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.



There Goes the Neighbourhood! (part 1)

This is Baidu Lu (Street).  It’s quite a short street that runs east-west just south of one of Shanghai’s main roads, Fuxing Lu.  And it is undergoing a major make-over.

In the distance, at the eastern end of the street and closer to Huangpu River, you can see several new apartment buildings, clustered together in a complex that also contains office buildings, restaurants and gymnasium, and a massive underground car park.   And, in front, the remains of how the street once looked – a jumble of street-side shops, with residences above, arranged around a network of laneways and pedestrian pathways.  Of course, it’s already being demolished, to make way for more the new stuff.  So, I thought it was worth documenting it before it is razed … all the name of “progress” …

No-one could argue that the architecture is beautiful.  In fact, I assume that no architect would have been involved in its conception or construction.  These buildings would have been built quickly and cheaply, and haven’t seen much in the way of maintenance since.

Nonetheless, they have a certain charm.  The scale is nice, especially measured against the contemporary multi-lane motorways and tower blocks of the modern city.

In particular, I like the little laneways that run through these neighbourhoods.  (See my follow-up post for a closer look inside the neighbourhood…)

The streets and lanes traditionally would have been – and to some extent, still are – full of activity, from the manufacture and selling of goods, cooking and washing (laundry, crockery, small children, motor scooters), and of course, transportation of people and stuff.

Or, often inactivity.  Amidst the noise and chaos, one can still grab a snooze.

Buildings seemed governed by a set of principles that could be straight out of City Planning for Dummies.  Building to the street edge.  Creating an active frontage (eg retail).  Building height to relate to the human scale.  Use of consistent materials and detailing.

Yet, there is no sense of sameness here.  Buildings have grown organically, with quirky additions and modifications over time.  Internal functions spill onto and across the footpath, even onto the road.

Interactions between people are unplanned, sometimes in conflict, but all part of the colour and chaos of the neighbourhood.  It’s the way a community is meant to be.

And yet, people are desiring a new way to live … where access to your apartment is from air-conditioned car, via basement car-park to private lift, where dinner is delivered to your door, and where you scarcely need to speak to another person.

And where streets end up looking like this.

I guess we all desire to live in an environment that is comfortable and safe and good-looking.  But, when the focus turns so sharply to the space of the individual (i.e. the private home), it is the space of the community (i.e. the street) that suffers.  And in a place where “progress” is being sought, and delivered, at such a rapid pace, the impact is even more pronounced.

Dull building alert: Shanghai Library

Shanghai’s French Concession is where you find most of the city’s old Art Deco apartment blocks, small streets and laneways, cafes and galleries. But, every so often, you’ll encounter a building (or complex of buildings) that isn’t playing by the rules.  The Shanghai Library is one such building.

On my walk to one of the local Metro stations, having just passed the grand mansions of Yongfu Road (now mostly converted to consulates and expensive restaurants) and making my final turn toward the station, the library leaps out of the surrounding low-scale neighbourhood.

Closer, against the overhead electricity cables, it almost looks like one of those two-point perspective drawings I was taught to draw in Architecture school – with construction lines yet to be erased.  It suggests that the building may have looked OK on the architect’s drawing board.  But, in it’s tile-clad reality, totally out of scale and character with its context, not so much.

Said architect (a Zhang Jie Zheng) didn’t seem to spend much time on making the entry to the building a pleasant experience – it somehow manages to be hidden and foreboding at the same time.

Included is a replica of Rodin’s The Thinker.  You don’t have to guess what I was thinking at this moment, I’ve already said it.

The building is big – over 80,000 square metres, and housing 13.2 million books and 30 million other items.  Of course, it is second in size to the Beijing National Library.

But, at over 100 metres high, it is the tallest library in the world.  That way, the correct order of things is respected – Beijing must always have the biggest (and thus, most important), Shanghai can be content with tallest or shiniest or newest.

At almost 20 years old, the library is not that new by Chinese standards.  But, when the light hits at the right angle, it definitely can be shiny.

It can be a good building to photograph on one of Shanghai’s rare blue-sky days.

Not that this makes it a good building.

In fact, anything but.


May Update / Huh Wot!

The Huh Wot gallery has been updated!
Pock or Rock, who cares?!

Click here to see the latest in Chinglish mastery….

Figuring out the last year …

WordPress has just introduced a few new ways of tracking what’s happening with my blog.

The main “dashboard”, as they call it (I really tire of car-based metaphors, like cars are the only way to get anywhere …), shows a summary of recent activity – like my posts and other people’s comments.  I now have made 135 posts, which on average, have each received about 4 comments.It has also detected and deleted over 3000 spam messages, which is most kind.  I did find one real message lurking in my ‘spam’ folder, so hopefully that has been the only one it trashed accidentally.  I also have a lengthy list of draft posts … just waiting for some spare time.

WordPress tells me that my top commentators are luKe, bitbot, adina west, natalie, justin and katharine (at least some of those names are real!).  Thanks to all who have made comments.  I love comments!

The blog also has a page devoted to view-stats.  Over the last couple of years, the blog has had nearly 15,000 views (ie one page being opened), an average of about 20 per day.  Admittedly, for most regular bloggers, this would be considered a relatively low figure, but I guess I haven’t been making much effort to cross-promote via other social media … trying to keep a small shred of anonymity.

As WordPress loves to remind me, the more I blog, the more views I get.  But, I also have a life enough to not worry too much about getting a million hits and becoming an interwebs sensation.

This page also tells me how some people arrive at the blog – via search terms entered into Google and other search engines.  Yesterday, this is how 12 people found the blog. Some of the terms used are pretty amusing … “monkey pulls the turnip”, “people in pyjamas” or “functionalism as an oxymoron” are just a few of the important issues that I appear to have been writing about.

When I view the stats over the last 2 years, I can see which topics draw in the crowds.  Far and away, the most compelling topic is Wee Britain, invented by the TV show Arrested Development and referred to in my post on Thamestown.  Similarly, various searches for “Hollandtown“, “Holland Village“, “fake Holland in Shanghai” have led people to this post, as searches about Chinese ghost towns, especially Ordos City, have taken people to this post about Kangabashi.

25 people have found my blog by searching for “how to please your parents” – most likely disappointed to find that my best advice is to build them a ridiculously large garden. A similar number arrived via searches for “baby split pants” – presumedly to find this post.

WordPress doesn’t link the search term with the actual page viewed, so I am not always sure of how the connection gets made.  Some of the more interesting searches have been “stylish farmer look” (2 people, heading here), “babies neglected and tied to high chairs in China” (3 people, not sure what page they ended up at), “chocolates and a louis vuitton bag for valentines day” (2 people actually put these words into Google!), “crayzy sex” (woah!), “pyjama slap” (this means something to at least 2 people in world) and “seducing your mother” (I did ask for this … see here).

The third biggest group of random visitors must have enjoyed reading my post on the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall … containing what I described as a “huge-ass model” of the city.  Over 100 people have accessed this page via searches for a variety of terms, including “models with huge asses“, “huge ass” and “ass models“.



A new function is a map showing the geographic spread of blog viewers.  As you can see, over the last two months, I am reaching a pretty global audience.  Although, I admit, most of these are random single-view visitors – I am yet to befriend anyone currently based in Finland, Ethiopia or Honduras.  But, Australians!  Currently second place to the US … I see you can pick up your act a little.

All this stat-crunching inspired me to make a few little diagrams of my own, summarising some of the other things that I have been doing recently.

For example, over the last 12 months, I spend a lot of time on planes – over 150 hours in the air (about a full week … not to mention the time spent in airport, sometimes waiting several hours for a delayed plane).  I went to Lanzhou 5 times, Tianjin (see here and here and here) quite a lot, Sydney 4 times.  The year before was just the same.  It’s mostly for work.  Small carbon footprint, begone!

But, when I can, I will catch the train for work.  The last long-haul was to Rui’an – normally it is a 5.5 hour ride, but as they had had a fatal crash the week before, everything was slowed by several hours.  We now fly there instead.  Last year, they opened the Beijing-Shanghai express line, so we used that to get to the capital for our National Holiday last year (see here and here and here and here and here and here).  It’s an important part of the huge and quite amazing rail network that China is building.  It’s particularly good for accessing the big cities close to Shanghai (like Nanjing, which I’ve been to, like, a million times … see here and here and here)


And finally, here is a diagram of the vegetarian restaurants of Shanghai, matched with the frequency of our visits.  The big blobs (Kush, Annamaya and Godly) have the distinction of great food and/or close proximity to our apartment.

Surely eating all of that vegetarian food has got to go some way towards offsetting my carbon-hungry travel habits …


I See Red! aka The Amazing Hong Yi

So, lately one of my work buddies here in Shanghai has become a bit of an interwebs sensation.  Her name is Hong but she calls herself Red (‘hong’ being ‘red’ in Chinese).  She is an architect by day and an unconventional artist (her description) by night and weekend.  Being a wacky and creative type (needless to say, being an architect and such), she has taken to making portraits of famous people using odd materials.  It all started with a chili-paste-on-a-plate rendition of Justin Beiber.

But, after making this portrait of Yao Ming (with a basketball dipped in paint, quite obviously…) things went a little  ballistic – almost a million views of Youtube, along with a flood of TV interviews, magazine articles and job offers.



Hong is in her “famous Chinese people” phase, so followed up with this portrait of the actor Jay Chou.  I was in the office on the weekend that this was being made and it smelled wonderful!



For her next artwork – featuring the filmamker Zhang Yimou – Hong got a few of us from the office to help out.

Inspired by the colour and texture of his films, as well as Shanghai’s famous laneway laundry,the portrait is made of almost a thousand socks, pinned together like pixels from an image.  So we stayed late at work one Friday night and helped thread and arrange the socks into place.  I was on forehead-to-eye duty.

Here is the artist herself, in a blurred state of creative fervour.  I like to call her the Amazing Hong Yi, not only because it’s an accurate description, but because it contrasts with her very self-deprecating and good-humoured character (seemingly intact, despite all the attention she has been receiving lately).

Here is a video of the portrait being installed into one of Shanghai’s traditional lilongs.



Intended as a temporary installation, the portrait was then bought to our office where it hangs inside the entry space to the studio.

Mounted at the end of the central spine of the building and at about 4 metres high, Mr Zhang is quite a sight, looking out over our workplace like a benevolent Big Brother.

(Not that she needs any help with promotion, you can see more of Hong’s work at her website,

Don’t eat meat! Don’t seduce your mother!

Recently, I’ve been working on a project in Dazu, which is located a couple of hours west of China’s largest city, Chongqing.  On my first visit there, our client was kind enough to organise a trip to see the area’s most famous attraction, the Dazu Rock Carvings.  This series of carvings, some up to 1200 years old, depict and are influenced by a number of different religious doctrines, including Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

There are supposed to be tens of thousands of carvings scattered throughout the hillsides around Dazu, and for many centuries, knowledge of, and access to, these carvings was limited.  But this remoteness was also their saviour, especially during the Cultural Revolution, when countless religious buildings and sites were razed.

New road connections, as well a recent UNESCO listing, will now bring thousands of people to the sites.   Having been hidden for so long, it will be fascinating to see how they are understood, and protected, in the future.

We visited the main site at Baoding Mountain, within which carvings line the edges of a U-shaped valley.

The Prowling Tiger guards the entry to the site and symbolises the danger inherent in undertaking one’s spiritual journey.  I sense that part of Prowling Tiger’s mouth has eroded, turning him into more of a benevolent-looking character.  Jolly, even.

The Cave of Full Enlightenment should not be taken literally.  It was so dark none of photos turned out, which was a shame because it had some very interesting stuff in it.

Past nine more guardians (Dharmapalas, humanoid things being carried by animals) is the Great Wheel of Reincarnation.  This great wheel, held in the teeth of a giant demon, symbolises the basic concept of karma, showing the endless reincarnation of higher and lower lifeforms.  Some of the lifeforms are a little odd, being constructed of different animals and wrapped in what looks like part of an earthworm.

The guy in the middle is possibly Zhao Zhifeng, a monk who created many of the carvings.  Around him are the six realms of reincarnation – those of gods, people, hungry ghosts, hell, animals and demigods – then, depictions of the cycles of life on earth.  There are also some pretty gruesome ideas about the dark side of living, such as a giant baby chewing on the head of a man.  Man, I hate when that happens!

The wheel is supported by four characters – an official, a solider, a woman and a monkey, who personify greed, evil, lust and foolishness.  Note to self: be highly suspicious of all officials, soldiers, women and monkeys.

Next up are the Three Worthies of Huayan, which stand about 7 metres high.

The tower being held up by this one alone is 2 metres high.

This carving shows the death of Shakyamuni.  Although 30 metres long, it only shows the upper part of his body.

In front are a procession of Boddhisattvas and other attendants.  Zhao Zhifeng is again depicted, on the left, along with Liu Benzun, an earlier spiritual leader.

And, just like a Tarantino film, we jump back in time to Shakyamuni’s birth and early childhood.  There is a large area devoted to “family values”, a very Confucian tradition likely adopted by the Buddhists when they came to China.  Shakyamuni’s parents are shown “bestowing kindness” to their son, including “forgetting the pain of childbirth” and “placing the child on the dry side, lying in the wet” after he has wet the bed (this is serious, I promise!).

In return, he enacts the same respect to them.  The above image represents a story of the family falling on hard times and running out of food.  Instead of killing and eating the mother (as the father suggests), Shakyamuni gouges out some of his arm flesh for everyone to feast on (again, this is totally serious – at least, it is what our tour guide told us)

Probably the most impressive part of the site is this massive carving of the many layers of heaven and hell.

The lower section shows the many and varied punishments available in hell, delivered by an army of fearsome monkey-men “hell wardens”.

People are being boiled in cauldrons, beaten and stabbed, thrown in vats of excrement and ground to pieces by heavy iron wheels.  Sins include eating meat, killing too many chickens, forcing other people to get drunk and seducing your own mother.  While I agree with the sentiment, the punishments do seem a little harsh.

Here is the chicken killer.

Above this orgy of sins sits Liu Benzun.  On either side of him are his officials and administrators, who occupy a higher level than the wardens.  And above him are representations of Liu’s Ten Austerities – acts of self-sacrifice that he undertaken, such as cutting out his right eye and burning off his genitals.  His small compensation is getting the big and colourful statue in the middle.

At the end of this section, there is a small area of unfinished carvings.  Work on the site, for some reason, must have ceased abruptly.  Even the grandest visions, underpinned by the most universal of ideas and principles, have their practical limit.




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