It is not a secret that Shanghai is a modern and cosmopolitan city by international standards. Without a doubt it can be called a global metropolis with all economic indicators and standards of living growing for recent decades. Before coming here for the first time I had wondered whether there are any historical and non-commercial neighbourhoods still left. Turned out that even in Chinese frenzy of demolishing old estates, there was one still standing, although not for long.
I found Laoximen neighbourhood searching through my smartphone maps while I was hoping to find something different from monotonous mosaic of the city. I noticed a place which looked quite different than orderly and boring land around, a little bit like an excrescence on the city’s tissue. I believe this is how party officials perceive this place and they would probably say it’s a quarter of consolidated poverty but it’s only a partial truth.
From the street level Laoximen turned out to be pretty familiar and looked similar to all those old neighborhoods I had visited in Kunming before. Those of rather poorer kind. In fact all of those old neighborhoods have a lot in common. Thanks to this you can quite easily place them on the world map. Even if all ads, banners and captions revealing the country were taken away, you could still guess where you are thanks to hanging wires above the streets, e-bikes maneuvering through narrow alleys, a rich pallette of aromas and general mess.
It’s not hard to observe that a number of buildings have grown without control which now intensifies the sensation of narrowness. The houses tighly adjacent to one another and traditional Shanghai style mansions called Shikumen (actually a blend of western and traditional Chinese architectural influences) once large and spacious had been lot out into small lodgings inhabited today by bigger number of tenants. Their privacy is usually limited to just one room. Shared toilets and outside washrooms make it clear that neighbours living closely with each other like members of one family share all daily routines. After many years of living together they must know everything about each other. Who and when comes back home, who abuses alcohol, what they watch in the TV and what they fight about.
Bricked up windows and doors seen all around indicate that most of the buildings are empty already but I can still see a piece of the old lush life that once was flowing here in harmony with the rhytm of the day. Every morning the small alleys would fill up with people rushing to work on their e-bikes. Along with the waking traffic, small businesses, shops and food serving stalls would wake up too and the air would be scented with typical morning snacks. But now just a small scrap of this pulsing life has remained as there are more empty houses every day.
China has 5000 years of history, clear?
But Laoximen (which literally means Old West Gate) is not just another old estate built in the 90’s like others labeled to demolish in the face of growing wealth in China. In today’s Shanghai it is (was by the end of 2020) the oldest non-commercial niehgborhood of this kind and size. It is estimated to be present for roughly 500 years and used to be a part the old walled city. Architecturally it’s dominated by stylish, mentioned earlier Shikumen buildings being a mix of traditional Chinese and 19th century French styles. But we would search in vain for ancient buildings because except 16th century building of a local library there’s none left. Shouyin lou because this is what the library is called, is a gem of traditional Chinese architecture, it is also the oldest building in the neighborhood and surprisingly it is occupied by a descendant of the original owners. The interior is neglected and has been through a lot of historical turmoil. Despite its’ tarnished by time condition I learn that it won’t be bulldozed but will be restored just like bunch of other buildings of historical significance in Laoximen.
The neighborhood itself in the course of time evolved, was influenced and reconstructed couple of times. Cultural Revolution which swept away many monuments and tresures of the rich Chinese past also took its toll. Old landowners were stripped of their rights to own properties and beaten, humiliated, many of them killed. In their place representatives of lower classes moved in, Mao’s favourite component of the society, the core of revolutionary power. This is why partition of the spacious interiors to small rooms happened so that more people could be squeezed inside and their ownership of anything lowered to a value closer to zero. Shouyin lou example however shows that some landlords despite losing the ownership of their houses, could still live in their old properties while sharing it with other tenants.
Large area with a big potential for expensive and profitable investments is tidbit for developers. Because the historical value is not a problem for them, they just have to solve the problem of residents. One beautiful day developers with local officials visit a place chosen for an investment and offer inhabitants financial compensation or another apartment in return.
Housing standard in older neighbouroods like this one is well below the average of the nearby area so I’m not able to estimate how beneficial the financial assessment is for the owners. However very often those apartments offered instead are far away from the current location. Those who still live in Laoximen have no choice and can only wait until the officials would point out a place to which they can move. Somewhere around Songjiang district, they say. Songjiang is a spacious district in the west of Shanghai, roughly 30 kilometres. Those who care about convenient location rather than comfort of living lose the most and those whose properties are evaluated below the market price. And it seems to happen quite often as there were many residents expressing their dissappointment about their compensations.
The problem is that the offers are not quite a subject of negotiations and are rather the kind not to be refused. There are plenty of posters and billboards hung around with slogans about changing life for better and grabbing opportunities that help to make the right decision. In the light of these circumstances most of people just say “meibanfa” which means there’s nothing that one could do. But there’s also this problematic bunch that don’t want to move away.
I was told by a few people that developers manipulate, cheat and constantly intrude as a method to convince the stubborn ones to do the transaction. If the wide range of persuation fails I reckon there is only forceful removal as the last resort.
There is one thing that shouldn’t be left out as it would create somewhat distorted picture of the situation that takes place in Laoximen and similar estates. And it is a fact that a group of people satisfied with the moving is rather large. It’s hard to estimate the proportions but I believe that the majority of residents have no sentiment to the history or their properties and they can’t wait to finally move out. The amount of empty houses represents the number of people who already moved out to newer locations. And in all honesty interiors of some of these houses look dramatically bad, it’s no wonder that people generally want to live better and more comfortably. After all China has gone through a civilizational leap and people want to advance in the wealth hierarchy.
Desire to improve living conditions is totally understandable. Less understandable in China is attitude towards places with a potential. I heard a saying which expresses the mentality of destroying everything what is deemed out of date and building new things instead: Chaina. Pronounced same as China but writing and meaning indicate a bit mocking touch 拆那- destroy there.
None of the people I talked to don’t know what’s going to be built in the place of Laoximen and there is no information in the internet. I heard about two possibilites though. One would be a development of typical high rise real estate and another creating some sort of a cultural park with preserving the most valuable buildings. If the second scenario comes true then I think it’s a reasonable compromise between keeping the neighborhood and destroying it but if the first one, then well, Chaina.