October 27, 2007

Shanghai Informal Economy

Along with Shanghai's commercial building and finance capital boom of the past two decades has come a huge influx of new residents. Many of these come from the immediately surrounding region. Because of hukou (household registration) restrictions, these people are unable to seek formal employment. Others, are simply trying to make a few extra yuan on the side.

Toy Vendor

These things cost 40 cents each. It'd be
tough enough without ten people selling the same schlock in the same


This busker is playing in the tunnel under the intersection of Beijing East Road and the Bund.

October 26, 2007

4Rs Meets 3Rs

In the Hong Kong Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, a display defines the "4Rs of Urban Renewal": Redevelopment, Revitalization, pReservation, and Rehabilitation. Wandering around the Baoshan MRT station in Shanghai today, I thought about those 4Rs and the 3Rs of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle as Shanghai's own urban transformation Rs.


a smashed tile floor hints at this demolished longtang's former inhabitants, who were relocated in 2003


useable bricks are salvaged. workers are using them to rebuild a segment of the old wall. remnants of the last house of the demolished longtang stands in the background. some workers are now living in its fragile shell.


these workers are smashing concrete by hand to reclaim the reinforcing steel.

Just down the street, space under the elevated freeway and the light rail, people Reclaimed space to --you guessed it!-- sell salvaged machinery for Reuse.

October 22, 2007

I'm a Believer!

There is a Chinese saying about superstitions that's something like "It's better to act like you believe, even if you're not sure." Meaning it's better safe than sorry.

Visiting the old canal town Wuzhen outside of Shanghai yesterday, I saw this being played out on tourists (and their wallets). It was unlike any other Chinese temple experience that I've had. I was struck by a feeling of being on a Fordist assembly line. The efficiency of the process was impressive, and left me wondering if this is a common means of producing spirituality (and its monetary expression) in China.

I've sketched a diagram:

1. Starting at Orientation on the front steps of the temple, the tour group is told the history of the temple, its importance and its ongoing restoration process. The visitor is also told the terms of the visit: no pictures, respect, and quiet.

2. At Reception, the visitor's tour ticket checked upon entering the temple, and s/he is given a badge. Each group has its own character to distinguish it from the many others on the line.

3. Crossing the forecourt, the group enters a hall with a central daoist alter and deities representing the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Here, an Explanation of the deities' significance, and the means of worship is explained. All major aspects of one's life can be linked to one's sign, and all the manner of problems can be brought to the deities. Offerings are made, protections prayed for. The group is given the good news that the temple is their to help visitors better understand their zodiac signs and their destinies.

4. Half of the visitors queue up to receive a complimentary card explaining the significance of her sign. The other half cuts the queue. Nonetheless, few if any of the visitors can comprehend the archaic expressions. This isn't a problem, because the temple comes equipped to handle this problem.

5. Passing into the rear courtyard, the visitors are lined up in a room off to the side. In each of four corners, men dressed in "traditional" scholar robes sit and explain the deeper meaning of one's problems and how they are linked to one's year of birth. The fortune teller then instructs the visitor how much incense to burn and what to ask for. Since I am not yet married and without children at 34, I needed to appease my ancestors and seek peace for my family. The massive incense sticks, sold right outside cost USD10-20 -- a mark-up of at least 500%. In other temples that I've visited in Hong Kong and Taiwan, fortune tellers and incense sellers did not enjoy such a monopoly arrangement, and aren't set up right on the temple grounds.

I skipped out, but I'm still praying for my ancestors' forgiveness.

Creative Destruction

Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage, and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
--Walter Benjamin

the last remains of a demolished home

Shanghai --as is often said-- is a lens onto China's transformation, baffling in scale and speed. The whole city is a (de)construction zone, and I often can't tell if I'm on the inside or the outside of the barriers. A few days ago, I roamed around the demolition of a few blocks of longtang housing between the Bund and the Old Town on Renmin Road. A few fragments of houses remained within the old masonry wall. These buildings were half removed, leaving their sections sliced open like an ant farm. Gordon Matta-Clark would have been impressed. When the public toilet that remained standing on the edge of the rubble was occupied, locals climbed the excavation for evacuation, using the debris-littered back rooms as makeshift toilets.

the public toilet at the edge of one of several cleared blocks

I met two migrant workers living on the site in a seven-foot tall three-by-six foot plywood box. They said they were "renovating" (修房子), but there was no house there. They were watching over a newly poured slab as it cured.

although she let me photograph her and the interior of her small shed, she wouldn't tell me her name nor where she was from. the footprint of shed is the size a single bed.

living room 1

living room 2

the character on the wall to the left means "dismantle"

About a mile from the site, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center displays models, maps, and virtual reality fly-overs of the new Shanghai that is being built block by block over the dismantled old city. The recurring theme here--and in Hu Jintao's Party Congress speech--is "Harmony" (和諧).

the whole exhibit is quite impressively put together. above the model is a VIP-only viewing balcony. beyond that, you can catch a glimpse of the Green Shanghai exhibit.

October 17, 2007

Dual Economy

-- Shanghai Living --
Crosstown Cab Ride : ¥25
Crosstown Subway Trip : ¥5

Fancy Hotel Breakfast : ¥40
Steamer of Dumplings : ¥8

3 Course Western Dinner : ¥120
3 Course Sidewalk Dinner : ¥4

[US$1 = CN¥7.5]

My big ticket items so far have all gone on a credit card. So, walking around today three ¥100 bills (the highest denomination of the Renminbi) sat idly by while I spent my coins and small bills. When it came time for dinner, I was down to two one yuan bills. I spent one on a delicious grilled bun filled with pickled veggies. I was setting the other newer bill aside for Sam Warren because I've only seen it once. I wanted another, but I saw the vendor have to scramble to give a kid change for ¥10, so of course my ¥100s were out of the question. I went to several hardware and tool stores in a row asking for change. No one was able to change the bill. I ended up walking several blocks to a Japanese convenience store. The girl reluctantly took my bill for the ¥1.1 bottle of water, and lifted the register tray revealing only three other ¥100s. I went back to the stalls and enjoyed a deep-fried sausage and a red bean cake for dessert.

Sausage and squid

Red bean lunbin ("wheel cake")

[The vendors all refused to be photographed.]

October 16, 2007

Shanghai Longtang Alleyways


Shanghai's older urban fabric is characterized by high density row-houses. These two-story buildings face one another along narrow alleys. Unlike Beijing hutongs, front doors and living spaces face directly onto the alleyways. This makes an outsider like me feel like I'm intruding on a private space--especially as many of these compact mazes now form the interior of larger blocks that are now surrounded by newer, larger buildings. The latter are often built straddling the older alleyways.

The entry to alley 125 on Huanghe Road near Beijing West Road

the "art"-deco restaurant above it

and the interior of the longtang beyond

around another corner

Many longtangs have historical landmark status, and some are even being restored. Hopefully this trend continues and the protections are meaningfully enforced. This is in stark contrast to Beijing's hutong courtyards which are demolished at about 600 per year. That gives about 5 years until they're an extinct urban form. I am not against development and do not see this as simply an issue of private rights. However, the lack of democratic participation in planning processes (such as they are) engenders comparisons to Haussmann's Paris or Moses's New York, with similar issues of urban class division, and differential enforcement of rights.