Living in an old Shanghai house is not only about choosing a place to stay, it is also a life experience and even a life style. An apartment in an old house is often the only renovated part of the house, or with different owners, renovation has been made a different times for each renovated apartment. In any case, only the inside in renovated, as the outside and common area remains in the care (or rather lack of) of the local government office. So if the whole building needs maintenance, one cannot do it alone, but needs to wait for the officials to come in. Anyway, the neighbours often have no money to pay for repair and cannot be bothered to do anything but the quickest and cheapest fix possible. With lane houses, the situation is a little better, but if the neighbour does not repair his roof, sooner or later your roof will also be damaged.
Maintenance in China is often an issue, and maintenance of Shanghai old houses is no exception. First of all, it is clear than in Chinese culture, new is better than old and fixing is useless. Even the definition of restoration and protection of old building is totally different. Most Europeans, French in particular, have the romantic idea that trying to keep old buildings and preserving as much old parts as possible is best. Needless to say that I fully subscribe to this idea. For most Chinese though, renovation mostly means rebuilding something the old way… from scratch. The renovated are old… but new. This typically done with old chinese temples remade from scratch, of for Old Shanghai buildings that are ruinovated to be modernized while keeping only the old outside (see post Plaza 353 ruinovation for a great example).
For old Shanghai houses, people who were allocated these apartments for free were also told that soon they would live in bright modern buildings instead of this horrible place. This often took place two or more generations ago, with many people still living in the same place. In the meantime, only the very minimum maintenance was every made… since soon people would move to a better place (soon sometimes lasted for decades… and is not always over yet). With so little maintenance, it is often amazing to see how well these old shags (as people thing they are) have resisted against time. Many 10 to 15 years old building in today’s Shanghai are in much worst status that those old ladies. Too be fair, I found the very same attitude in Central and Eastern Europe when I lived there… for the same reason.
My 1936 built flat is no exception. It requires maintenance… and I understand it. Having lived there for 10 years, my landlord still finds amazing that I like this old house more than his brand new other apartment. The flat is still in good condition, but any suggestion of improvement or anything more than what is urgent is most time received as a ridiculous idea of laowai. Although I told him many times, I don’t think he comprehends the fact that I have lived in and owned apartments much older than this place… and in a much better state of repair overall.
As the quality of his repairs has always been very low, I decided to take one matter into my own hands: window reglazing. The trip to the small neighbouring hardware shop was amazing, as I had no idea how to call window putty in Chinese. I started to explain that I needed glue for the window, but not the new silicon gel one, the old version. We really did not get anywhere until I found a putty knife and made the connection. I was surely the very first laowai to buy this kind of equipment here. Fortunately, window glazing is something I have done before… about 30 years ago in the family countryside house. I never thought I would use this skill again, surely not half way across the planet. Sure enough, the techniques applied in Shanghai in the 1930’s, are very similar to the ones in Europe around the same time. I spent a few hours fixing the windows, with the great satisfaction to have made life at home better and shown to my landlord than I can do as well if not better than him.