Friday, June 1, 2007

In Olde Shanghai

On Sunday, I followed freelance photographer Gangfeng Wang on a tour of the Shanghai neighborhood where he grew up. The aging blocks of shikumen housing are slated for demolition by the end of 2007. He introduced us to several residents, and also took us inside a grand building that I’ll describe below.

The central staircase, as wide as the lane outside, winds upward to the former ballroom. Above our heads, the day’s laundry dries on bamboo poles slotted between the balusters. On the second-floor landing, the judge’s widow is frying her lunch: a platter of small headless fish, each no longer than a teaspoon.

Eleven judges once shared this dwelling, a mansion that its Concession-era owner intended to house a single family. But the Party liberated it for the judges—and now the survivors and descendants of judges, three of whom stand side by side at their stoves at this very moment, each tending a single burner.

Their collective spirit came to a halt with the advent of utility bills. Each resident has designated gas, electric, and water meters, with separate switches and taps. Although for the first 50 years, they all took turns in the lone bathtub and toilet.

The judge’s widow has lived in this place since she was 25 and that’s what she wants us to know. Last year, she and her housemates were finally rewarded with private bathrooms.

Steam rises from the widow’s wok and I follow its path upward, to a decorated plaster ceiling, once pink and gold and perhaps green, but now the tactile brown of five decades of cooking grease. One resident tried to paint it white, the widow says, but we think it looks better this way.

P.S. This entry emerged from a brief exercise with the writing group that I am now (sadly) leaving. Thanks to all of you for your stories and your friendship.

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