The area enclosed by Fuxing, Shunchang, Hefei and Huangpi Nan Lus was once a bustling longtang
community with dozens of grey and red brick shikumen
houses (traditional Shanghai 'stone gate' architecture) dating back to the 1920s and ’30s. Today, the area has been reduced almost completely to rubble. Groups of tourists and photographers pick their way through what’s left, snapping away at the remnants while they still can – a few rows of beautiful stone archways covered in creepers, posters of far off travel destinations peeling from the walls of what was once a family’s living space.
The days are numbered for the handful of buildings that remain too; many have only been spared temporarily to provide accommodation for the work teams operating the bulldozers and sledgehammers. In some quarters however, original residents remain. ‘Come back here in a few months and this entire site will be flattened,’ says Mr Jiang, a sprightly man in his 60s who chats openly with us while keeping one eye on his dog and one on the construction company employees who occasionally come into view across the rubble from his house. ‘There are only a few people left now,’ he says.
Those who remain have varying motives for staying put while buildings are bulldozed on their doorsteps. Jiang and his wife say that they’re still here because they’re ‘still talking’ to the authorities regarding compensation. ‘What they’re offering us is far too little,’ says Mrs Jiang. ‘They want to give us 150,000 kuai per square metre – in such a central location! This is a good house, it’s not some hovel that needs to be gotten rid of. It’s worth more.’
On the opposite side of a wasteland strewn with broken glass and rotting rubbish (the wood and bricks have mostly been picked off by collectors), Mr Wang echoes the Jiangs’ claims of inadequate compensation. ‘We just got back from talking to the authorities this morning,’ he says. ‘They’re not giving us enough, but what can we do?’
For Mr Qian, who lives what would once have been a few alleys over from Mr Wang, the refusal to move is borne more out of necessity. ‘I have an illness and I need to be near a big hospital,’ he says, as he scrubs down some dishes in an outdoor basin. ‘They’re relocating people to Pujiang Town in Pudong and there’s no big hospital there. It’ll take me around two hours to get to the hospital I’m at now from there.’
Despite being born in the house where he currently lives, Qian, now in his 60s, doesn’t appear to have any strong emotional connection to the building itself, which is perhaps understandable when you see the cramped, 1.3 metre-high wooden room that he and his family of three call home. ‘I can’t stand up in here and there’s no toilet, just this chamber pot,’ he says after welcoming us inside. ‘There was a proper kitchen downstairs, but they destroyed it when everyone else moved out, so now we just use this single hob on the stairs.’
Few can argue that Qian isn't in need of improved living conditions, but not all the residents here live in such dwellings. ‘Our house has a toilet and a shower,’ says Mrs Jiang. ‘It’s a good house. There are buildings in far poorer condition than these were in – all the way down to Henan Nan Lu from here there are houses that are worse.’ ‘Those will go soon,’ adds her husband. ‘Bit-by-bit it’ll all go. Soon there won’t be any old buildings left – who wants to live in a city of identical skyscrapers?’