Demolished Shanghai: Witnessing traditional neighborhoods lose out to the new

Travel | by James Weir
Posted: April 1st, 2011 | Updated: February 3rd, 2012 | Comments
chai demolish Shanghai So you're traveling in Shanghai, hitting the highlights. Perhaps you've strolled down the Bund on a nice spring afternoon, then jumped over the Huangpu River for a jaunt to the top of the "interesting" looking Oriental Pearl TV Tower. Maybe the next day you rode the sparkling and easily navigable Yu Garden before shooting back east to take in the view from atop the World Financial Center, that ominous, towering building in Pudong that looks suspiciously like something you would find in your kitchen drawer next to the silverware. While on vacation, it's important to see at least a few of the major tourist attractions. After all, the reason most of those places make their way onto the travel itinerary of so many is that, in general, they're pretty cool. But there's much more to Shanghai (or anywhere, for that matter) than the hits, those places you read about in books and saw pictures of on the internet while you were ceaselessly preparing to take advantage of every moment of your vacation to Shanghai. A few weeks ago, after a visit to the Jade Buddha Temple (an interesting, though not spectacular, functioning Buddhist Temple which houses a colossal statue of Buddha made entirely of jade), I discovered what could only be called a destruction zone. While walking south on Jiangning Lu (Jiāngníng Lù, 江宁路), I came upon an old stone archway at 729 Jiangning Lu north of Changping Lu (Chāngpíng Lù, 昌平路), through which I noticed endless stacks of clay roof tiles, and in the distance, what appeared to be a construction site. As I walked in, I noticed that almost all the buildings lining the thin alleyway were unoccupied, and as I went deeper, it became clear why. Developing China The houses were in the process of being torn down. Doors were missing, entire staircases had been hauled off, the floorboards above pried from the wooden frame of the old buildings. Rubble was everywhere, walls had been blasted down. I noticed, three floors up, a queen or king size bed frame and mattress still perched on the beams with no roof above it. I imagined the workers, armed with the prong of a hammer, peeling back the floor one strip at a time and then pushing the old bed out onto the rafters before continuing to cart away the rest of the floor, and, part by part, every usable piece of the house. Traditional homes in Shanghai demolished The deeper I went, the more ravaged the homes became. The destruction process was clearly working from the inside out; that is, they had begun disassembling the houses closest to the interior of the block first before slowly working their way towards the street. The alleyway led to a field of rubble. A few window frames and doorways jutted from the concrete shards, and in places, the lowest portions of brick and mortar walls could be seen barely standing and winding through the remains of what had once been a densely populated neighborhood. Unable to resist what must be an impulse ingrained into each and every one of us, I used this opportunity to throw old mason jars high in the air, satisfied both with the arc of the jars as they sailed off over the rubble and with the satisfying clatter of glass shattering on cement. Shanghai chai Here, my sister and I ran into a woman, perhaps in her late 50s or early 60s, surveying the decay. Speaking in Mandarin, my sister learned that the woman, years ago, had known one of the families that had lived back there. She pointed out the shell of the home where she had spent some of her childhood. Further away from the street, beyond the rubble, the destruction zone transitioned into a construction zone, and a few men armed with heavy machinery were carting away the debris and clearing the area for development. I have since gone back to the destruction zone and progress is being made, the construction zone growing, the destruction zone shrinking. The field of rubble is moving, glacier-like, towards the street. Closest to Jiangning Lu, there are still families living. Painted in red on the front of their homes is the Chinese character  (chāi), roughly meaning "knock down" or "demolish." The pace of Chinese development is fast, even astonishingly so. But for now, on Jiangning Lu near Changping Lu, you can see it happening. There are no flashing lights, no religious offerings, no breathtaking views. But it's there.
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