Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Great 40th Anniversary Escapade, Part 2: Old Shanghai-once known as "The Paris of the Orient"--and the Vanishing Shikuman Lanes

Modern Shanghai
 I came to Shanghai looking for "old Shanghai".  Too romantic!  China wants to be MODERN.  The first impression visitors to the city get is row after row of soldier-like skyscraper style apartment buildings--and a white polluted sky that never went away.  It was depressing!

Shanghai's Shikuman
style house with Stone
Hooped Doorway
There are some charming areas left in the city, but they are fast disappearing. Built starting in the 1860's and called Shikuman style houses, these neighborhoods of row houses with their beautifully carved doorways called  "Stone Hooped Doorways" are lovely.  At the peak, there were more than 6000 homes like these in Shanghai, looping through alleys no more than 6 feet wide.  Inside the doorway, there is a courtyard, a living room known as a parlor, and right and left wing rooms. There is a second story and a roof with living space.  As Shanghai got more and more populous, many families rented out their extra rooms.  These Shikuman Lanes were considered dilapidated, crowded and wretched.  The real estate has become very valuable and many, whose families have owned these homes for generations have tried hard to stay.  As the homes fall into disrepair, many residents have sold and moved to the apartments and the Shikuman style houses have been demolished.

Shanghai citizens are starting to realize that these beautiful homes, which are monuments to Shanghai's past, deserve to be preserved.

At the recent Ai WeiWei exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, one of Mr. Ai's exhibits references China's loss of beautiful traditional style housing.  These house-shaped replicas and the ground on which they sit are made from loose tea.  Tea Houses.
Tea Houses created by Ai WeiWei
at the Indianapolis Museum of Art exhibit
I am grateful for the opportunity to see the old neighborhoods of Shanghai, but feel sad that they will mostly be gone in a few years as China makes way for a more modern way of life.





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