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Chinese history

As development destroys old Shanghai, residents win payouts but lose neighbourhood feeling, and calls for preservation grow 

The run-down lane houses of Laoximen are the latest to fall to the wrecker’s ball in China’s biggest city, where fans of its old buildings hope more can be done to renovate those worth saving so residents can stay put and live better 

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2018, 1:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2018, 4:42pm

Economic prosperity has always been followed by redevelopment of urban areas, and it’s no different in China today, where cities are building futuristic skylines of gleaming metal and glass towers at breakneck speed.

The casualties, however, are the older neighbourhoods that families have called home for generations. In Shanghai it is the interwoven networks of lilongs, or lanes,  packed with low-rise residences, vegetable markets and noodle shops.

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The residents are increasingly elderly Shanghainese, as the younger generation seek the modern comforts of high-rise living, and so it is with the disappearing neighbourhood of Laoximen.

Literally translating to the “old west gate”, Laoximen was the location of the western gate of Shanghai’s old walled city (the wall existed from the 16th century until it was torn down in 1912).

Development has nibbled away at its edges for some years. Now, residents are leaving their homes in droves, as crews work from west to east knocking down a neighbourhood that has existed for 500 years.

“China’s urbanisation started in the 1980s completely thoughtlessly and haphazardly. Because China had little financial resources but faced a housing crisis, Chinese cities pretty much sold themselves to the highest bidder, allowing those who paid most to develop wherever they wanted without any cohesive, long-term, overall urban planning in mind,” says Qin Shao, a history professor at the College of New Jersey in the United States, and author of Shanghai Gone: Domicide and Defiance in a Chinese Megacity.

The blind pursuit of economic growth since the 1980s has made the situation worse, as historical preservation has never been a priority
Qin Shao, College of New Jersey

“This leads to a huge deficiency of historical preservation, which, one may argue, was dead on arrival. The blind pursuit of economic growth since then has made the situation worse, as historical preservation, while mentioned frequently, has never been a priority.” 

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On a recent walking tour around the remains of Laoximen with Historic Shanghai’s Patrick Cranley and Tina Kanagaratnam, red banners with yellow characters strung up around the neighbourhood read: “Get your money early, start a new life.”

When old neighbourhoods are demolished in China, media attention usually focuses on heavy-handed developers, greedy local governments and elderly holdouts refusing to leave their “nail houses” as the bulldozers roll in. 

The reality, however, according to Cranley, is that many of Laoximen’s pensioners are quite happy to be given a cash handout to leave their run-down dwellings, most dating from the 1920s and ’30s.

Others, with children and grandchildren living in downtown Shanghai, bemoan the fact that the money they receive won’t enable them to live in high-priced housing nearby. Most will likely move to newer developments at the city’s outskirts.

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“When these guys are moved out of a lane, into a new apartment building, they are lucky if they know the people across the hall. There’s not the same immediate access to leisure spaces, the shops are more inconvenient. That neighbourhood feeling is something that is hard to preserve unless you think when you are redeveloping or developing the new residential areas,” Cranley says.

Qin recalls walking with her sister from their childhood home in one of Shanghai’s old neighbourhoods. A journey that should have taken 20 minutes stretched to an hour as they stopped frequently to speak with people on the street.

“Just imagine that today, say in Pudong [New District], where high-rises dominate,” she says.

Those keen on seeing greater efforts made to preserve old buildings and traditional neighbourhoods in Shanghai have a difficult job on their hands. Post-revolution housing policies in China have left them in a state of neglect and disrepair. That means knocking them down and starting from scratch is much cheaper than restoring homes with no indoor plumbing, heating or insulation.

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“During the past 30 or 40 years, these kinds of areas, historic buildings and neighbourhoods haven’t had enough repair or restoration, so their condition has become very poor and it’s not good for living any more,” says Ding Feng, chief planner at the Shanghai Tongji Urban Planning and Design Institute.

“These older buildings usually belong to the government. The people who live there don’t own the building, they rent from the government, so they don’t care about the house and its upkeep. 

“From the point of view of the government, this is the fastest way to regenerate this kind of area and the best way economically. The real estate developers like to buy the land and develop a totally new area. Of course, there are lots of experts calling for the government to find another way, a middle way to do that.”

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It’s this so-called middle way that preservation advocates in Shanghai now largely advocate – a balance between development and protection of the city’s history, personality and sense of community.

“All these old neighbourhoods, they are all run down. I like to be very clear about this: nobody wants to see people continue to have to live in the conditions that exist in the lane neighbourhoods, regardless of whose fault it is that they were never maintained,” Cranley says.

What we lament is the loss of the artistic bits and also the neighbourhood feeling
Patrick Cranley, Historic Shanghai

“What we lament is the loss of the artistic bits and also the neighbourhood feeling. So any solution that would help to preserve some of the better built, better designed lane houses, that would also allow people to live in better conditions, we would be in support of that.”

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Ding points out that in a centralised political system like China’s, top-down leadership on issues such as preserving historic buildings is particularly important. Even within greater Shanghai, some local governments are doing a much better job at preserving old neighbourhoods than others, with little guidance from the central government, she says.

“In Xuhui district [which includes much of Shanghai’s colonial Former French Concession], lots of small lane neighbourhoods are being looked at by architects and urban planners. They are working with the local communities and the local government. They want to do what they call wei gen xin [micro updates], as opposed to widespread development,” she says. “In Huangpu district [which administers Laoximen], the government is not so good at this.”

It still breaks your heart every time you see something like Laoximen, because of its buildings, its culture. You know this whole way of life is not going to continue
Tina Kanagaratnam, Historic Shanghai

There is also a role for wealthy individuals in Shanghai to play in preservation of the city’s history, according to Cranley.

“I think there is greater awareness now than there was 20 years ago of the value of historical architecture … We always say that, actually, historic preservation is a luxury. You don’t think about it until you have all of your basic needs met, and one of our arguments is that the wealthy in Shanghai should turn their attention to cultural endeavours. After you’ve got your fifth Ferrari and your fourth condo, you can use your economic leverage to make the city you love better,” he says.

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For Kanagaratnam, although it’s far from perfect, Shanghai is still leading the way in China in terms of maintaining some semblance of its multifaceted history.

“It still breaks your heart every time you see something like Laoximen, because of its buildings, its culture. You know this whole way of life is not going to continue. But at the same time, every time we go somewhere else in China and come back, we think, ‘Oh thank God we live in Shanghai’, because there is so much more of this than there is anywhere else,” she says.

As China’s richest city, it makes sense for Shanghai to be at the forefront of historic preservation, which after all is the business of developed, rather than developing, economies.

“I think it’s a question of value. If you really think these old buildings and traditional communities are important, if you really treasure those things, I think you can pay more money to preserve them,” Ding says.

Although Laoximen will likely be gone within the next few months, there is hope that as the central government and growing middle-class population shift away from development at all costs, historic preservation – like clean air – will become more of a priority. 

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Like environmental protection, it is by and large a post-industrial issue, Qin says. Preservation is sought only after much has already been destroyed, after the society has become advanced enough and rich enough to spare resources to protect the past for the sake of the past and future, not for profit, she says.

“Historical preservation should be part of the effort to build human-centred cities. Only when the concept of the human city becomes a priority and reality can we expect to see success in historical preservation.”