The Unsquared Circle of Old Shanghai

Take a look at a map of Shanghai and it still jumps out at you — a tightly-wound ball of narrow streets threading through warrens of centuries-old houses. Call it what you will — the neighborhood seems to have no standard English name, and “Old City,” “Round City,” or simply “Old Shanghai” have been used before — but it’s impossible to deny this slice of China’s largest city stands a bit aloof; what’s left of it appears to exist in total defiance of a metropolis that appears ceaselessly hungry for towers that soar high enough to match the gaping width of its newly-broadened boulevards.

Old Shanghai’s uniqueness is a longstanding trend; the last time the neighborhood didn’t buck the rest of the city’s form was during the Middle Ages, when the Round City was Shanghai — a fledgling Ming Dynasty port. But skip forward to the 19th century and Shanghai has grown to become the hub of foreign commerce in China, its cityscape defined by the architecture the colonial powers have brought to their respective concessions — tiny fiefdoms run by local Westerners nominally reporting to overseas capitals.

Somewhat like Hong Hong’s Kowloon Walled City nearly a century later, the Old City, or “Chinese City,” as it began, then, to be called, remained an enclave within these enclaves, a densely-packed and ghettoized dormitory for much of the city’s local workforce. It even remained behind literal, medieval walls — until, during China’s 1911 revolution, they finally came crashing down.

But for several decades thereafter, the rest of the city remained under the yoke of colonial powers — and trenchantly segregated, despite the lack of physical barriers. “R.R.J.”, a visitor to the city around the turn of the twentieth century, can attest to that. By 1918 a resident of Massachusetts’ Charlestown State Prison, he was likely lost in wistful reminiscence of the wide world beyond his cold Boston jail cell when he penned some thoughts on Old Shanghai in the prison’s literary journal, The Mentor, that same year. A Western visitor interested in seeing the Chinese City, he wrote,

should repress his enthusiasm in the presence of the foreign resident and never, under any circumstances, no matter what powerful letters he may present what ties of kinship or bonds of old friendship he may claim, expect the foreign resident to accompany him there, nor anymore should he tell him about the excursion in polite Shanghai circles afterward…in all boredom nothing so bores the resident as the globe trotter’s tales of his slumming in the native city. The resident has usually never been there or he may apologetically explain that he did go once years ago when he first came when he was a…’tenderfoot’ in the far East.

It’s easy to treat this advice as a testament to the timeless tendencies of the jaded long-term expat, but even then, the Old City wasn’t exactly a tourist trap: the “foreign resident”‘s attitude is also an indication of a culturally and economically divided society. Still, it’s not surprising that Western tourists arrived with a voyeuristic craze to tour the Old City. A window into the Middle Kingdom steps away from the French Concession’s Parisian imports, Old Shanghai was viewed as a sort of easily accessible cultural zoo. “The stranger of course wishes to visit the old city of Shanghai,” R.R.J. observed. But, he cautioned, even

Old Shanghai is very little worth seeing [being] valuable chiefly as an exhibit of contrasts, lying thereinert unchanged with the model settlement beside it in glaring contrast for these fifty years…[Upon visiting] one balances himself on a wheelbarrow and is trundled by gray old walls, passing on the way a dead house where, one cholera season, some two thousand were waiting for the favorable and signs for burial…one enters the grimy vault and leaves the present century.

Old Shanghai remains crowded and dirty enough that even local history enthusiast Paul French, who waxes enthusiastic about the neighborhood’s heritage on his blog, China Rhyming, can’t help but also characterize it as a “low-rise slum [which] is poor and very small…[and] much of the housing stock is overcrowded and dilapidated. It’s an embarrassment for locals and a little baffling for visitors”.

The character of the city and that of the “model settlement” beyond also remains nearly as distinct as it was in R.R.J.’s time. True, Shanghai as a whole is far from uniformly developed, and shocking juxtapositions still abound, however cliché it remains to observe them. Segments of the city — like the affluent area around West Nanjing Road — give off at least as clinical a vibe as any well-scrubbed sidewalk in Singapore or Switzerland. The city’s characteristic alley houses, the shikumen, often present a much more ramshackle appearance.

In Old Shanghai, though, contrasts are more stark. Families don’t simply dine al fresco — the lack of space in its laneway tenements making streetside meals more necessity than choice — they cook, shop, play, and bathe out in the narrow passageways between houses as well. Streetlife here takes on another, almost literal dimension. At the same time, the futuristic skyline of Pudong looms over the Round City like an approaching alien invasion.




Shanghai’s long boom has largely spared the Old City, but its location in the heart of one of Earth’s largest and fastest growing conurbations has made its situation as precarious as it is remarkable, and sections have been incrementally chipped away. As the aerial view above shows, the Round City is now bisected by two major roads that have been hacked through its close-knit social thicket. When I visited, several blocks of homes were under demolition, leaving eerie piles of rubble still encircled by swirling sidewalk crowds and street vendors. Communal laundry lines flapped in the wind between newly vacant lots. This was in 2009; it would not be surprising if many of the streetscapes that remained then have also, since then, ceased to exist.

But Old Shangai has resisted the inexorable forces of change in urban China longer than most threatened sections of the city. For all their gape-mouthed horror at living conditions in the area, Shanghai’s colonial governments never moved to take control of the district, at most flooding it with missionaries, the only foreigners who wanted much to do with the place (beyond the occasional, curious visitor, like R.R.J.). Today’s tourists pass through Old Shanghai rather than to it, wandering in the direction of Chenghuang Miao — a half-faux-Ming era tourist market that’s a little like Shanghai’s version of festival marketplaces such as New York’s South Street Seaport or Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Some force other than their presence (or lack thereof) has helped preserve the Old City.

It’s possible to give credit to Shanghai’s nascent preservation movement, but Old Shanghai’s location is neither marginal nor insignificant to still-more-powerful developers’ ambitions. Nor would the neighborhood prove as profitable to restore (read: gentrify) as Xintiandi, a warren of nearby French Concession alleys that is to wealthy expats what Chenghuang Miao is to mainstream tourists — an outdoor mall using history as branding pastiche. Whatever the desirability of this approach, there’s simply too much Old Shanghai for the neighborhood’s age alone to serve as its saving grace.

There does remain a certain propaganda value in retaining this part of the city — a reminder that Shanghai has roots deeper than those laid down by the colonial powers who built the neoclassical landmarks along the Bund — a notion as useful to China’s rulers as relentless economic growth and demonstrable “modernization”. But it’s not clear Shanghai officials have come anywhere near such subtle symbolism in any of their other urban planning efforts thus far — why, after all, have so many of Shanghai’s unremarkable colonial buildings, too, survived? Both they and the Old City can probably credit the same sources of their perseverance — luck, at best, and time.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Friday February 17 2012at 01:02 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Maps and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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