Conversations: Jie Li on “Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life”

Shanghai Homes Jie LI cover image

Jie LiJie Li’s book Shanghai Homes has been 10 years in the making. Combining memoirs and analysis of communal hardship and familial secrets, the book focuses on the lives of Li’s grandparents and their neighbors; how they coped with the political turmoil under Mao and the frenzy of the later boom years. These stories are significant because according to Li, “the strands of their lives are inextricably woven into a larger historical tapestry, giving it color, texture, and nuance often lost in sweeping grand narratives.”

My favorite part of the book are illustrations by Li’s artist parents that demonstrate the evolving spacial dynamics within a single housing unit over the decades. What used to house a multi-generational family was continually divided up to accommodate other families of varying “political labels”, sapping up space and brewing more tension. Having interviewed many Shanghainese in lilong homes myself, I noticed the stories revealed by Li are not unfamiliar, and can be similarly found etched across Shanghai’s old neighborhoods, within the confines of the green walls, narrow kitchens and crowded alleyways.

(Above: A cross-section view of House no. 183 in Lane 1695, Yangshupu district, in the early 1980s, where the author’s paternal family lived. Illustration by the author’s parents.)

SAT: Your book focuses on the stories and dynamics of two alley homes that your paternal and maternal grandparents lived for much of their lives. What motivated you to embark on the project?

JL: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many of Shanghai’s old lilong neighborhoods were being demolished, and I began to see photo books that tried to capture the vanishing architecture. But what about the human stories that spanned several generations? It is people and their histories that give soul and meaning to the architecture. So I began to collect the stories of my own extended family and their neighbors, interviewing them over many summers. I consolidated these fragments into my undergraduate thesis, anchoring a century of memories to the two alleyway homes of my grandparents, where I also lived as a child. As those lilong were marked for demolition and as my grandparents began passing away, I decided to turn the thesis into a book as a means of commemoration.

View of the main entrance of Alliance Lane from the street, with a photographer's studio and a "tiger stove" that sold hot water and tea on the left, a paper and tobacco shop, and a barber shop on the right. Courtesy of author.

The main entrance of Alliance Lane from the street, with a photographer’s studio and a “tiger stove” that sold hot water and tea on the left, a paper and tobacco shop, and a barber shop on the right. The author’s maternal family lived here. Illustration by the author’s parents.

SAT: You defined three dimensions of private life in Shanghai lilongs: domestic spaces, artifacts and narratives of history? Can you explain how you arrived at these tenets? Do you feel they best explain Shanghai’s public/private lilong life over the tumultuous decades?

JL: I arrived at these three dimensions of private life through interviews. Because of overcrowding, Shanghainese have been obsessed about housing issues for decades. Tracing how private spaces were used and divided up over time can tell us a great deal about the city’s political, social, economic, and cultural transformations. But homes are not just housing, but also filled with things that took on personal meanings and histories over time. To collect oral history, you need to ask about concrete details rather than abstract opinions, so the recollection of domestic artifacts was a great way to prompt the memories of my interviewees. Finally, their life narratives show how ordinary people made sense of twentieth century history, revealing private experiences, family relationships, and changing moral values.

Shanghai Homes Jie LI waigong waipo family

A family portrait of the author’s maternal family including her Waigong, Waipo and their three family in 1957: her mother, the eldest; Aunt Yahua, and Uncle Strong (baby).

SAT: For some of your subjects, you mentioned that sharing their life stories had been cathartic while others have been hesitant, almost fearful. How do you cope with the latter?

JL: In the Mao era, life stories had implications. Pre-1949 suffering could become post-1949 capital, and past prosperity could become present liability. In revolutionary terms, many people in Shanghai had “blemishes” in their family background or organizational affiliations. Silence about this kind of past was a form of self-protection and became a habit for many, even after the Cultural Revolution. Silence was also a way to repress traumatic experiences from the Mao era. Turning past suffering into a coherent narrative is usually cathartic, but this takes trust, even with close family members. That’s why the most eloquent narratives in the book are from people close to me, who could open up to me little by little over the years until they were no longer afraid to speak of the past. Some were even good-humored enough to laugh at their past suffering.

Shanghai Homes Jie LI cross section of 111 alliance lane 1940s

A cross-section view of an unmodified individual unit in No. 111 Alliance Lane in the 1940s. Illustration by the author’s parents.

SAT: In the chapter “Gossip”, you mentioned that “(t)he history of any alleyway should be written as an anthology of gossip exchanged among its residents.” At the same time, you indicated that interviewees were more comfortable or “generous” when speaking about others. How do you ensure accuracy and objectivity of the various accounts?

JL: I cannot “ensure” accuracy, but I can ask multiple interviewees about the same events and check the plausibility of their accounts against historical sources. Still, my aim was never to be objective but rather to bring out precisely the most subjective, personal, and idiosyncratic voices. I was especially interested in stories and narratives that went against the grain of official historiography. In this sense, the book focuses more on memories and experiences than on political history or sociological data.

Shanghai Homes Jie LI yeye nainai family 1968

The author’s paternal family including her Yeye, Nainai, and their children in 1968: her father, Aunt Bean, Uncle Lucky, Aunt Treasure and Aunt Pearl.

SAT: How have your family and other interviewees responded to the book? Do they have any expectations of what the audience may take away from their experiences?

JL: Only a small fraction of my interviewees can read the book in English, but I gave them a rough overview of what I wrote. Most are happy to be in a book; to have their stories and photographs appear in print is a bit like entering history—the ephemeral made permanent. Given the Western readership, some may expect their experiences to serve as a lens for understanding Shanghai, China, modern Chinese history etc.

Shanghai Homes Jie LI cross section of 111 alliance lane

A cross-section view of No. 111 Alliance lane around the 1960s. In contrast to the unmodified unit in 1940s (see illustration above), five families lived in different rooms of the house from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s. Illustration by the author’s parents.

SAT: You’ve published this book in English which allows a wider, perhaps a more Western audience, who may carry a different perspective towards public housing, community living, modernity etc. Do you feel that if the book was translated into Chinese, it may resonate more widely with a generation who underwent the same history or even solicit a more nuanced reaction from local Shanghainese?

JL: If the book were to be translated into Chinese, it might elicit more nods of recognition from Shanghai’s readers. I also hope that it might inspire other young people to “excavate where they stand”—interviewing their own families and neighbors—in order to acquire a more complex and nuanced perspective on history than what they learn from textbooks.

Shanghai Homes Jie LI alleyway neighbors

Video stills by the author of her Waipo (maternal grandmother) who is seen here gossiping with her alleyway neighbors in 2000.

SAT: I’m curious about the academic drivers behind your book. Can you point to any authors or works, similar in genre or subject focus – you’ve named examples of Walter Benjamin’s “A Berlin Childhood” or Lu Hanchao’s “Beyond the Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century” – that have had great influence in your research?

JL: Leo Ou-fan Lee, my undergraduate mentor at Harvard and the author of “Shanghai Modern“, first introduced me to the city’s cultural history and to writers such as Eileen Chang and Wang Anyi. Their brilliant descriptions of domestic details and insights into human relationships reminded me of my own family and neighbors, so I began wondering if their stories might also be worth telling. Another scholarly model was Svetlana Boym’s “Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia”, particularly the chapter on the Soviet communal apartment, which elegantly combined academic and personal writing. As she put it, “a thick description of archeological ruins might occasionally offer deeper insights into another culture, its unwritten laws of operation and invisible spaces, than could comforting taxonomy, statistics, or scientific periodization.”

Shanghai Homes Jie LI duckweed room

Video stills by the author of Aunt Duckweed’s empty childhood home in 2000.

SAT: Aunt Duckweed’s story of family conflict and strife in “A Room of Her Own” was particularly sad. It seemed to explain the calculative nature we associate with Shanghainese, and the general deep-seated skepticism and distrust of Chinese that has trickled down the generations. Depressing as this may sound, is this what is left in terms of the legacy of lilong communities now that they are slowly disappearing?

JL: In families and villages of any culture or historical era, you can find generous and selfish souls; you can find saints and pariahs, misers and shrews, snobs and clowns, zealots and cynics. But in crowded lilong neighborhoods, virtue and vice, love and hate, pride and prejudice, conflict and strife are all magnified because people can’t get away from each other. Calculation and distrust may indeed be historical legacies of Shanghai’s housing shortage, but I think the material scarcity and political campaigns of the Maoist decades also contributed to the breakdown of familial harmony in the post-socialist era, especially in the demolition and relocation process.

Shanghai Homes book cover

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