A Cinematic Ode to Shanghai's Vanishing World Shanghai has a population of almost 18 million, but only 632 protected historic sites. Its distinctive traditional architecture is rapidly disappearing, and along with it, a way of life. A local filmmaker has produced an ode to these vanishing neighborhoods.
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A Cinematic Ode to Shanghai's Vanishing World

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A Cinematic Ode to Shanghai's Vanishing World

A Cinematic Ode to Shanghai's Vanishing World

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All this week on MORNING EDITION, we've been exploring the transformation of China as reflected in one great Chinese city, the port city of Shanghai. We've learned that it now has more skyscrapers than New York, and today we'll report on what those skyscrapers are replacing.


The city's traditional architecture is disappearing, but it's preserved in the camera of Shu Haolun, a local filmmaker who shot an ode to Shanghai's vanishing style. Just before the demolition of his old neighborhood, he took NPR's Louisa Lim on a tour.

Mr. SHU HAOLUN (Filmmaker): (Speaking Chinese)

LOUISA LIM: Shu Haolun's documentary starts with his reasons for making it. Soon I'll only be able to see our alleyway in old photos, he says, and in this film.

Mr. SHU: (Speaking Chinese)

LIM: Walking around his old neighborhood is like stepping straight into his documentary, "Nostalgia." We pass a group of neighbors chatting as they wash clothes in concrete basins in the alleyway. There are imposing carved stone pillars and arches framing the tall wood doorways. But the three-story gray buildings are shabby, their facades patched and stained by the passage of history.

We stop constantly to exchange greetings with neighbors, but this tight-knit community is about to be dispersed. In April, residents of this neighborhood, known as known as Dazhongli, received notice that their houses would be demolished. No one knows when, but everyone realizes it will be soon. The 34-year-old filmmaker says it's not just buildings that are vanishing, but a way of life.

Mr. SHU: (Through translator) There's such a close contact between people. Everyone helps each other. It's because of the layout of the houses with communal kitchens. This lifestyle is becoming more and more rare, and I miss that.

(Soundbite of children singing)

LIM: Our life is so happy, are the words of this song in the documentary. And Shu's film depicts an idyllic childhood, despite hardships. Eight families lived in his house; six people and a cat lived in his family's one room. But no one knew any other way of life, and there were countless playmates and surrogate parents and grandparents. In his film, Shu charts the small details of growing up: buying sweets in triangular packets from the local shop, being late for school, his first romance, as his grandma played a seemingly endless game of mahjong.

(Soundbite of mahjong tiles)

LIM: Today his grandma's house is still being used for mahjong by her neighbors. But she's in the hospital, recovering from a broken leg. While we watched their game, they discussed the future.

Ms. CHENG YUXIAN: (Speaking Chinese)

LIM: We don't want to move out, says Cheng Yuxian, who's lived here for more than 40 years. But several hundred households have already gone.

Mr. ZHU JUNBIAO: (Speaking Chinese)

LIM: We'll sign the agreement for compensation in the end, chips in Zhu Junbiao. They agree the developers aren't offering enough money - at least not yet - not enough to buy a house, even in a suburb 25 miles from the city center where they now live.

Ms. CHENG YUXIAN: (Speaking Chinese)

LIM: It'll be difficult seeing the doctor, the old lady says with a resigned air.

(Soundbite of film "Nostalgia")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Shu's Grandmother): (Speaking Chinese)

LIM: In his film, Shu's grandma recounts the story of another neighbor. After he moved out, his memory got worse and he couldn't remember the address of his new flat in an apartment tower. He often turned up on the doorstep of his old house, disoriented and confused. And filmmaker Shu says rapid urban development is creating a collective sense of loss.

Mr. SHU: Wherever you go, people ask you where are you from, where were you from. Now it's really difficult to answer this. These places simply don't exist anymore. They've become newly developed zones. It's not just a material loss, it's a spiritual loss. It's not just that we've lost our houses. We no longer feel that home exists.

(Soundbite of film "Nostalgia")

LIM: It's a point that's made painfully in the film when Shu meets an elderly man whose neighborhood has just been demolished.

(Soundbite of film "Nostalgia")

LIM: Staring at a wasteland of rubble, the man says, I have a feeling for this place. I played hide and seek here, he says, sweeping his arm to take in the devastation. And I broke my head here, he says, pointing to a random spot among the broken bricks.

The transformation is so complete, Shu believes China is facing an identity crisis.

Mr. SHU: (Through translator) What's Chinese identity? We talk about having 5,000 years of Chinese history, but wherever you go, you see demolition. There are construction sites everywhere. There isn't even 50 years of history left.

LIM: Some are not ready to embrace that change. In the film, the self-appointed guardian of Shu's community was the street sweeper, who sat at the entrance to the alley for most of the day, watching life go by. It's a sign of the political sensitivity of demolishing an entire neighborhood that he's been replaced by policemen, sitting at the same spot, watching for unrest from those who were once so happy.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

MONTAGNE: And you can see a clip from Shu Haolun's documentary and earlier reports in our series on Shanghai at npr.org. Tomorrow, as our series concludes, a report on novelists who find inspiration in Shanghai.

Unidentified Woman #2: Shanghai is the most open city in China. I'm very lucky to be a Shanghainese. If I want to be a modern writer, it's great to be a Shanghainese.

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