On Foot: Historic Walk Through an Old Shanghai Neighborhood by Kevin Hsu

On a brisk, sunny Saturday in March, a group of Stanford alumni journeyed through the historic lanes of the Jing’an Villa neighborhood in Shanghai. The walking tour revealed many examples of architecture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in what today is still a thriving community.

Anthropologist Non Arkaraprasertkul explained how the unique lilong buildings combine both Western and Chinese architectural features. Lilongs are often categorized into older “shikumen” style homes (late 1800s-early 1900s) and later “new type" structures (1920s onward), which were built to accommodate Chinese moving into a thriving Shanghai in the early twentieth century.

The houses were seized by the Communist government and assigned to workers in the 1970s, though a few older families managed to remain in their homes. Later on, during Shanghai's frenzied construction boom of the 1990s and 2000s, numerous lilong were demolished. Many remaining lilong neighborhoods are now considered protected cultural heritage, but their ultimate fate remains unclear.

During the tour, members of the group walked through graceful archways, leaned against old brick walls, and enjoyed the tranquility of the Sun Court garden—one of the earliest examples of a large apartment structure built around a courtyard in Shanghai. They also visited the refurbished interior of a design studio and witnessed neighborly exchanges in the lanes.

The event was co-sponsored by the Stanford Club of Shanghai and the Human Cities Initiative at Stanford, as part of the Stanford+Connects family of events.

Questions? Contact Kevin Hsu

The Streetscape Changed Before Breakfast by Kevin Hsu

[Kevin Hsu]

How strange to witness the transformation of our neighborhood! One moment, you're walking along the street and everything feels placid and cheerful in the brisk winter air. Then turn the corner, and you are greeted by a completely different view. Sometimes it's a shocking new sight--an upthrust tower, a newly-opened expanse of sky--but more often, it's the gradual accretion of changes that have suddenly snowballed into a different scene.

Things change so quickly here, even in a neighborhood that appears relatively stable here in Xuhui District. It's an old part of town, the former French concession, with many examples of heritage architecture and decent legal protections. I thought our area had reached some kind of equilibrium,  but the hints of impending change were all around me. Today they blossomed forth in a sudden, jarring discovery: the breakfast row near Jianguo Road (West), with so many delectable Chinese breakfast treats, is gone! Most of the vendors have left. The place is now gutted.

I miss the friendly face of the 煎饼 maker. He was from up north, but had made a living here in Shanghai for several years. He was young and amiable, always nice to chat with while he scraped the dough over the hot plate and cooked up a tasty breakfast pastry stuffed with eggs, scallions, chili and fried dough. The 包子铺 where I intended to order vegetable and mushroom buns today was similarly kaput. All that's left is a doorway, cemented over, with a red X painted on the wall.

My colleague Helen says the vendors were accused of illegally operating in an area designated for residential buildings. I presume it's the 城管 (cheng guan) who harried them away.* Yet the vendors brought so much character and life--and innumerable tasty treats--to this area of the city, which would otherwise be a gray thoroughfare of walls and closed gates. There's always a balance between grassroots street life and city regulation, but here it seems to have gone awry, which is too bad. I'll miss my morning stroll--the warm spray of steam, the sound of frying oil, the delectable smells wafting across the sidewalk. Even when I didn't buy a bite for breakfast, it still presented a lively tableau of life in this city. It's one more colorful piece of the urban quilt that has faded away.


*The 城管 (cheng guan) are the highly unpopular municipal bureau-cops who arbitrarily wield city regulations like truncheons. Their behavior ranges from irksome to loathsome to absolutely vile. A small collection of their exploits can be found here, along with a broader analysis here.

The verb I would use to describe actions their actions in this neighborhood is to "赶走" (gan zou) the breakfast vendors. The word could be translated as "shoo or wave away" or "to get rid of," but when applied to human beings rather than sparrows, it's a bit more aggressive. I have settled on "harried," which connotes a sense of harassment and duress.