Sales of new housing in Shanghai fell by nearly half last week after a surprisingly robust December, with a drop in sales price per square meter to boot. But the ongoing slump, however much trouble it may bring to China’s property sector nationwide, is unlikely to end the ceaseless re-writing of Shanghai’s surface as old alleys are crossed out and new skyscrapers penned in.
Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life, a new book by Harvard University Assistant Professor Jie Li, sets out to delve deeper into the interplay between story and structure that still undergirds the daily life of so many residents of Shanghai, as it has since the city’s concession days. Below we present an excerpt from this valuable volume which provides an overview of the cityscape’s remarkable evolution.
The Chinese word for “home,” jia 家, also means “family,” “house,” “household,” as well as “lineage” or “hometown.” Both as clan and as architecture, the traditional neo-Confucian jia is like a tree that grows over time to accommodate multiple generations, from venerated ancestors at its roots to unborn descendants, or leaves, on its branches.  Beyond the courtyard at its center is a family altar or shrine that doubles as a public reception hall, and to the sides are more private rooms for different family members. As Francesca Bray points out, the family home embodies in microcosm “the hierarchies of gender, generation and rank inherent to the Chinese social order, tying all its occupants into the macrocosm of the polity.”  Before Shanghai became a foreign treaty port, such “treelike” Confucian family homes grew sparsely and freely in the Jiangnan area as families built houses on lots of land they owned in a time-honored layout. When families expanded, they built additional structures along the central axis so that homes grew with the clan in a more or less organic fashion, sprawling into forestlike townscapes. 
After Shanghai became a treaty port in the wake of the Opium War (1839–1842), foreigners came to settle in the city and built homes for themselves in colonial styles.  In the 1850s and 1860s, domestic turmoil drove tens of thousands of Chinese refugees into Shanghai’s foreign settlements. In response, the British, French, and Americans terminated their former segregation policy and invested in building batches of identical houses in rationally organized rows for rent. As Hanchao Lu suggests, this investment marked the beginning of a modern capitalist real estate market: instead of taking root in familial belonging, these homes were built quickly and in bulk as transferable commodities.  Because Chinese compradors and contractors built and managed these properties, most housing compounds still retained the traditional courtyard layout, south-facing orientation, and local decorative motifs. Such a housing compound was called li 里 or fang 坊, its main alley long 弄, and its branch alleys longtang 弄堂, which also functioned like a court (tang 堂) or communal space. From the street to the alley long, the branch alley longtang, the individual houses, and the rooms inside each house, the architecture maps out a gradation from the most public to the most private spheres, with porous rather than strict boundaries. Known over time as lilong 里弄 or longtang 弄堂, most alleyway homes were named after a decorative motif called shikumen 石庫門, or “stone portal gate,” marking the front entrance of each alleyway and the front door of each house within the alleyway.  Derived from traditional gateways to a village or a neighborhood, the shikumen gate gave off a grandiose, monumental air, even if the spaces inside each compound and inside each house became divided and subdivided, crowded and congested over the years.
With migration and fragmentation, homes, or jia, were no longer trees but nests, and each individual sojourner resembled not so much a leaf fixed to a branch, but a bird that flew about daily for its livelihood. The Shanghainese term for “home” is wo, woli, or wolixiang. Wo can be written as 窩 (wo, nest) or 屋 (wu, room). Li is 里, which can mean either “inside” or “housing compound.” Xiang can be written as 廂 (wing of a house), 巷 (alleyway), or 嚮 (toward). The compound wolixiang can thus evoke for Shanghainese speakers the following meanings: “toward the inside of the nest/room” or “room nestled in a wing of a house” or “room nestled inside an alleyway.” In everyday usage, it can refer to one’s spouse or immediate family. Comparing wolixiang to the more generic concept of jia, we also find multivalent meanings of family, architecture, and community, yet the Shanghainese term is more intimate and inward looking, lacking the sense of the traditional family as a corporate lineage or as a microcosm of the state that reinforces Confucian hierarchies. Its spatial focus is on the individual room and a side wing, evoking a more private feminine boudoir or nest than a more public masculine ancestral hall.
In the early twentieth century, greater numbers of migratory birds—shop assistants, clerks, schoolteachers, university students, and other petty urbanites—came to Shanghai. Although all alleyway houses were designed for one family per unit, as housing demand and prices grew, many primary tenants remodeled their houses and sublet rooms to subtenants. From the 1920s to the 1940s, second landlords—primary tenants who sublet rooms—became the major players in leasing dwellings in the city. Indeed, making a profit out of homes was quite natural given that many alleyway houses were businesses—shops, restaurants, even factories—sites of labor and commerce as well as of living. Since neither landlords nor tenants could afford to pick their neighbors on the basis of local origin or profession, the diversity of alleyway residents helped to foster the city’s unique cosmopolitan culture. 
Among those who lived in Shanghai alleyways were writers and filmmakers who made those alleyways a site of their literary and cinematic imaginations. In Shanghai Modern, Leo Ou-fan Lee writes of Republican era intellectuals who lived in the tingzijian 亭子間, “pavilion room,” a small room just above the kitchen and facing the back alley, situated between the first and second stories. While fashioning a “half-inflated and half-parodied self-image of their bohemian existence” in this special “ivory tower,” they also documented the lively interactions of other tenants in the Shanghai alleyways in fiction, essays, plays, and films.  Alexander Des Forges argues that Shanghai alleyways can be understood as a fundam
entally theatrical “arena in which windows look out onto other windows, barriers between one rooftop laundry space and the next are insignificant or non-existent, and the sounds and smells of the city waft easily in even through closed shutters.” Some classic films set in the city in the 1930s and 1940s, such as Yuan Muzhi’s 袁牧之 Street Angel (Malu tianshi 馬路天使, 1937) and Zheng Junli’s 鄭君里 Crows and Sparrows (Wuya yu maque 烏鴉與麻雀, 1948) even construct their plots around alleyway spaces, featuring key motifs such as eavesdropping and spying, tenant–landlord relations, and trysts between young lovers with windows facing each other. 
Literary, theatrical, and cinematic portraits of Shanghai alleyways, however, focus on the 1930s and 1940s, an era in the city’s history that has also received much scholarly attention and nostalgic evocation since the 1990s.  By contrast, the decades within the living memories of most Shanghai alleyway residents—the 1950s to the 1980s—find little mention in either academic or popular literature.  Yet it was in this period that most Shanghainese turned from the city’s sojourners into its natives, and the alleyways turned from a temporary abode to the birthplaces and inherited homes of new generations. Such transformation was due to the fact that the Communists closed down the erratic real estate market, ended immigration into the city, and fixed residents in their places with the household registration system. The new government, instead of delivering the housing utopia it promised, crammed a small fraction of selected workers who used to live in shantytowns into alleyway houses and Western villas.  This change ironically furthered rather than destroyed the diversity that defined the alleyway milieu, distinguishing it from both work-unit-based socialist housing compounds and recent commodity housing that segregated residents by class and income.
Thus, an unwritten history unfolded in the socialist period under Shanghai’s eaves. Houses formerly built by foreign entrepreneurs came to accommodate their Chinese employees, who later shared the same spaces with former concubines or servants of the old Shanghai bourgeoisie as well as with factory workers from shantytowns. In this city of immigrants, most of Shanghai’s residents had deep roots and extensive ties to hometowns elsewhere, mostly in the countryside. Yet the revolution’s successive campaigns severed many roots and branches of those extended families. Threads of kinship with former landlords, capitalists, or Nationalist officers became disavowed family secrets. Meanwhile, remnants of commercial and religious activities from the Republican era were exiled from public spaces into the more private spaces of alleyway homes. The increasingly monolithic public culture, the unfree press, and a need for “relentless public performance” all contributed to a desire to “exchange information, tales, rumor, and gossip” in more private conversations.  Even though state surveillance also extended into these neighborhoods, alleyway homes still served as a haven for people, things, discourses, habits, and beliefs without proper places in the new regime.
This haven came under the greatest siege in the Cultural Revolution, when home searches were common, when inhabitants themselves destroyed treasured yet incriminating artifacts, and when alleyways became a stage for humiliating denunciations and punishments. Alleyway youths of different class backgrounds, classmates in the same elementary and middle schools, made revolution against one another’s parents or rebelled against their own, fell in and out of love, and became scattered all over the country as sent-down youths. The close quarters with multiple families cultivated a tyranny of intimacy and an intimacy of tyranny, for neighbors knew one another’s personal histories and could readily use such private knowledge for denunciation to the authorities. In this era of unprecedented state interference into the private sphere, previously repressed private interests and desires manifested themselves in public and theatrical ways. All the same, the entangled personal relationships of inhabitants under the same roofs forged a pragmatic tolerance and a separate peace.
Since Shanghai’s economic renaissance in the 1990s, demolition has become the common destiny of most alleyways.  Following decades of stagnation and isolation, the municipal government began leasing land to transnational developers, tearing down existing neighborhoods, and relocating old residents to the suburbs to make way for expensive residential and commercial skyscrapers. Losing their way in the new labyrinth of shopping complexes and expressways, many Chinese urbanites succumbed to nostalgia as a way to “absorb a socioeconomic shock.”  Yet if personal nostalgic sentiments span and blend the Republican, the Maoist, and the post-Mao eras, commodified manifestations of nostalgia heavily gravitate toward only one historical and social layer of the city’s palimpsestuous history, namely the 1930s—what Xudong Zhang calls the “classic moment of Chinese bourgeois modernity.” 
The few alleyway houses being preserved and restored as historic monuments tend to be the former residences of celebrities and “Red heritage sites” of pre-1949 underground revolutionary activities. Most prominently, the alleyway house where the Chinese Communist Party was first founded in 1921 has turned into a memorial museum, but the surrounding neighborhood was razed and rebuilt as Xintiandi 新天地, New Heaven and Earth, a chic leisure and shopping area that recycled the bricks and stones from the old architectural rubble into a nostalgic facade. Xintiandi also hosts the city’s only museum devoted to everyday life in alleyway homes. Furnished with impersonal memorabilia that suggest a single-family, upper-middle-class household from the 1930s and 1940s, this museum contains no lingering traces of the actual residents who used to live in this neighborhood, mostly poor urbanites and workers. Hence, the officially promoted revolutionary legacy has joined forces with global capital to banish the city’s subterranean populations into the suburbs and the socialist past into oblivion. 
The disappearance of Shanghai alleyways from the urban landscape brings an end to a rich and unique history of private life written by diverse residents across a century of radical change. Ordinary people do not write their autobiographies in books so much as they inscribe family and personal histories onto a place they call home, and instead of the written word they use images, artifacts, and bodies as their medium. Written and rewritten over time, the resulting texts are often multilayered, obscure, perhaps even secret, for unless private homes are turned into impersonal museum exhibitions, t
hey are accessible and meaningful often only to those who have lived in or near them. These “home texts” or “archaeological sites” have remained as illegible and insignificant to historians as they are to city planners eager to dispose of them. Although it is impossible to halt this amnesiac modernization process, this book shows that even a small cross-section of a Shanghai alleyway, viewed in the twilight of its demise, can give us a kaleidoscopic glimpse into the mentalities and lived experiences of the Shanghainese over the past seven or eight decades. ♦
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