Shanghai Bishop Jin Luxian’s Legacy

This mostly dormant blog was started in 2007 with almost no agenda beyond plans to expand on my just-published profile of Shanghai’s Catholic bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian in the July/August 2007 issue of the Atlantic. I did that, and over the years I kept up with Jin – though I didn’t publish anything much beyond what the Atlantic piece contained.

Meanwhile, over the weekend I received the very sad news that Jin had passed away at 96. At that advanced age, no death can be called unexpected. But Jin was a man of unusual intellectual and physical vigor (he was traveling internationally, carrying his own bags, as recently as his 88th year), and it came as a bit of a surprise to me, and to many others who knew him, even though he’d been ailing for some time. He was just that kind of man – full of life, thoughtful, and – it can now be said – very, very funny.

On the occasion of his passing, I’ve written a short remembrance and biography that tells the tale of how I acquired Jin’s first passport in an online auction. Matt Schiavenza at the Atlantic’s new China channel was kind enough to publish it, here. As a very minor supplement to the piece, entitled, “Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian’s Legacy for Religious Freedom in China,” here is the first page of the passport, as described over at the Atlantic.

page2 001



The Diligent Young Men Cleaning Up Shanghai

Here’s a form of gainful employment that never occurred to me before Friday afternoon: cleaner of the world’s largest urban scale model. I came across him – them – during a visit to the in-need-of-a-better-name Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, and epic model of Shanghai in 2020.

I’ve been taking out-of-town visitors to the model for years, and inevitably two questions arise during those visits: 1) how do they put new buildings onto the map;, and 2) how do they clean it? I’d long assumed that the modular panels which constitute the hockey-rink sized model were removed, from below, for those purposes. It never would’ve occurred to me that twice per year a small team wanders the map, barefooted, repairing, replacing, and cleaning.

According to the diligent  young men assigned the tedious work of cleaning the map, dusting only occurs on the edges – that is, areas visible to visitors. They work with paint brushes (above), sweeping the dust into the rivers and highways, where it awaits the clean-up man and his War of the Worlds-like vacuum cleaner (below) … Continue reading

Build, Demolish, Rinse, Repeat: A Shanghai Scrap Carmelite Update

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. Continue reading

Interview: Sue Anne Tay on photo blogging, day jobs, and her Shanghai Street Stories

Recently I was asked by a reporter, recently assigned to China, what China blogs I read. In fact, I look at several, and the full list can be found on the blogroll to the lower right. Then he asked me if I have a favorite. That’s a tough question: different blogs fulfill different functions. For example, I read danwei and shanghaiist like maps, using them to help me chart what’s happening in China, and on other China blogs. But if the function that we’re talking about is pleasure, then I think no blog brings me more enjoyment than Sue Anne Tay’s Shanghai Street Stories.

Full disclosure: Sue Anne is a friend, and a colleague with whom I’ve worked. But even if I didn’t know her, I’d pay tribute to her photos, and the text that she writes to accompany them. As regular readers of Shanghai Scrap know, I’m a big fan of reported blogs, and Sue Anne’s is one of the best: rather than riff on what other writers or bloggers have already done, she provides her readers with gorgeous photos and original commentaries on what’s happening on, well, Shanghai’s streets. In this way, she’s done some of the very best and most interesting blogged work on urban preservation in Shanghai, and doing so without being didactic about it. She is, in the best sense of the term, a promoter of the “show don’t tell” ethos. And what she shows! Below, an image of the artist and blogger at work, taken by Xi Zi.

I’ve long wanted to do an interview with Sue Anne for this site – partly because I’m a straight-up fan, and partly because I think she deserves a much wider audience. And so, without further commentary from me, Sue Anne Tay on her photos, her blog, doing creative work while holding down a day job, and where she’s going next. For more info, go to Shanghai Street Stories. Continue reading

Being Jewish in Shanghai

Ten days ago I had the distinct privilege of attending the first bat mitzvah ever held at the 83-year-old Ohel Moshe Synagogue (now, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum) in Shanghai’s Honkou District. And today, on the occasion of the Jewish High Holidays, the Atlantic is publishing my dispatch from the event, Being Jewish in Shanghai. And take note: the dispatch includes some terrific photos by my friend and colleague, Sue Anne Tay, author of the outstanding Shanghai Street Stories blog (and the really good @sueannetay twitter feed). Shanghai Scrap readers will be hearing more from Sue Anne in the near future … so, for now, her portrait of new bat mitzvah Sophie Rosen.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about religion in China (long-time readers know that it’s a deep interest), and I’m very glad to be returning to it, albeit modestly. In fact, I’ve never written about Chinese Judaism before, though it’s a subject to which I’ll be returning at some length in the future. In 2006, I did write about the city’s World War II refugee community for the now-defunct Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine (article available here). And on Shanghai Scrap I’ve written about the ongoing demolition of historic Hongkou.

L’shanah tovah tikatevu.

Disappearing Shanghai: The Roots of an Urban Tragedy, Pt. II

Today, part II of my emailed interview with Amy L. Sommers (part I, here). Ms. Sommers is an American lawyer with Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, and the co-author – along with Kara L. Philips of the Seattle University Law Library – of a 2009 Penn State International Law Review article examining the historic and legal background for the decline and disappearance of Shanghai’s classic residences and neighborhoods. Her thoughts are particularly relevant at a time that Shanghai – home to East Asia’s last abundant stock of pre-World War II neighborhoods – is holding a World’s Fair devoted to examining what makes a better city. In today’s segment, she touches on her background, some interactions with individuals who were still occupying properties seized during the Cultural Revolution, and her outlook for Shanghai’s historic neighborhoods.

Shanghai Scrap: Could you walk me through how you became interested in historic preservation, and the legal and historical issues surrounding it in Shanghai?

Sommers: My interest was piqued probably over a decade ago when I came across a piece in the Far Eastern Economic Review (remember how great a news source it was on China in the 90’s?) about how some Shanghainese and returned Shanghainese were recouping houses lost in the Cultural Revolution. The descriptions of the residences sounded marvelous and incongruous with the massive new buildings I was seeing whenever I was in the Mainland (at that point, I was still based in Seattle and visiting China on business).

Fast forward to 2003 when I worked in Shanghai on a two month assignment for a client facing a nasty criminal Customs investigation and my younger son was attending a nursery school in a converted large lane house in the former French Concession. Walking down the lane and seeing all the other houses, which had such great bones, despite their dilapidation and the fact that they had been rigged into multi-family residences, caught my attention. Continue reading

Disappearing Shanghai: The Roots of an Urban Tragedy, Pt. I

In 2004, Amy L. Sommers, an American lawyer with the Shanghai office of Squier Sanders and Dempsey, decided to buy a pre-War residence in Shanghai. The search included both lane  houses and Art Deco apartments in the city’s former foreign concessions – the French Concession and the International Settlement. Soon after, she and her husband learned that the acquisition wouldn’t be so easy: not only are many of those districts’ charming houses and apartments subdivided, dilapidated and even dangerous, they are often subject to complicated, intertwining ownership claims.

She was neither the first nor the last prospective buyer to run into these issues in Shanghai, home to the best and last remaining stock of original, pre-World War II housing and neighborhoods in East Asia. But she is likely the first and only one to decide to write an American law review article exploring the various factors that have contributed to the decrepit state of that housing stock and – most important – its rapid destruction in the wake of Shanghai’s extraordinary economic development.

The results of her work – “A Tragedy of the Common: Property Rights Issues in Shanghai Historic Residences” – was written with Kara L. Phillips of the Seattle University Law Library, and published in the Fall 2009 issue of the Penn State International Law Review. It’s an important piece of work for anyone who cares about Chinese cities and their historic cores. Rather than focus on the superficial, conventional wisdom explanation for why Shanghai’s historic residences are in poor condition and disappearing (people are poor; developers are greedy and short-sighted), Sommers and Phillips look back to post-1949 Chinese land reform policies and how they’ve impacted contemporary urban landscapes.

Of these, none impacted Shanghai’s historic homes so much as the property seizures and occupations of the Cultural Revolution. As multiple families occupied and sub-divided homes meant for one family, they set in motion a sorry cycle whereby nobody – neither the original owner nor the occupier – had any incentive to take responsibility for the upkeep of a property. The subsequent, forty years of unmet maintenance creates a perfect excuse and occasional need to demolish.

Last week Ms. Sommers agreed to answer some emailed questions about her work related to Shanghai’s historic residences. I’ll be posting those answers today and tomorrow.

It’s worth noting that the disappearance of East Asia’s old housing and neighborhoods isn’t a new subject. But this summer, as Shanghai – East Asia’s last great outpost of old urbanism – hosts a World’s Fair devoted to better cities, the subject has taken on palpable urgency. Continue reading