I’d given myself half a day in Shanghai, because it is such a lovely city to walk around in. I decided to have lunch somewhere in Xintiandi. As I walked out of the metro station I saw something which was not there four years ago when I came here to look at shikumen houses: a whole new lane opened to tourists (featured photo). It can’t be too easy to live in such a place, with thousands of tourists tripping in and out. When I take a photo in such a place I make a mental bow towards the family altar of the household which might be inconvenienced.
I noticed a fairly long queue of people standing quietly in front of door number 4. The door was firmly shut, but the reason was clear from the plaque next to it. This small building was where the Korean Government was in exile during the years when Korea was under Japanese occupation. For me it was a little bit of unknown history, but clearly not to the Korean tourists who were going to wait another half an hour for the museum to open.
Nine years after the Japanese invasion of Korea, a democratic constitution was adopted by the provisional government, then in exile in Shanghai, in April 1919 CE. It took as its main purpose the nurturing of an independence movement in occupied Korea. This government had to shift to Chongqing after the fall of Shanghai in 1937. Eventually three years after Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945 (exactly 74 years ago today), the provisional government dissolved itself. The first president of the Republic of Korea was Syngman Rhee, who was also the first president of the provisional government.
I would have liked to see the museum, but I did not have too much time to finish my lunch before getting back to the airport. I’ll probably come through Shanghai again, so I resolved to come back to see this museum in the future. Right now I had a photo of the neighbourhood and the stone lined door which is the literal meaning of shikumen. I took a last photo and left.
Tianzifeng is a tourist magnet which we’d missed when we first visited Shanghai a few years ago. Tianzifeng is famous for preserving a piece of Shanghai’s architectural heritage by changing its usage. In the second half of the 19th century Shanghai and several other concessionary port towns of China developed neighbourhoods (called lilong) with two or three story brick houses. This style of architecture is called Shikumen. At one time over half the houses in Shanghai were built in this style.
The construction boom of the early part of this century began to replace Shikumen style neighbourhoods with modern high-rise apartments. The area called Xintiandi was actually torn down, and then in a belated recognition of the historical importance of this kind of architecture, was rebuilt in the old style. In Tianzifeng (literally, the lane=fang of the emperor=Tianzi), on the other hand, the old neighbourhoods were retained. This is obvious when you enter the narrow lanes which now hold clothes, design, and jewellery shops, along with an equal number of restaurants. There were crowds, but very few were foreigners.
We were happy to see that not all the houses had become shops. This will never again be the organic neighbourhoods of the kind that we’d seen in Beijing’s hutongs, or the Li Wan district of Guangzhou, but there are a substantial number of people living here with doors firmly closed to tourists. The high walls and strong doors are the origin of the the word shiku men (stone gate). When this style was new, the walls jealously guarding their sliver of garden would have been much talked about.
If you are wondering why I don’t have the full door in the frame in the photo above, this photo shows you the lane in which it stands. These narrow streets make up the lilongs of old Shanghai. The lane was not wide enough for me to stand back and get the whole door into the frame, although my phone camera does have a wide angle. We walked out of the lanes into the high-rise neighbourhoods of modern Shanghai. Right opposite the exit was a large mall with three stories of food stalls near the street level, and other shops above. Life is changing rapidly in China.
One day in Shanghai we took the Metro to Xintiandi, walked a little way along Madang Road, and then ducked into one of the gated Shikumen-style complexes. We walked through and into lovely roads full of life. This was one of the lilongs which we wanted to see. The area is bustling with life. We arrived a little before lunch time and found many restaurants open for business, vegetable vendors, hair dressers, people playing chinese chess, smokers lounging, a quartet of beer drinkers, housewives chatting, … The photo above is a little slice of this life.
Eventually when we decided to have lunch it was smack in the middle of lunch time for the office goers who had trickled in from the businesses and malls on the main streets. With our complete lack of Chinese, it was difficult to figure out what to do. We went into one of the eateries, and one man told us to choose our food. When we did, he asked us to pay! We protested, saying we hadn’t even sat down, but he was insistent. As a queue grew behind us, and communications were not established, we left.
A little way down the road, was another establishment. There someone explained to us that you stand in the queue and order and pay for your food, then look for a table to get empty. After you sit down, the waiter will get you your food. This place had people who were very helpful and some of them spoke a little English. We made our choices by pointing at others’ plates. The owner helped us to sit down. The neighbours helped us with catching the waiter. Everyone in the lane seemed to be eating some kind of a noodle soup. We grew to like this: you can get it with all kinds of meats, or even just mushrooms. One of the girls at our table was eating a dark egg: apparently a boiled egg soaked in tea and soya: a tea egg. I tried one, liked it and had it as a snack several times later.
One question was voiced by The Family. In India a place like this would be quite dirty. How do they keep it clean in China? No answers, yet.