Lilong rides (1)
At Garden Books the other day I found a weird little publication dedicated to the exploration of the Lilongs of Shanghai. Written by a french architecture student studying at Tongji University in Shanghai, the book explores the architectural traditions of working-class Shanghai and the neighborhoods these basic structures have engendered. They are the same and not the same as the terraces of Brixton and the urbane row houses of Adams Morgan. They are foreign structures here – but well suited to the nature of life in a Chinese city in the late 19th century. They were hard to live in – cold, dirty and inconvenient, like the warren of apartments that were Mala strana in Prague, where a single 70 meter flat can now latch its claws onto millions of Euro. People moved, people grew older and they forgot why they moved from these freezerboxes, these shabby brick coops of dust, filth and sickness where they brewed stinky tofu and spread their sliced vegetables on the curbside. There are only a few left in Shanghai – even less than last year, when the book was published – and they are not the same as the simple slums packed by the new migrants that surround the city. The Lilongs are similar to the Hutongs in Beijing – the poorer quarters where the ragged people go. They’re charming from a distance, stinky from up close and disappearing fast. Old Chinese people wander there, mingling with slightly less old white people and haggling with them over the import of wayward facial hair and vintage eyeglasses.
My goal is to visit all of the sites in the book, which is not an ambitious goal, as there are only about 20 of them. I’ve done 3 today, and one site was already demolished.
It’s difficult to describe the process of modernization happening in China at the moment, but I imagine it is similar in many ways to the forced relocation of many central europeans into the cities following the second world war. It wasn’t necessarily forced, but the people did seem to have some basic concerns, to put it lightly, about their relocation. In any case, those concerns proved less pressing than the promise of easy employment and the safety of a patrolled city during the decades-long collapse of Qing dynasty China into the sort of chaos and dismemberment of decent society that made a Haneke film look ready for the Disney channel. That generation was the current lot’s grandparents.
Many of the people now living in these neighborhoods do not own the homes. The idea of ownership was somewhere else – not a concern that their ancient dead grandparents bothered with. It was assumed by them: I live here, and I will continue to live here until I die. Perhaps it was also considered: who would ever be craven or desperate enough to take THIS away from me and mine? Also, the idea of private ownership was considered unpopular by the oligarchs of the communist Chinese, who preferred to own everything themselves.
Those long dead people worked hard, and then they died. They lived lives of privation and constant,petty humiliations. Stinking tofu, uneven paving stones, windows that cracked and shuddered with passing trains and traffic, buckling rooflines and communal toilets were just the plastic lid on the to-go Mocha of their miserable existence. They built little, saved little, met, loved and gave birth. Two generations passed, and now someone wants the land their little hovels happened to fall on because this city has become something “of interest” to the global wankery. Risen from thieving and malfeasance, they have come to find this land valuable, and these homes must be torn down to make place for more KFC joints and towering concrete apartment blocks which can be made “personalized” by 3D television sets.
This is not to say that there is anything quaint or picturesque about living in a stinking, slanting baked-brick hovel wedged between an overpass and the back end afterbirth of a shopping mall. It’s crap living there, no doubt, and I plan to find out exactly how crap by living in one of them for a week or two this winter, when the living’s good and all the do-goody fluent Mandarin-speakers who’d make my efforts look bad have jetted off back to someplace plaid for the holidays.
Anyway, the people who built these places have long since died, and the ones living here now are bemused. They’re easily enraged and quickly subdued. Like all Shanghainese who haven’t succumbed to the idiocracy of shopping malls and Taiwanese pop music, they are fighting every moment to find a bone to pick and doing it all in their pyjamas. Nail houses are what they call the abodes of the clingers-on, and they provide ample fuel for the foreign press to coast through the Chinese cucumber season on. Every month there are thousands of stories of them, each one more pathos-soaked than the last. They are the one remaining family house of old folk who refuse to just take the cash and move after the rest of the neighborhood has taken their measly pittance of a bribe and agreed to be re-located off in Anhui somewhere. Because that’s what happens.The neighborhoods go, one by one. They meet and drink tea and hawk and spit and curse, but then they slowly start to see the starry light. They take while the taking is good and they leave a pitiable few behind – people who’re too principled or too militant or too addled to know the difference. Or too blinded by the tales of riches spread from the Chongqing nail house and others who held out against the wankers the western media is all too eager to brand “bad guys”.
These people cling to newspaper articles and eviction notices like a 14 year-old picking at scabs on his knee. They are good, they are reticent. Their stories must be as different as their faces. One is near crazed, like Otík from Vesničko má středisková. He nods and claps at every gesture, as though me and my silly little camera are going to free his family from want; as though I worked for the New York Times or something. Another hangs back, shifting from heel to toe, fists thrust into the pockets of her drab gray wool coat. Her face is so hard it breaks the heart – eyes that are ready to forget about everything if there were only a pain chocolat or one of those bizarre blueberry milk tea drinks.
They wanted to talk about it, but didn’t want their pictures taken, so I convinced them with Bruce’s help, to line up with their backs facing the camera. A line of defiance. A line that is not here. In a few weeks, their wrinkled hands and plaintive voices will be somewhere else. It’s warm where I’m writing this. It’s clean, well lit and calm. These backs will probably not see that sort of place again.
The one group I met today had been offered some 25,000 RMB plus relocation to another spot outside of Shanghai. It seems like a good deal, seen from the outside. They don’t own their property in any legal sense. They have no ability to develop their property in a profitable way, unlike the Audi-driving douchebags that lord it over every bit of profitable real estate from here to the 12eme arrondissement. They, in any case, have refused to leave. They love their concrete gardens and their slanty windowframes. They love the idea of more. They love the fact that someone, once, tried to help them. Who knows. They’ve been beaten, burned out, had their electricity and their water disconnected and they refuse still to leave. It’s hard to tell why. In order to find out, I plan to go back there and stay for a week over the winter, butI already wrote that and I guess you can believe it when I do it and post the pictures.