Leaving a family history of poverty behind in Siwen Lane (斯文里)

His name was Wang. A bespectacled man in his late 30s, he wore a short-sleeved shirt and carried a sling bag. When I met him, he was studiously examining blueprints of new neighborhoods plastered across the walls. Even while answering his mobile, he was soft spoken and polite.

I asked why he was in the empty relocation office by Siwen Lane on a weekday afternoon. Wang explained that he was reviewing his options for housing in upcoming suburbs, many of which are rapidly building new hospitals, shopping malls, schools and new transportation links. His parents had recently vacated their crumbling home in Siwen Lane and moved in with their son in his new apartment in Pudong. The family is owed a property for compensation in the relocation process, which they will likely rent out.

Wang was a son of Siwen Lane. What used to be Shanghai’s largest shikumen lilong neighborhood that, at it’s peak occupancy, housed 2,700 families in 700 shikumen homes, Siwen Lane’s west side has been cleared to make way for a new Natural History Museum. The east side has been vacated and now eerily empty, well on its way to a similar fate.

Siwen Lane 01Wang parents came from humble beginnings. His paternal side were peasants from outside of Shanghai, displaced and destitute during the civil unrest after the collapse of the Qing dynasty. They fled into the city and lived in slums along Suzhou Creek near where Siwen Lane was built. His mother’s family were farmers from Pudong, which held the same low level in society as migrant peasants from north Jiangsu back in the day.

I asked Wang if his father’s family had ever lived in gundilong (滚地龙), shabby and dilapidated huts built on muddy grounds along the banks of the polluted Suzhou Creek and pockets of the Chinese district in the early 20th century. Wang’s eyes lit up in recognition, “Possibly! Times were very tough back then, they lived in those conditions only because they couldn’t afford a proper house.” Eventually, his father’s family saved enough to rent a small room in the massive Siwen Lane.


Migrants living in make-shift huts, also known as gundilong (滚地龙). Source: “Exhibiting the “Old Society”: Shanghai’s Fangua Lane and Propaganda in the Maoist Era”, China Beat, May 2011.

After 1949 when the Party took over, they were given rights to live in their home or shiyongquan (使用权) but the family did not technically own the property as it belonged to the state. The family never managed to acquire the property rights to their home in Simen Lane. In comparison, the new compensation home his family will receive in the suburbs comes with full property rights or fangdiquan (房地权), offering a kind of security that only brick and mortar can.

He beamed when I asked how he and his parents were enjoying the suburbs, “Well, I like it. Our apartment is spacious and the area is very green. I’m close enough to the metro and my parents have access to a large hospital nearby.” Then he paused, “I think my parents miss the community in Siwen Lane but they don’t complain about where we are now since we’re all living together.”

Wang seemed so pleased with his comfortable living situation; I asked if everyone was as lucky as he was. He shook his head, “Some of us save and plan in advance when faced with the reality that we would eventually lose the homes we grew up in.”

In fact, he argued, urban residents have it tougher compared to rural residents and farmers who have benefited hugely from urbanization (城镇化). “They are given all this money to relocate to new houses further out in exchange for their farm land that would be converted into factories. They give up their livelihoods yet do not know how to work outside of a farm.” Essentially, the loss of sustained income from farming overshadowed any short-term gains.

I expressed my skepticism that not all rural residents “win out” in land deals. He quickly clarified his position, “At least that’s what happened to my farmer relatives on my mother’s side. They enjoyed a windfall with new homes and money when Pudong was developing, I don’t think they’re in a good place now.”

In spite of his claims, Wang’s clear preference for his life in the suburbs reflected a younger generation that remained eager to shed a childhood of cramped lilong living, poor facilities and lack of privacy. They accept if not welcome fresher air, spacious roads and updated facilities, even if the price of inconvenience can be high for some. Upward creeping concrete walls and desolate green spaces may speak of a cold claustrophobia for the older generation but for Wang, his move represented a departure from a long family history of working class subsistence.

Before we separated, I asked if he would miss Siwen Lane when it’s torn down. He paused to contemplate and concluded. “I can reminisce with old photos.”

Community Living in Shikumen Lanes 01



1 Comment

  • Reply November 4, 2014


    Great article, Sue Anne! Chinese and international newspapers should be asking for your permission to reprint it.

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