Photo-essay: explore old Laoximen before it's demolished

Remembering the 'old west gate' with Historic Shanghai

Rhiannon Florence
Laoximen is not just a metro station. It’s a neighbourhood that’s been around for almost 500 years, built up around the western gate of Shanghai’s original city wall. It’s the last-standing connection to pre-colonial, 11th century Shanghai, and it’s being demolished.

Despite the resistance of residents who refuse compensation or relocation to Jiading, the erasure of another corner of Shanghai’s Old Town is 'only a matter of time'. That’s what the Historic Shanghai guide Patrick Cranley says on occasion as we, a large group of locals and expats, young and old, explore what is yet to be razed on a sort of farewell walking tour through the old town.

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On the way to Laoximen, we pass new high rises and the restored and commercialised Old City gates before we reach some walled-off blocks with islands of old structures. Cranley points out those islands as either set aside to be preserved or demolished once construction crews are finished using them as temporary onsite offices.

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Before getting into the thick of old Laoximen, we stop at a restored and protected Buddhist convent, set beside one of those walled-off blocks. Within its bright yellow walls are three courtyards, one for welcoming, another for making joss offerings and the third surrounded by the temple proper and the nuns’ living quarters. That third courtyard is the original structure, built in 1869, and it is now covered with a roof that protects the structure’s old woodwork from the elements.

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What’s left of Laoximen is the raw stuff – that rarified Shanghai that doesn’t involve high-end shopping malls, new high-rise apartments in nu-art deco style or auteur-chef fifth-wave dining experi-ventures in fine dining food courts. That ‘real’ Shanghai that we get a nip of any time you pass through a neighbourhood without a Starbucks or KFC, that’s what’s there. Though there are share bikes of course.

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We’re talking hang-dry laundry out the windows like Babylon’s hanging gardens, narrow alley tunnels like Kowloon’s Walled City and…chamber pots? It’s that part of Shanghai where the walls aren’t so far apart, and they’re thin. You can hear kids and cats crying indoors from the street, adults arguing in it, and long, throat-shredding glottal hocks bouncing around corners. And then there it is: something you expect in an antique store or museum, just hanging out like it's no big deal.

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Dong brothers' house, 1920s.

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A cart used for collecting chamber pots and their contents.

'Only a matter of time' for a 500-year-old neighbourhood still filled with old courtyards and alleys named for families, families who paid for ornate stone gates and intricate wood lattices. Even richer and somewhat newer are the brick facades, tiled floors and metal railings of the odd art deco structures here and there. Many of them now house multiple families. One of has been converted into a fire station, and another once served as the headquarters for Kempeitai. Cranley points out the red and white torn corners of Mao-era posters on some walls.

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Zhou House and later Japanese secret police interrogation centre, mid-1930s.

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Art deco 'Splendid Mansion', mid-1930s. Cranley asks a woman sitting by the window if she knows who used to live in the house.

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'Some capitalists. They're gone now,' she replied.

Quite a few people have not yet moved out of Laoximen. Even old Soviet-style workers’ housing, five-storey walk-ups, are still hanging laundry to dry. From the outside, their lives seem to go on as they always have. Fish are hung out to dry in prep for Spring Festival feasts. Convenience shops are still open, breakfast stands still sell youtiao and that cart for chamber pot collection is still out. Then again, houses with doorways and windows bricked up by cinder blocks and marked with red circles are dead quiet mausoleums.

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It feels a bit perverse to be walking through someone’s home and taking photos as its about to be demolished. Some residents took photos and video of the tour group as well, so maybe it balances out? Either way, Historic Shanghai know the neighbourhood and many of the people there. They welcome the tour group into their community spaces and share their opinions about relocation and preservation.

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Residents sell items left behind during relocations.

Some look forward to moving out. Others don’t want compensation or a smaller but newer apartment in Jiading, or to leave home at all. The neighbourhood itself is home to history, which organisations like Historic Shanghai aim to share and in some manner preserve. They all have stakes in a question familiar to all changing cities –how should we honour the past while living in the present? However that question gets answered in Shanghai, Laoximen should be remembered as more than just a metro station.

Depending on how demolition proceeds, Historic Shanghai are planning more tours through old Laoximen after CNY. Email info@historic-shanghai.com for more information.

Photography: Rhiannon Florence

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