Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Old Shanghai

Shanghai isn't purely a colonial city - it's existed as a smallish city for thousands of years. The area of the old city remains interesting - it was modernized during the colonial era, but has mostly avoided massive re-development since then. So the area remains a look back at what much of Shanghai looked like in the first half of the century. Even though it's in a central area of Shanghai, it's very easy to ignore - there's no subway there, there's not much in the way of major streets, and there's not many obvious attractions. An exception is the very impressive Yuyuan Gardens. There's a bunch of really corny shops nearby, they sell Chinese chotchkies in a collection of Disney-cized buildings. The picture in the upper right was taken in the line to Nanxiang Xiaolongbao, a famous snack. They're OK, if not worth the hour-long line.

It's easy to ignore the nearby neighborhood. This area is mostly composed of old row houses and two-story buildings called shikumen. They're a collection of very small apartments, with communal areas, something like "Kung Fu Hustle." They're made from brick, generally populated by old people, and they invariably have laundry hanging out front.

It's hard to imagine living in a place like this. There's no privacy, I wonder if the people there come to view their neighbors as always in each other's business, or as some kind of extended family.

Not having individual water is an obvious problem. There's faucets in the courtyards, so walking at night you can see men in swimsuits bathing themselves in the street, I think most people use a sponge bath. Disgustingly enough, the apartments are forced to use chamberpots, walking around it's pretty common to see people carrying their chamber pots around, there's special areas to dispose of that. There's a chamberpot in the bottom of this picture:

Most of the streets in the area are narrow, and not very long. Walking around gets repetitive, it's street after street of these small buildings. There's a lot of bikes on the road, but there's very few cars, and there's not any buses.

There's a lot of small shops scattered about, here's a bunch of steel beams to use for small-scale construction projects:

But more common is this, just about every single block will have a fruit & vegetable market or two. There's a bored employee up front, reading a book, which is a definite requirement for these sorts of places.

I'm a big fan of photoethnographer Karen Nakamura, who has a few excellent shots of the same area on her blog. I'll also have a little more to say about these buildings in the next couple days.

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