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The Disappearing Houses of Hongkou

Imagine you have lived all your life in a tiny laneway in Shanghai, grown up with the same group of friends and neighbours, lived alongside the births, deaths, marriages, divorces, tragedies, triumphs and joys all happening within a few short steps of your front door. Until, that is, it’s decided that your home will be bulldozed to make way for a tall, modern apartment block you won’t be able to afford to live in. For this old gentleman it’s just sad and confusing.
It’s a common story, not just in Shanghai but all over China, where the need for high-rises to accommodate the growing tide of people moving from the country to the city, and the relentless pace of modernisation overtake all else. The old neighbourhoods are all going, torn down block by block, and the residents are being compensated and offered accommodation elsewhere, usually much further toward the city fringes. Some choose to take up the offer of a brand new apartment at a heavily subsidised price, some choose to take the monetary compensation and move elsewhere, but in every case, there is loss to bear. Loss of your home and familiar surrounds, loss of your neighbours, loss of your community.

This whole community – soon to be gone.

Lest you think I’m being nostalgic, let me set you straight – these old lanes house some of the most decrepit, dangerous and unhygenic dwellings in the city. Tiny, dark, dank, dripping alleyways separate houses by the width of two people standing shoulder to shoulder, illegal wiring sprouts from every post like wild black ivy, crawling over every wall and through every window. Homes rarely have indoor plumbing, and residents shuffle back and forth to the public facilities to empty their chamber pots. Illegal house extensions encroach in every possible direction from the original dwelling – upwards, backwards, sideways, cantilevered out over the laneway, crammed into the spaces between houses, and thrusting upwards through the roof.

A typical laneway, dark even at midday. 

Yesterday I had the rare opportuity to visit and photograph a neighbourhood where demolition is imminent – not months or even weeks away, but days away. I expected to find empty rooms, piles of discarded rubbish, and mounds of cardboard boxes. Instead, what I saw was life being lived one hundred percent to the fullest, right up to the very last minute. An outdoor wet market was in full swing, everyone buying their daily supplies of fruit, vegetables, fish and chicken, and an enormous indoor wet market was also thriving. Washing had been hung out to dry after three days of heavy rain, and in short, there was very little sign of anyone going anywhere. But in the quieter corners, there was a heavy sense of finality. The residents I spoke to said they planned to stay until forced to go, despite this, they seemed stoically resigned to moving out, and moving on.

Today I want to show you the lanes themselves, and tomorrow, the wet markets and their vendors. 

‘This change will be implemented according to the law. Accept the relocation, residents of…’


Outdoor stone sinks, often the only source of running water for a home.
Hard to see where the original house begins and ends…

‘Double Happiness’ chamber pot

Tomorrow: The Disappearing Markets
  • Sasha

    One thing I’ve really noticed in China is just how quickly development goes up and just how rapidly old neighbourhoods disappear in both big cities like Shanghai and in small towns and cities all over the country! I think it’s quite sad, no thought seems to be put into what the implications are as a result of destroying these old neighbourhoods. Where will the people go, It’s not like they can afford the new luxury apartments that spring up where the homes once were! I’ve been desperately going around Shanghai trying to photograph as many as these old neighbourhoods as I can before they are destroyed for good. I often wonder what will Shanghai be like once I leave then come back in a few years, well will the locals be? Will the city seemingly just be full of upper middle class and expats?

  • Anonymous

    What are the stenciled phone numbers on the walls about? I've seen this in Shanghai and in other big Asian cities. In Bombay there's the curious "BEAN BAGS" written all over town with a phone number beneath.

  • Fiona

    Sasha thanks for your insightful comments. I totally agree – what will Shanghai look like in 10, 20, 30 years' time? Will it be a homogenous blend of pastel highrises?

    Interestingly, the Government's next 5 Year Plan, commencing 2012, places much more emphasis in sustaining communities through better urban planning. Hopefully what that means, in part, is the retention and repair of existing buildings, more architectural diversity, and more green spaces. Guess we'll have to wait and see.

  • Dingle

    They don't seem to do too badly out of it, we regularly walk around the old neighbourhoods between the fabric market and YuYuan and hear that the government offers them 3x the size of their dwelling in pudong (i.e. if they have 50m in the hutong they get a 150m apartment in pudong).

    Sounds like the new apartments are in the middle of nowhere though…

  • Fiona

    Do you know if they're planning to knock that area down or redevelop it? The lanes there are beautiful, the houses much sturdier and better constructed than these. I'm sure for some people, it's a win-win situation.

    And the middle of nowhere eventually becomes the middle of somewhere in a city growing as fast as this one is, right?

  • Dingle

    Well, they're being moved out and seemed to think it was all going to be demolished, they all seemed pretty upbeat about it.

    Hopefully they're going to build more shopping malls, Shanghai desperately needs half a dozen more shopping malls that all sell clothes slightly too small for me.

    Yeah, the way things are going everyone is going to be living out there, the downtown apartments will all be owned by property investors who don't actually live there and never get round to decorating the places to lease.

  • Fiona

    Yeah…It would be great if they could build six identical malls with….let's see….Zara, Gap, Adidas, Sephora, City Shop, a Wagas concept of some kind, a Tissot watch shop, and fourteen shops selling shoes made from plastic and fake leather.

    Hang on a second, they already did!!

  • Dingle

    You forgot the shop that specialises in bread rolls with pork floss on top…