for several years. And by ‘operator’, he handled all the petty logistics including currency exchange. He pulled out from his man bag, a thumb length wad of US dollars – twenties and hundreds. The third gentleman from Jiangsu puffed thoughtfully on his cigarettes.
They recognized almost all the photos from the Dongjiadu area, recalling the frenzied demolition activity over the past year and speculating future plans for the space. “Office, probably not residential. Who knows? But it will be pricey, at least multiple times the prices now.” They were the people associated with it. I had encountered many demolition operators and scrap collectors from Anhui and Chongqing, whose entire outfits – from labor to the management – came from the same township, if not region.
This was not a group to wax nostalgia over the neighborhood although they were familiar with some of the Shanghainese residents who moved out in droves. They helped me to mentally map out the old Dongjiadu but there was little sentimental talk to be had.
The rest of the half hour long conversation centered on real estate investment (“Who’s going to stop this investment? Where else can all the money go?”) and property taxes and curtailment policies (“Beijing, Shanghai, the usual big cities. And Chongqing, definitely Chongqing”). Nowadays, when people gather in China, we all caw about inflation. First food then real estate, an escalation of needs and affordability. At the time of our discussion, the Chinese government had put in place restrictive mortgage stipulations: Higher down payments for second homes, no more loans for third homes or more, the definition of what constituted a “third” home was tightly drawn.
Yet, the men I was standing with all had at least two properties each, one in their hometowns and here in Shanghai. Modest ones, they assured me. After all, they were just simple folk in a rich town, so out of their league. I believed them. They all lived in the dilapidated housing to save on rent, grow their own food to save costs and gave their accompanying families at least a warm and safe place to live. If there were less than legal activities to be carried out, it was just another shade of gray in a world where black and white were moving goal posts of morality.
The stockmarket is a casino, absolute rubbish, the Chongqing man said. Channeling Donald Trump, he said, real estate is always good, as far as he was concerned.
At which time, he put out a second call to a friend on his mobile. “Oei, you coming or what? You’ve got to see these photos.”