East Seward Road Elegy: Shanghai’s War Against Its Architectural Heritage

[UPDATE 10/19 – Paul French of the excellent China Rhyming blog just posted some heartbreaking history and images of the White Horse Inn, on the former Ward Road, which was taken down during the recent Hongkou demolitions. ]

[UPDATE 10/22 – Leading the pack on Hongkou-related news, Paul French just posted a very fine item on East Seward Road, which mentions my post. It’s worth noting, as well, that he’s going to be the first author published by Penguin’s new China imprint.]

Spend time in the lanes and alleys of Shanghai’s rapidly disappearing, European-built tenements, and you’ll inevitably find tourists and well-heeled expats taking photos. It’s a legitimate exercise, I think: not only the buildings, but the ways of life that developed in those buildings, are rapidly disappearing, and somebody ought to record them before they’re gone. And yet, despite their picturesque nature, it’s worth recalling that the lanes were and are often miserable places to call home. Poorly insulated, poorly heated, and lacking in privacy – they are everything that affluent tourists who fetishize their atmospherics would refuse to call their own. I wouldn’t want to live in them, either. But does that justify their destruction? Put differently, could some other use have been found for them?

Shanghai is far from the only world city to be dotted with old tenements built for its working classes; and, I suspect, it won’t be the last to see its few remaining tenements rehabbed into expensive lofts – some day. Unfortunately, the time for that discussion is mostly past; most of these well-built structures have already disappeared, and their lots are being rapidly prepped for the anonymous highrises already over-running  China’s other rehabbed cities. Other than real estate developers and dimwitted city officials who think that they’ve just transformed their distinctive districts into something “world class,” I’m really not sure who – exactly – is supposed to be pleased by this.

Which brings me to the sad fate of East Seward Road.

The 1937 Battle of Shanghai damaged large sections of the city’s most famous streets, including the Bund and Nanking Road. But no area suffered more, both from bombs and from infantry, than Hongkou District. By the end of hostilities, entire blocks of the poor, working class district were rubble. Below, an image of East Seward Road (now, Dong Changzhi Road), in the heart of Hongkou, taken in early 1939, nearly two years after the fighting had ended (uncredited photo in the collection of YIVO). Click for an enlargement.

seward 0012

In 1937 Shanghai was already home to a significant population of European Jewish refugees (I wrote about this migration a few years ago, here), while many more were arriving by the week (eventually, there would be roughly 15,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai, in addition to another 5000 who had arrived earlier, for other reasons). Some came with money, and many more came with an entrepreneurial spirit that – in the space of two-and-a-half years, transformed Hongkou’s ruins into a neighborhood that came to be known as Little Vienna. David Kranzler, in his definitive history of the period, Japanese, Nazis and Jews: the Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai, writes:

The remarkable transformation … of whole streets in Hongkew [Hongkou]  into European-style avenues, which reflected the refugee optimism, has been noted by several observers. Such streets as … Seward … [were] completely rebuilt. In fact, a minor economic boom was created through the initiative of some enterprising refugees, who helped rebuild Hongkew’s ruins out of its own rubble. From the ruins there emerged new but simple houses, in European style, with indoor plumbing and bathrooms. One shop after another opened up, especially restaurants, open-air cafés, provision stores, snack bars and bars, which proliferated and stood side by side where there was previously but a single coffeehouse.

Below, an image of East Seward Road in 1940. It quickly became one of the main thoroughfares through Little Vienna. Click for an enlargement (also uncredited, in the collection of YIVO).

seward 001

The Jewish refugees began to leave in 1945, and by the mid-1950s all but a few were gone. Ever since, Hongkou’s European-style lanes and housing has belonged to the Shanghainese. And, until the early part of this decade, it remained mostly unchanged (though decaying). It was only in the last several years, as Shanghai began renovating in advance of Expo 2010, that city planners and wrecking balls turned to this mostly forgotten district. But even then, planners and wrecking balls, alike, were slow to reach Little Vienna. There was some chipping away at the margins, but the great architectural losses experienced elsewhere in Shanghai (especially in the French Concession) hadn’t yet arrived.

But really, it was just a matter of time.

On Saturday I accompanied some out of town friends to visit the area. My last visit was four months earlier, and though I’ve become accustomed to Shanghai’s ongoing war against its architectural heritage and – more importantly – the Shanghai lifestyles that developed inside and outside of it – I wasn’t prepared to find that most of East Seward Road had been erased from Hongkou. But that’s what I found: at some point in the last few months, somebody signed the order to demolish it. Below, an image of East Seward, viewed facing south from Chaoufoong Road (now, Gaoyang Road).


A little further north, an image of East Seward Road viewed from Muirhead Road (now Haimen Road). The left side is gone; the right side is in the process of being demolished. Click for an enlargement:


On Sunday, I returned to wander up and down Seward Road, and in and out of buildings, taking as many photos as my camera could hold. It was a depressing exercise, especially walking into the crumbling lanes and alleys where refugees once lived beside Japanese and Shanghainese.  Below, an image of a lane (demolished over the weekend), that once existed in a vast complex at the corner of East Seward Road and Kungping Road (now Gongping Road). Click for an enlargement:


Brick by brick, Shanghai loses its history, its buildings, and its traditional ways of life. In many cases, the bricks in the buildings now crumbling on East Seward Road are the bricks that built the buildings that preceded them (and were destroyed by fighting with the Japanese). They will not get a third chance – at least, they won’t get that chance in Hongkou. Instead, they’re being carted away, perhaps to be landfilled, or perhaps to become anonymous contributors to projects elsewhere in Shanghai. The workers who will lay them for the third time won’t know that they survived the Japanese invasion, and just like that, the remarkable history of modern Hongkou will disappear into a city too busy, and too rich, to care, anymore.

In any case, Kranzler’s book has a nice set of passages about life in the lanes, and I’m going to conclude this post with some excerpts and a few additional photos:

The most common kind of housing utilized by the refugees in Hongkew … was the lane system, which predominated in most of Shanghai … [I]t consisted of a long, wide, main stereet with many dark, narrow lanes or alleys extending from both sides and lined with fairly solidly-built, single, or at the most double-storied houses next to each other … At night, these lanes were closed by gates and sometimes guarded by one or two Sikhs, those excellent tall East Indian guards, members of the Shanghai Municipal police force … The entire scene had a distinctly medival flavor.


[T]hough ordinarily meant to house a single family, the frugal, enterprising Chinese found themselves able to earn extra money by renting out each of these to an entire family. These “extra” room were often nothing more than partitioned-off backs of former larger rooms by Japanese-style lattive work, sliding panels. Such rooms would often be without windows. It was difficult to fit the large, heavy European furniture into the small, narrow lane house. Occasionally a piece had to be lowered through a skylight, or a room enlarged to accommodate it.


[Kranzler continued] The main tenant usually rented from a landlord who after some alteration produced what looked like a cubbyhole for each of the families. The refugees soon caught on to this means of renting and imitated it. In this manner, refugees with a little money were able to become independent entrepreneurs, by purchasing and rebuilding the lane housing.



  1. This kind of nostalgia for the past is just ridiculous. It’s not possible to keep every structure ever built for historic purposes. Do you want China to keep everything from colonial era and call it their precious history? Some people do not share the same romanticism. Maybe some people do not feel that these are important enough to save. Not every bit of history is worth saving or have to be saved. From the pictures above, these seems like very insignificant buildings.

    People ripped down old history to build new ones all the time. Europe and Americas did it to their own history. Also, you have to see that every event that happens is history. The anti-modern/globalization sect need to see that. Making modern buildings is also history. It’s fine and all to hate modernism, but do it yourself. If other people want to embrace it, it is their own choice. Future will not see it as fools who do not realize the futility and vanity of pursuing their own desires, but people making new history themselves.

    Also, you have to think how many ancient Chinese houses, which were the real traditional Chinese way of life, were teared down to build these buildings.

  2. Shanghai is losing its distinctiveness and beginning to look like every other big city in the world. I think that’s the point here. That’s a terrible loss. I travel all over China and Asia and it’s getting where I can’t tell the difference between one Chinese city and another. Shanghai look like Chengdu and Wuhan and every other boring modern Chinese city now.

    In the US and Europe we regret that we took down our old buildings and widened the roads into highways. The cities are less pleasant places to live now. Many foreigners who feel bad about Shanghai’s destruction don’t want to see China make the same mistakes we made.

  3. I’ve always thought it’d be nice if the new buildings being built in Shanghai could retain some of the original flavor of the old, even if the ends up being slightly cheesy. For example, Xintiandi is new, and yet was built in the shikumen style, and it has a fairly authentic feeling of “Shanghai-ness” to it, in my opinion. Maybe there’s a 3rd way between retaining old and unpleasant buildings, and building in the “one style” that dominates every city in the mainland (as Shanghai Stu pointed out).

  4. Adam, I sympathize with the lose of historical buildings in Shanghai, though this is symptomatic of every major metropolis on the planet — there are buildings all over that people want preserved. But as I recently took a trip down to the old synagogue in Hongkou and trolled through the buildings of the past, you’ve got to admit, there isn’t much left. Before the tearing down even began, there was very little remnants of the Jewish refugee houses.

    And even China’s CCP buildings are not safe from new buildings. I recently did a story on the Mao Zedong house on An Yi Road, which will literally be surrounded by a Shangri-La Hotel once the new buildings go up around it (http://www.deluxzilla.com/DeluxZilla/Writers_Block/Entries/2009/10/5_Red_Shanghai_Disappearing.html).

  5. Zach – Thanks for stopping by, and the comment. However, I have to take issue with your assessment of Hongkou. Seven years ago, when I first started visiting the area, much of the housing was still there. The former Seward, Wayside, and Broadway Roads were still mostly intact – and they were that way until roughly three years ago when the developers began chipping away. Meanwhile, one of the most important thoroughfare in the part of Hongkou where Jewish refugees congregated – Chusan – now Zhousan – Road is still mostly there.

  6. Adam, as always, a fantastic post.

    China has always had a very different approach to understanding history than we WEsterners have. I can see how the decision makers might possibly not see Seward Raod as historically significant because it really isn’t Chinese history. In the West we are more likely to marvel at the Other, and we would see something like this as part of a larger world story.

  7. I agree with GFF and Jen. These houses are not histroic to the regular chinese people. They are just plain old buildings. That’s why it is being demolished, and new once put up. Modernizing, that’s what every chinese wants and understands.

  8. A good discussion, and I think I’ll jump in, albeit briefly.

    GIFF refers to the US and Europe having “ripped down” their own history. This isn’t quite right, especially as applied to the US, but I think I know what he’s getting at. From the late 1950 into the early 1970s, many major US cities received federal funding for “Urban Renewal” – a program designed to demolish old neighborhoods (rife with crime, in many cases) and replace them with clean, modern cities with wide boulevards and open spaces. Sound familiar?

    Now, nearly half a century later, the Urban Renewal program is looked back upon as a disaster for American cities. Where once there were narrow streets, human-sized buildings, and an organic development of residential and commercial in tandem, now there’s wide boulevards, high-rise buildings, and dead downtowns where nobody spends time after 5:00 PM. US cities, alas, proved that modernism isn’t conducive to livability.

    Case in point: think about any major American city, and ask yourself what are the most popular neighborhoods for apartments, restaurants, entertainment? Typically, they tend to maintain some of their old architecture and human-scaled streetscape. Georgetown in Washington, D.C., the Warehouse District and Uptown in Minneapolis, Bucktown in Chicago, Lower East Side in NYC etc etc etc. Meanwhile, in Shanghai, Taikang Lu and Xintiandi (albeit a fake ‘old’ Shanghai) continue to attract growing waves of people who – consciously or unconsciously – enjoy the human-scaled environments more than, say, the confines of a Shanghai shopping mall.

    Look, I’m not against modernism and development. But it’s disheartening for me to see Shanghai demolish the types of buildings and streetscapes that other cities in Europe and the US learned – often too late – that they really ought to have saved, and now try to recreate. There’s no way to predict this kind of thing, but I suspect that – in thirty years – Shanghai will wish that it preserved them, too.

  9. This post was a pleasure to read, though its subject was a depressing one. I too bemoan the destruction of Shanghai’s truly unique architectural heritage and I want to thank you for bringing such subjects to the attention of the world.

  10. reminds me of the slum clearances of the 1960s/1970s in northern england. no big deal. the old two-up two-downs of salford may to the outsider have had some architectural heritage but to those of us living there, it was great to move to houses with indoor toilets.

    anyway, the alternative appears to be that you let the ‘heritage’ people loose on the old houses. what you end up then is bastardised theme park architecture like Xintiandi and especially Dazhalan.

    btw, my wife’s 92 year old granny still lives in a knackered old shikumen close to Jade Buddha Temple. It is a hole inside and out and would be condemned in any other major world city (saying that, she doesn’t want to move, but that is another story.)

  11. Very nice work. I am happy someone is preserving a bit of old history and able to share with others….
    Thanks you. I left the French district in 1946.


  12. “.. it’s worth recalling that the lanes were and are often miserable places to call home. Poorly insulated, poorly heated, and lacking in privacy – they are everything that affluent tourists who fetishize their atmospherics would refuse to call their own. I wouldn’t want to live in them, either. But does that justify their destruction? Put differently, could some other use have been found for them?..”

    Short answer: No. Why ‘preserve’ a filthy & miserable dump..? There are far.. far too many concrete, glass & steel ‘modern’ or mid-century modern buildings, being torn down.. all to bury modernism & foster gauche, glitzy, ‘postmodern’ & downright ‘victorian’ ugly money pits.

    We desperately need a dramatic shift ‘back to the future’ we once embarked upon.. with logic and science & the highest technology we can muster.

  13. Revisited this site. The decision makers in China do not care or wanting to remember the unpleasant memories. Anything that is 300 years or younger are put aside for the future. If you notice Communist China just quantum jumped to 21st century from 19th century by skipping 20 century you will know what I mean. The same with ROC 38 years of ruling. It is hardly even mentioned. Younger generation were told Mao or the communists overthrew the Ching(Qin or Manchu)dynasty…. Chiang or the nationalist ruling rarely gets much coverage…..

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