The Interview: Katya Knyazeva on Shanghai’s Old Town
The original Shanghai – the “old town” – is hidden in plain sight, in center of China’s wealthiest city. Yet it is but a shadow, unexplored territory for both foreigners and locals. And it’s vanishing quickly. Journalist, photographer, and tour guide Katya Knyazeva has spent six years painstakingly documenting the Old Town, uncovering the layers of 900 years of history. The result is a remarkable book, the first in-depth resource on the old Chinese city in English: Shanghai Old Town: Topography of a Phantom City is a history and a photographic atlas of the former walled city and port of Shanghai. Katya shared some insights on the making of this book.
Tell us, why did you decide to focus on the old town for this project?
Since my first day in Shanghai, I was smitten with old neighborhoods. We spent our first week wandering the streets, peeking into gateways and windows, photographing everything. The old city in particular drew me in, with its crooked street pattern, density and diversity. I was so enchanted, I remember following the voice of the cold noodle vendor on his circuit through the lanes.
I kept coming across buildings that seemed to have had finer uses in the past, like a warehouse under a antique roof with upturned eaves, or a some intricately carved courtyard serving as a over-crowded residence. People would sometimes invite me into their houses or show the way to interesting sites, like the eighteenth-century guildhall converted to a dormitory.
So I began to see traces of early Shanghai – Chinese Shanghai – all over the old town: in the shape of the streets, in the street names. Some old shrines are still standing; sometimes the contour of an old tree will conform to a long-disappeared monastery gateway.
Perhaps, the moment that made me decide to write this book came when I found the house belonging to the original owner of Yuyuan Garden. It stands half a block away from the celebrated garden, hidden inside a lane compound, abandoned after years of use as a basketball gym for a primary school… One afternoon we slipped past the guard and then roamed inside the dark vaults filled with construction debris and basketballs, taking long exposure shots. The ceiling was carved with gold-leaf ornaments, olive branches and grapevines around the Latin letters of “J.H.S.” Later I found out this building had a fantastic history – from Pan Yunduan’s family home to Shanghai’s first Catholic church, then to a public school, and lastly, to a senior citizens’ activity center…
I started to catalogue what I photographed in a more systematic manner, and began searching archives, books and maps for more information. My Chinese is far from perfect, so it was a struggle, but in the process I found new addresses to check and new (old) buildings to look for. And since not a single book or website offered a complete guide to all the antiquities remaining in the old town in English, I decided to make that book.
Shanghai is a city of layers, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the old city. Tell us about your research process to discover what was beneath the layers.
Foreign settlements are much better documented than the Chinese City, but there some old maps too. The street atlas from 1946 has the names of shops, schools, temples and notable residences. The North-China Desk Hong Lists are unfortunately, not much use here, because they didn’t deal with Chinese-governed territories.
There are useful websites like shtong.gov.cn, that continue the tradition of local gazetteers, presenting the data in lists and tables, like “Venerable old trees of the Huangpu District,” or “All Taoist temples of Shanghai.” There is some good research on Chinese-language Shanghai history blogs, and there are some good books. Luckily, I live only a couple of blocks away from Shanghai Library. I have two membership cards, yet sometimes I felt I needed to check out more than ten books at once.
The archive room of Shanghai Library has a real estate map of the Chinese City from 1933, and I scanned it. But to decipher that map I had to find the index to it, and miraculously, it popped up on the web – hundreds of scanned pages with lines of text and numbers. Coupled with the map, it turned into a treasure trove: complete information on who owned what in the old town and the old docks. This information overlaps with the street map in interesting ways: for example, you can see what clan had the most power in a given neighborhood.
Nineteenth-century American and British church journals proved unexpectedly useful. Missionaries left wonderfully detailed accounts of living in Shanghai in the early years of the treaty port era. Unlike foreign merchants and diplomats, they wanted to live among the locals, and so they rented houses right in the middle of the walled city, as close to the action as they could get. Those old missionary records are in the common domain and freely available on the web.
Talking to residents revealed some patterns. I’d hear a story of how one family owned the whole row of lane houses and each brother had one house to live in, and then after 1949 the whole clan would be forced move in together in a few rooms and give up everything else. On another occasion, a retired couple took me to the house they once owned, and showed me their small attic room filled to the brim with beautiful carved furniture; everything they owned had to be moved up there in the 1960s.
Sometimes a person working outside of their house would point to the boundary stone in the corner of their hundred-year-old building: “See? It has our last name on it. My father built this house.” They would recall growing up in a rich family, living with many servants: “The garden was huge, but it had snakes in the grass, so we were afraid to go there after dark. But in the daytime we took lots of photos; too bad Red Guards seized and burned them.”
What were some of the highlights you’ve discovered?
In the old town there is an incredible number of unprotected, unrestored, obscure buildings, often with fascinating backstories and historical importance. Sometimes such relics are deliberately kept under the radar. Public scrutiny would expose years of criminal neglect the midst of unparalleled civic prosperity. The city has an embarrassing record of allowing its heritage sites to decay – or destroying them outright in the name of “urban renewal” – while exploiting Shanghai nostalgia and building the likes of Xintiandi and Cool Docks.
The most glaring example is Shuyinlou, an eighteenth-century mansion (now the oldest private residence in Shanghai) that the government refuses to restore because it remains in private hands and the government can’t make money off it. Other countries’ NGOs are also not allowed fund any works. So instead it’s being allowed to literally rot in the rain. Give it ten years and it will disappear without a trace. Then I suppose they’ll put the few surviving carved rocks and wooden panels into a museum and close the file. [We will visit Shuyinlou on Katya’s January 24 walk.]
Studying the old town politicized me. It is more than historic architecture that disappears as a result of neglect and blind redevelopment. Whole communities, sometimes with centuries-old foothold in Shanghai, are dismantled and removed from the city, like they were never there.
In addition to writing the book, you also photographed the book – tell us about that process. What camera(s) did you use? How was access? Is a particular time of day best for shooting the old town?
Simultaneously with “discovering” the old city I “discovered” analog photography. First I used a hipster Holga camera, and then my Russian photographer friend, who had switched to digital technology, passed all of his Soviet cameras to me, and I started using them. Taobao still trades in 120 and 135 film stock. I like using expired film – it produces unpredictable color shifts and patterns. The pictures might turn out with a strong yellow hue, or very grainy, or looking as if they had been scratched on. Or they might not turn out at all. One Shanghai friend gave me a Chinese medium-format camera, Hongmei, as a gift. The inside of the lens had permanent spots of mold that gave every shot a dreamy, hazy quality.
I never had any difficulties getting into the buildings. Old houses are mostly shared, so their common areas are more-or-less public spaces. People who live in there are almost always welcoming and appreciate curiosity about their home. I’m also a sucker for bird’s eye views. I always try to get on the roofs of high-rises. These are usually gated and guarded, but you can always find someone to hold the door open.
Your second book comes out later this year. Tell us more.
The first volume covers the area around Dongjiadu (that mostly got demolished while I was working on it). The second volume, “The Walled City,” covers the area that is now between Renmin Rd and Zhonghua Rd. The chapters revolve around the streets: we follow a given street from end to end and trace its history.
The second volume will be twice as thick because there are more surviving artifacts, although the walled city is losing ground as well. Most of the northwest quarter has been demolished and built up with high-end properties. The used appliances market on Dong St is being torn down right now. The open-air wet market on Ninghe Road is forced to stick to the curbs and make space for passing cars. More disruption has come to the old town in the last two decades than in the previous seven hundred years. I’m in a hurry to document it before it’s all gone!
Shanghai Old Town: Topography of a Phantom City is available at:
Garden Books, 325 Changle Lu/Shaanxi Lu
Foreign Languages Bookstore, 390 Fuzhou Lu
Amazon (US & Europe)