Shanghai film mourns loss of past

Reuters

SHANGHAI, China (Reuters) — Today, just a quarter of the Shanghai neighborhood of old brick-and-stone houses where film-maker Shu Haolun grew up still stands.
Most of the 34-year-old’s childhood playground has given way to high-rise apartment blocks and hotels, and the old area in which he was brought up is now surrounded by what he calls “the concrete monsters”.
For many Chinese, replacing old and dirty houses with well-equipped apartment blocks seems entirely appropriate.
But for Shu, a way of life is slowly dying. He mourns the loss of the intimate warren of streets that cars can barely squeeze through, to the way people wander in and out of each other’s homes because no one locks their front door.
“In 2002, I came back from the U.S. for a summer break just as the local government announced that our area was slated for imminent destruction, so that was the first reason I thought about making a documentary,” said Shu, who studied at film school in the United States.
“But my main inspiration came in 2001, reading a few articles in a Shanghai literary magazine that had been written by famous Shanghai writers about their respective birthplaces,” he said.
“Nostalgia”, first screened in late June, is a 70-minute portrait of life in the old brick houses that characterized Shanghai’s residential construction from the 1920s to early 1940s.
Known as “Shikumen”, a reference to their stone gates, the architectural style of old houses such as the one Shu grew up in is the exclusive preserve of Shanghai, created as a new hybrid of European and local forms. Many have since disappeared.
Much of the film follows Shu’s own family, who first moved to the “Da Zhongli” complex from the countryside in the 1935. His grandmother, who had just married, was 16 at the time.
“My father loved the film. He was born in the house in 1936 and my parents lived with my grandparents but, according to the party, my grandfather was a capitalist, so his room, and art, was confiscated during the Cultural Revolution,” said Shu.
The audience at the film’s first screening loved it too, said Shu, and many of them cried. Although it won’t reach the cinemas, there will be a number of public screenings at independent venues and Shu plans to release 5,000 DVDs for sale at around 20 yuan ($2.50) each.
China’s Communist Party leadership embarked upon a massive scheme after the revolution in 1949 to build a new country after decades of civil war and battles against Japan.
Many of China’s most senior political leaders are engineers by training, with a fondness for massive and symbolic building projects, like the Three Gorges Dam.
Fewer have a preference for preservation, though Shanghai’s early 20th century European-styled buildings are protected by the government as “heritage architecture”, in what Shu sees as a social comment.
“It’s because they are better-preserved, and because they belong to high-class people,” says Shu. “But the shikumen are for ordinary people. They are neither slums nor are they for the nouveau riche.”
Though Shu has his sympathizers, even many of his old neighbors are ready to move, or think they can get a good deal on compensation, he says.
Shu admits the old houses have disadvantages — his family used chamber pots and had sponge baths. Shu’s father moved out in 1992, though his grandmother refuses to.
But Shu opposes the appropriation and commercialization of old housing compounds, even though they help restoration, on the grounds that the interests of local people should come first.
One such development, known as “Xintiandi”, features in Shu’s film. Financed by money from Hong Kong, the shopping plaza is full of renovated old buildings, upscale boutiques and wealthy foreigners, something Shu considers inappropriate.
“The film’s not about making a statement per se, but there is a message there. When you destroy someone’s old home, you should be very careful,” said Shu.
“People have been there for 70 years, so the homes are old and sacred to their residents. You must at least show care and kindness to them.”
But for Shu’s old compound it is already too late. Banners throughout the neighborhood express thanks to locals for their “understanding” over the move, and Shu says that these days the local residents’ committee has no committed residents left — just government appointees.
Indeed, he sees no possibility of salvation for his old home.
According to notices pasted on the old brick walls, the compound will be destroyed later this year.
“People here don’t have a high income but they love their lifestyle. It’s a community, and they play mahjong and chat together every day. I just wanted to commemorate it.”

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