Shanghai’s lost shikumen and villas in 2013

星平里 Xingping Lane 01

When the editor over at Shanghaiist approached me to write a review of “lost” historical buildings in Shanghai in 2013, I hesitated for a brief moment. In an attempt to regain some positivity in documenting old neighborhoods, I’ve been trying to focus more on shikumen lilongs that are very much alive and  thriving.

For  the review, I wanted to highlight lost properties that had a good story. It didn’t take long to compile a short list after digging into my archives and checking in with the “old hands” including Xi Zi (席子), Ishi and Katya. Below is a longer version of what was published on Shanghaiist, as I wanted to throw in some personal experiences and thoughts.

I also want to take the opportunity to thank all the readers for your company and interest in my little sliver of the internet universe. I appreciate the emails, comments and occasional praise of how they enjoy the content and newly revamped website. Have a wonderful new year and may both our 2014 be filled with more discoveries and stories!

All photos are mine unless otherwise stated.

1. Shenyu Lane (慎余里) on 847 Tiantong Lu (天潼路847弄)

Shenyuli Lane 01

Photo by Xi Zi (席子)

Built in the 1930s, the 8,000-square-meter Shenyuli Lane neighborhood along Suzhou Creek was listed as a heritage site under protection in 2004 as it was considered one of the “most complete preservation of typical shikumen architecture” despite being ravaged twice during the Sino-Japanese war. In addition to a nice variety of shikumen design, Shenyu Lane has elaborate mosaic public service posters peppered through the lanes.

Housing around 40 shikumen homes and over 1,000 residents, much of Shenyu Lane has since been demolished between 2012-13 due to a local district plan to build “an eco-friendly corridor for sightseeing and relaxation, with five parks and several yachting sites.” Local officials plan to reconstruct some shikumen buildings with the original materials, and consider this the best way to “save” these heritage architecture. The incomprehensible logic has not escaped local preservationists who have openly criticized the move. Even Ruan Yisan, the director of the National Historic Cities Research Center of Tongji University and responsible for the restoration of the Bund, had declared it “not protection but destruction”.

Note: Shenyu Lane has got to be one of my biggest regrets and reminder of the frustration of not being able to document full-time. I have walked by the lilong but never properly shot around the area. I am told there are a few lingering structures left but it is largely flattened. The loss of Shenyu Lane, whatever inane preservation policy the local district officials have concocted in their defense, is a dismal reminder that a heritage protection label can be pretty worthless.

2. Former Residence of Liang Hongzhi (梁鸿志宅) on 850 Tanggu Lu (塘沽路850号)

850 Tanggu Lu 01

A statuesque and very sturdy two storey U-shaped villa that used to sit on Tanggu Lu (right behind the shopping racket that is Qipu Lu) and adjacent to also-fallen shikumen Changchun “Long Spring” Lane (长春里). The villa was in fact once owned by the Liang Hongzhi, the former Chairman of the Reformed Government of the Republic of China (1938-40) created as a Japanese puppet regime during the Second Sino-Japanese War. After the war, Liang was labeled a traitor, tried for treason and executed in 1946.

Liang Hongzhi 01

Source: Wikipedia Commons

The former Liang Residence boasted durable Roman columns, elaborately carved stairwells and traditional patterned flooring. A outside stair case was built to ease traffic for all 12 families and on the second floor corridor housed a painted Mao Zedong portrait.

850 Tanggu Lu 03850 Tanggu Lu 04

Photos by Xi Zi (席子)

Note: I photographed the villa back in 2011 but the focus was Long Spring” Lane (长春里) next door, which resulted in the post “Standing Tall on Tanggu Lu But Not For Long”. I was a bit shy about barrelling past the nice woman who let me poke around the villa yard, and presumed wrongly that such a sturdy building could be torn down. How wrong I was. It was a bit of a shock to realize the villa’s fate, even digging deeper into the history of Liang Hongzhi didn’t numb the pain. Liang may have been regarded a traitor by the Communist Party but his residence could have been recognized as an indelible mark of history.

3. Maggie Lane (麦琪里) on Wulumuqi Lu (乌鲁木齐路) and Wuyuan Lu (五原路路)

Maggie Lane

Photo by Xi Zi (席子)

Most expats living in the French Concession would know about this mysteriously blocked off area of housing protected by fierce security guards. Maggie Lane has been plagued by scandal since it was slated for “urban renewal” as early as 2001. Sitting opposite the luxury residential complex The Summit and office space The Centre, the value of the land can only go skywards, which has caused the negotiation and moving out process involving the district government, developer and residents to be marred by violence and even death. On the evening of Chinese New year in 2004, thugs hired by the developer had tried to scare an elderly couple to leave, ended up setting the house ablaze and killing the residents. The unfortunate event eventually inspired one of the plot lines “Dwelling Narrowness” (<蜗居>) a Chinese serial drama about the travails of China’s “mortgage slaves”, forcing censors to abruptly take it off air. Even till today, locals never forget to mention the fire when talking about Maggie Lane.

Only this fall, American Public Radio’s Marketplace reported about one of the remaining families who had been kidnapped and forcibly removed. Previously, curious passersby could sneak into small openings for a peak, now it’s tightly sealed off with only one or two houses left. Like it or not, the controversial story of Maggie Lane is rapidly coming to an end. Alas, not every body was able to spot the beautiful and traditional Chinese motifs on a less-than-traditional shikumen header.

Note: Given its prime location, many have tried to scale walls and sneak past the nasty guards. I made it as far to see the very shikumen above, and was so intrigued and distracted by the design, I was thrown out quickly after by Wuyuan Lu. Academic Samuel Liang wrote a very interesting journal piece entitled “Property-driven Urban Change in Post-Socialist Shanghai: Reading the Television Series Woju” that connected Maggie Lane and the drama serial, a very worthy read.

4. Xingping Lane (星平里) on Shunchang Lu (顺昌路) along Fuxing Lu (复兴路)

Xingping Lane 02

The old neighborhoods around Xintiandi area has always held pockets of historical significance, and shikumen lanes around Shunchang Lu and Jinan Lu are no different. Residents snigger when recounting the urban legend of how Mao Zedong was late for the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party meeting (now Xintiandi) because he got hopelessly lost in the shikumen lanes. Between 1920s to 1930s, politicians, lawyers, mistresses and poets were housed in this and that house, their wealth and elevated societal status denoted by their elaborate shikumen designs. Now, ritzy luxury condominiums occupy north of Fuxing Lu with opulent names like The Baccarat, while south of Fuxing Lu, locals in remaining lilongs still swear by the wet market where you will get the best home-made flat noodles. The majesty of some of the shikumens in Xingping Lane were never revealed as fully as when developers started tearing down the surrounding houses.

Note:  I took the above Instagram photo the same day I delivered the portrait shots to the remaining residents, one of whom is the old man in the first photo above. I love the elegant swirls of the header and the colored stripes of the columns, which is so creative, I wished the entire neighborhood could have been an experiemental shikumen design zone.

5. East Siwen Lane (东斯文里) stretching along Datian Lu (大田路) and Xinzha Lu (新闸路)

Siwen Lane 01

The neighborhood is now a large and eerie ghost town since residents have emptied out in anticipation of mass demolition. First developed by a British-Jewish property developer in 1917 and completed in 1921, Siwen Lane was an ambitious public housing project and remains one of Shanghai’s largest shikumen lilong neighborhood that, at it’s peak occupancy, housed 2,700 families in 700 shikumen homes.

The west part of Siwen Li was demolished a few years ago for the development of the upcoming, fantastically designed Natural History Museum.

The mass departure of residents from East Siwen Lane was splashed across the local news mid-2013, triggering pangs of nostalgia over the loss of another milestone in Shanghai’s public housing history.

Note: I was reminded that it would be a technical fallacy to say it has been demolished. But I’d argue that half of it is well on its way to become a museum. The widespread news coverage is a testament to the landmark significance the neighborhood has had on many families. But from what I’ve read, given the old and poor infrastructure, many families have been fine, some even pleased, to have left. I’ve been slowly piecing together the history and individual stories from Chinese blogs and news, and will share them in due course.

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