Way back in January 2009 the staff of Shanghai Scrap told you about the demolition of Shanghai’s (then) 135-year-old Carmelite Convent on the edge of the expensive, rapidly re-developing Xujiahui neighborhood (part 1, complete with historical background, here, and part 2, here; background on Carmelites, here). The building wasn’t anything special – except for the fact that it was one of the city’s oldest structures, foreign or Chinese. But what made this demolition so egregious, so patently ridiculous, were the stated intentions of the (re) developers to build a 20% smaller replica of the convent just a few meters south of the original one. [UPDATE: also see comment #1, below, left by Lisa Movius, on why the destruction of the convent "was criminal - literally"] This struck me as stupid and wasteful, but I’ve been here long enough to know that it should also strike me as one more thing: typical. That is, the Carmelite Convent is not the only historic structure in Shanghai to be demolished in favor of a replica that – for whatever reason – is more in the interests of the developer. In fact, in the case of some dilapidated slum dwellings, this might often be a good thing. In others, less so, to put it lightly.
Anyway. I’d mostly forgotten about this sorry Carmelite episode until this weekend, when I happened to pass the site of the old convent in a taxi and saw that it was being rebuilt. I returned a couple of days later, with a Benedictine, to photograph it. Here, from January 2009, is the historic convent in the last stages of its demolition.
Take note of the roof, and the close proximity of the remaining structure to the fence. And then, have a look at the photo below. The arrow points to the roof of the new convent. The white buildings in place of the old convent are dorms for workers building the replica convent and the highrises that will surround it.
After the page jump, a before and after view from the development’s gate.
First, the convent as it was being disassembled and demolished in January 2009.
And, as of this past weekend: the new, improved, down-scaled (by 20%) replica circa 1880s Carmelite convent. Photo taken from the exact same vantage point.
Note: I realize that a guard in a helmet and uniform is a bit of a loaded image, but trust me when I say that I could not get him to move out of the way.
In any event, I’m not sure what conclusions that I or my readers should draw from this sorry episode in historical non-preservation except that – all things considered – Shanghai’s real estate developers must both be making lots of money – after all, they can afford to build replica Carmelite convents in the midsts of their high-rise residential developments – and that Shanghai’s real estate developers must not be making very much money – after all, they clearly can’t afford to buff up a 130-year-old spartan-like convent in the midst of a real estate development in a historic neighborhood.
What will the developer do with his new convent? Well it just so happens there’s another historic Catholic convent building just two blocks away. That one still stands, and still belongs to the Church … but because it’s so large, and the Shanghai Catholic diocese’s community of nuns is so small, it’s been rented out and now functions as a railroad-themed restaurant, complete with actual dining cars. That is no disrespect to the Shanghai diocese, which has admirably chosen to maintain the building rather than authorize it for demolition in favor of a much more lucrative high-rise development, but rather to point out that it’s not exactly easy to figure out what to do with these buildings once someone decides to preserve them. So, for the record: I’m aware of that, and I just wish somebody had had a little more imagination and sense before setting the wrecking ball loose on the Carmelite Convent of Xujiahui.