On the back side of my office building, there is a small lane running between old houses. I often walk it on the way home, to avoid the crowd of the surrounding boulevards. It is lively but quiet, kids playing around and people chatting from one house to the other in a tranquillle atmosphere… right in the middle of modern Shanghai. This is one of my “secret passages” through the old Shanghai shikumens. The picture left shows this little alley going throughout the houses, surrounded by brand new skyscrapers towers. During my trip, I cross two separate sections, one that is of very good construction art-deco style (the first two rows on the picture), the other one of lower quality 1920’s houses.
I walked through it recently, and realized that many of the small streets were strangely empty, people having abandoned furniture outside and many windows being left open. I looked around for an explanation, and I suddenly noticed the large posters that were sticked on many walls. Although I still cannot read so much Chinese, it did not take me long to understand that they were official government posters, and that the date of 10th August 2006 (i.e. yesterday) was written on then. I was reading the evacuation notice, the death sentence of my beloved back street. These beautiful art-deco brick houses will soon be destroyed, probably replaced by another tasteless modern complex of building featuring “luxury” apartments, shopping center and offices. I can already see banners repeating again and again arguments for destroying this piece of architecture and history, the race for modernity. I am not so sure those people will love to be relocated from the house they have lived in all their life in the city center to modern aseptic housing settlements, miles away in the suburbs, cut apart from their life long community. The neighborhood is probably happily waiting for the next one of these all-in-ones developments, with another shopping center looking like an advertising for luxury chains of hotels or international credit cards, where the same brands as anywhere else will be sold in an sterile environment.
I do not want sound like opposing progress, as I know that Shanghai still needs a lot of economical development. At the same time, remains of the old Shanghai are disappearing so fast that the city’s history will soon be visible in museums only. I mentioned before that this little road crosses through two different groups of building. The second one was clearly not well built and some houses are about to collapse after 60 years without maintenance. I don’t think there is much to do about this section, apart from tearing it down and rebuilding above it. However, the first smallest section is made of beautiful art-deco style buildings of high quality, still looking great after all this neglect. Every time I pass here, I try to imagine how this section of eight or ten houses could be restored and transformed into beautiful shops, cafes and restaurants enjoying sunny terraces. Few examples of this kind already exist in China, and the location could have made it an ideal shopping and entertainment area, right next to the main business district. Maybe I am a little too European liking old buildings so much, just dreaming about creating nice living conditions in a city were people are just obsessed by fleeing far away as soon as they have made their money. In any case, this dream of a little corner of enjoyment in the middle of the skyscrapers while keeping some valuable history is just about to disappear. To destroy its past is probably the fastest, but not necessarily the nicest way for Shanghai to become a world city.