Treaty of Nanking

Despair as old Shanghai feels the wrecker's ball

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 February, 2012, 12:00am


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Exquisitely carved wooden features lie strewn on the ground. Broken East-meets-West balconies sit atop piles of crumbled bricks. A small stray dog stands in the midst of the shattered remains of what was once a home.

That gallery of images was how Shanghai's semi-official news portal reported local residents' dismay at the 'overnight' demolition of two courtyard houses dating from the 1920s during the Lunar New Year holidays.

Sitting inside what was the original walled town of Shanghai in pre-colonial days, the homes were supposedly protected, but that did not save them from the wrecker's ball.

Unfortunately, Shanghai residents upset by this architectural tragedy had better brace themselves for more demolitions, if the city's government is to be taken at its word.

At his annual press conference last month, Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng pledged to dramatically accelerate urban redevelopment and the 'remodelling of old districts'. After a year of reduced activity, Han said the municipal government was returning to action with gusto - committing 6 billion yuan (HK$7.4 billion) to re-house 25,000 to 30,000 households over the next two years. The original timescale had allowed five years to complete the work.

In this part of the world, the meaning of 'remodelling' is pretty unequivocal: smash it, crush it, grind it into the ground. Across Shanghai, vast swathes of housing have been flattened, in scenes reminiscent of second world war Europe.

In the 21 years since the project to develop Pudong into the city's financial district began, Han told last month's press conference, the city had demolished 75 million square metres of 'grade two or lower dangerous housing', adding this equated to 1.4 million households.

When that process began, virtually all of central Shanghai was quaint, low-rise, red-brick lane houses - communities that had changed little since the 1940s. Sizeable pockets of that housing remain - particularly in the northeastern districts of Yangpu and Hongkou, and in the city centre, where they have been turned into fashionable coffee quarters or set aside as 'model units' - but they are disappearing fast.

Long-time observers of the process, such as Paul French (author of Midnight in Peking), say district authorities and developers adopt a systematic approach to undermining lane communities to prepare them for destruction.

Long-term residents are gradually replaced with low-paid migrant workers, crammed into minimal-rent bedsits. Unsurprisingly, these tenants are somewhat less inclined towards building maintenance or taking care of what to them is a temporary and makeshift neighbourhood. Bit by bit the rot sets in: litter collects in the alleys, broken windows get boarded up with an old piece of plywood, blocked drains are stepped around. Often, labourers are hired to smash roof-tiles, letting the elements get at the rafters and joists.

Within a year or two, homes that had been perfectly sound - structurally, at least - begin to deteriorate rapidly, and who can argue when the government declares the district 'unsafe' and earmarked for demolition.

Strangely, once cleared, there often seems to be no sense of urgency to put the land into use.

One long-empty site sits across the road from one of the only new office towers in the heart of the French Concession, and a stone's throw from some of the quarter's most gentrified backstreets and trendy cafes. The fact such a prime location has been left barren for so long sits uneasily with the conventional narrative about Shanghai's booming property market.

From the nostalgic visitor's point of view, the loss of so much heritage looks like wanton destruction. But for many officials and the ordinary Shanghai resident, this is progress.

The old lane communities might look lovely on a postcard, but they are not always particularly hospitable.

Rickety unlit staircases, slapdash, retro-fitted plumbing (if any at all), broken windows and damp walls are par for the course.

But many could be modernised and given a new lease of life that would allow Shanghai to avoid having to learn a lesson that many European cities did only after they had replaced most of their stylish-but-rundown housing stock with drab, leaky, concrete tower blocks.

Until very recently, virtually the only vocal opponents to the clearing of old houses tended to be concerned expatriates.

Those courtyard homes in the old town, and the reaction to their destruction, could perhaps mark a turning point of sorts.

Xinmin headlined its editorial: 'Was there no alternative to demolition?'

It is about time Shanghai had that debate.