There Goes the Neighbourhood! (part 2)

After checking out Baidu Lu (see this post), I thought I would extend my documentation of this community by venturing inside one of the old housing complexes.  Here I got a little nervous.  Given the half-demolished nature of the neighbourhood, it was like entering a construction site (one without any regard to public safety).  But, also, I assumed that there may be people still living inside, and me poking around with a camera might be a little confronting, if not condescending, in nature.

But, I was genuine fascinated about what lay behind the decaying walls of the neighbourhood.

So, I caught the eye of two women who were standing at the window of an apartment above one of the shopfronts.  I showed my camera, gestured towards the nearest gateway and asked “ke yi ma?” (“can I?”).  Whether it was the content or the dodgy linguistics of my question, they laughed and answered “ke yi”, beckoning me through.  It was typical Chinese openness and helpfulness.

Despite partial demolition, the general layout of the neighbourhood was in tact – pedestrian laneways running deep into the complex from the street, giving access to apartment buildings via rows of private and shared courtyard spaces.  Often, the buildings would extend over the laneway, creating a series of thresholds as I moved deeper inside.

At the end of one laneway, I discovered a shikumen house – the traditional Shanghai housing style that I discussed in this post.  “Shikumen” translates as “stone gate”, through which the residents entered their private courtyard, and then, their house.

These larger houses often sit at the rear of complexes, buffered from the street by apartment buildings, and housing the bigger families and wealthier residents of the community.  This one, it seemed, was still being occupied, as evidenced by laundry hang in and around the house.

Throughout the neighbourhood, I caught sight of small signs of life, both present and past.

From community notice boards …

… to advertisements stencilled onto the walls (usually selling hardware or other products) …

… and the contrast of formal and informal methods of orientation and identity.  The whole place had a sense of falling apart, rather than being torn down – the slow decay of the buildings, and the community itself.

Whenever I encountered people, they tended to give me a quick glance then happily ignored my presence, in favour of getting on with whatever they were doing.  If I was in the middle of a construction site, full of blind corners and unfamiliar people, anywhere else in the world, I would be feeling incredibly nervous about my personal safety. Here, I guess, there is more to fear from the random collapse of a wall or an unexpected hole in the ground.

The construction (or rather, reconstruction) workers are all housed on site, as is typical on Chinese work sites.  So, beside the old neighbourhood stands new dormitory accommodation, including cramped sleeping quarters, along areas for bathing and cooking.  Most of the workforce would be migrants, from smaller cities and rural areas, based temporarily in Shanghai during the off-season of the agricultural cycle.

From scale to material to detail, the contrast between old and new is clear and sudden.

That is, in construction process, as well as architectural product.



One Response to There Goes the Neighbourhood! (part 2)

  1. Pingback: There Goes the Neighbourhood! (part 1) « That Look Crayzy!

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