Shanghai Dwellings Vanish, and With Them, a Way of Life

Much of the historic city depicted on the virtual map has been wiped off the real map of Shanghai by two decades of breakneck development

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Shanghai Dwellings Vanish, and With Them, a Way of Life
The Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, housed in shikumen saved from the wrecker’s ball because of their roles in the congress’s clandestine first meeting / © Lauryn Ishak

China’s Communist Party celebrated its 95th birthday this summer with a lavish First of July gala at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In Shanghai, where the First National Congress took place in 1921, the occasion was noted in a more subdued way, with the promotion of a digital map of the important sites of the party’s heroic early years in foreign-occupied Shanghai.

The map is a simple affair. Clicking on a man wearing scholar’s robes, for example, sends a cartoon icon toddling off to the brick building on Lane 163 of Zizhong Road, where Chen Wangdao, one of the party’s founding members, translated “The Communist Manifesto” into Chinese. (A Chinese- and English-language app version will soon be available for smartphones.)

A problem for anyone contemplating a real-life pilgrimage to the urban shrines of the Communist Party: Much of the historic city depicted on the virtual map has been wiped off the real map of Shanghai by two decades of breakneck development. The few remaining buildings, among them Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s modest tile-roofed mansion in the former French Concession, stand in the shadows of 30- or 40-story towers.

On a recent visit, my quest to find Mao Zedong’s first address in Shanghai, on a street once known as the Alley of Benevolence and Kindness, ended in the Jing An Kerry Center, a 3.9-million-square-foot residential and office complex. The two-story rowhouse, where the future Great Helmsman once folded laundry and ate rice in an attic room, now sits between a climate-controlled luxury mall and the five-star Shangri-La Hotel’s steakhouse.

Fortunately, enough examples of Shanghai’s historic architecture have survived to give visitors a sense of what life was like when the city gave birth to the Communist Party. To walk through Shanghai’s last remaining shikumen (alleyway complexes entered through a stone-framed kumen, or gateway) is to return to the wicked, glamorous “Paris of the Orient” — and to get a glimpse of what has happened to Shanghai in the century since then. […]