OPINION> Chen Weihua
Leave the Jewish shelter area alone
By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-02-28 08:12

If there's one thing that makes the residents of Shanghai proud of their city, it's that it served as a safe shelter for some 30,000 Jews who fled the Nazi persecution during World War II.

I have visited the old Jewish ghetto area in Hongkou district several times in the last few years, mostly with my Jewish friends from all over the world.

Photos and videos displayed at the old Ohel Moshe Synagogue, now the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, take you back 50 years. It is a wonderful introduction to the city's short, yet fascinating history.

For all my overseas friends, a visit to the Jewish quarter became the highlight of their trip to China. In an area of about a square mile, known as Little Vienna, the Jews found their home away from home.

Some Jewish folks growing up there in the 1930s and 40s still come back from time to time to commemorate this one of the few World War II memorial sites, where Jews started a new life, instead of being imprisoned and slaughtered.

Three years ago, Shanghai designated about 70 acres of the old Jewish quarter as a conservation zone, while the surrounding area would all be pulverized in a gigantic North Bund transformation project. But some visitors who go there these days are surprised to find that a number of historical Jewish houses will soon be demolished to make way for a road project.

Though the houses to be razed are not on the original protection list, Tongji University Professor Ruan Yisan, a well-known conservationist, believes that new findings have made these buildings precious cultural heritages. He called on the local authorities to revise its demolition and road construction plans in order to save these structures.

Ruan is a mastermind in conserving many old towns across China, such as Lijiang in Yunnan province, Pingyao in Shanxi province, Zhouzhuang and many canal towns around Shanghai.

Yet, given his fame, it's still not known whether the local government is willing to make necessary changes. Officials from the local Hongkou district government still seem to prefer wider roads to cultural heritages, repeating the city's many blunders of erasing history during the massive urban construction in the last two decades.

Blocks and blocks of old buildings that should and could be conserved for our children have been and are still being bulldozed in the city to make way for high-end apartments and office buildings that bring huge profits to both local governments and property developers.

With thousands of high-rises already dotting the city's skyline, it is obvious that Shanghai lacks no more fancy, but superficial new towers to excite people's eyes. Instead, it needs more heritage sites like the Jewish ghetto that will leave a long-lasting impression in people's hearts.

Shanghai acted brilliantly when it decided to keep some of the old shipyard and power plant workshops for its World Expo 2010. It just needs to show that wisdom and insight again to keep a few more houses in the Jewish quarter, such as a popular nightclub at the time known as the White Horse Inn, or Das Weisse Rossl, and Caf Atlantic and Horn's Imbiss-stube (Horn's Snack Bar).

Massive urban development has already wiped out much of the city's short history, taking away the very soul of the city.

It's time to stop such a serious crime under the name of modernization.


(China Daily 02/28/2009 page4)