Remembrance of things now past

Updated: 2012-03-30 08:05

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Remembrance of things now past

Like many in Shanghai, and probably other parts of the country, the lane where my mother was born and where I was born and lived until I was two years old was an old narrow alley.

It is now a ruin.

In fact, the row of old wood and brick houses, built by my grandfather in the early 20th century and only 10 minutes walk away from Yuyuan Garden, is gone, a casualty of Shanghai's modernization.

The lane is now just empty ground awaiting the realization of the latest steel and glass vision of the real estate developers and local government officials.

On the other side from where I lived, the charming shikumen, or stone-arched houses known as Honglai Fang, have been reduced to skeletons, which were standing forlornly in the rain when I visited last week, silent witnesses to Shanghai's ongoing face-lift.

In fact this is a typical scene of urban redevelopment in Shanghai, as with each passing day the city is looking younger.

People used to say that if you wanted to see what China was like 2,000 years ago, you should go to Xi'an; 1,000 years ago, then go to Beijing; but if only 100 years ago, go to Shanghai.

But even that is no longer true, as the Shanghai of today is unrecognizable from even the one of my childhood. You should visit Shanghai if you want to see the China of the past 30 years.

The skyscrapers that make up the Bund and the Pudong skyline are truly amazing. But if you delve into the city, the old neighborhoods that once distinguished Shanghai from other Chinese cities, are long gone and have been replaced by bland high-rises.

On Wednesday, Shanghai's Oriental Morning Post reported that some in the city have proposed the city's historic Jewish Ghetto, Yuyuan Garden and the Bund apply to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

That seems a good thing, but only if it is to ensure that they will be well protected, and not just preserved to woo more tourists. That, unfortunately, has been the real intention of many places that try and attain the World Heritage label.

But not many city planners seem to be interested in the old. Shanghai has tons of money, which they gleefully spend tearing up the old and putting in the new. Little thought or money goes to preserving the past.

Places like the trendy Sinan Road or Xintiandi are a big boon for the property developers and the owners of the restaurants and bars, but they will never be as enchanting as those worn-out old buildings that endured the vicissitudes of Shanghai over the past century.

Many people are proud of Shanghai's rapid development in the past two decades, but although I used to be, I no longer am, as it is erasing the city's history as though it never had a past and has burst forth in all its shining but shallow glory.

Compared with Shanghai, New York City, where I have lived for the past two and half years, is now a charming old city with history in every building and street.

Unfortunately, my generation is most likely to be remembered by future generations as the one that bulldozed the past.

The author, based in New York, is deputy editor of China Daily US edition. E-mail:

(China Daily 03/30/2012 page9)