Friday, March 06, 2015

How long, Lord?

Just finished a charming book, Jie Li's Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life (thank you, Kindle!). The author grew up in one of Shanghai's traditional alleyway complexes, referred to as lilong 里弄, longtan 弄堂 or shikumen 石库门 (depending which feature you're focusing on, alleyway, representative halls or portals) These webs of lanes are almost invisible from Shanghai's broad main streets - and I have to admit that until I read this book I had no real idea of their scale or vitality. The one above left is entirely hidden from the street it abuts: there's only the narrow entrance marked X at top for a settlement which housed many thousands of people. These places were developed to accommodate various influxes of residents early in the 20th century and then took on lives of their own, changing from transitional to permanent residences as the Communist government instituted a new household registration system. There are fewer and fewer left, as they are leveled and replaced by residential high rise complexes and shopping centers, and people wax nostalgic for their claustrophobic intimacy the way people in New York sometimes claim to miss the world of tenements.

Li moved to the US with her parents when she was eleven but returned often to see her grandparents, and ultimately wrote a senior thesis about their lives which has now appeared as a handsome book with many academic trappings. The heart of it is the story of two specific locales in two different kind of settlements, which she tells by giving a history of people moving in and out, altering the premises as they did; evocations of the ways objects helped people make homes there; and a taste of the kind of gossip which sustained and was sustained by their fraught communities. The book ends with the demolition of the two complexes, which she is able to characterize with just the right mix of sentiment and relief. Most people who were still living there were happy to trade up, and those "nail" houses which dug in their heels and refused to be bought out seem to have been interested in trading up even higher. (Most succeeded.)

The conversion of the senior thesis into an academic book is not without its challenges, as is arguing that studying one's own family history should be recognized as a distinct and legitimate field of study. It does provide unique access, but I'm not it's that different from the historical "microhistories" claimed as a model, and one has to wonder if family loyalty (conscious or unconscious) might not conflict with the demands of scholarship - and rightly so. In any case, here's my favorite part: drawings of cutaways of the houses by the author's parents informed by their memories and her research. The one below shows the kind of place one set of grandparents made their home (marked A in the map above) when first built, in the 1940s. A single middle class family used it. By the late 1960s it was home to five multi-head families, each in one room (often with a loft built in), with people using every available space - and sharing a kitchen (with four faucets). This makes real the intense congestion I learned about my first days in Shanghai - in 1979 the average space was just over 4 square meters per person, practically quadrupling in the next two decades. Social bonds are definitely stretched if not severed by this resettlement into faceless towers (I have yet to form an image of how the life there can be like life in a shared streetscape). Yet what was replaced, though people managed to make "homes" in it with virtuosity, was often a social stranglehold.
It's probably a useful lesson for those of us who talk up the ingenuity of "lived religion" making "worlds" in landscapes not of people's choosing. The creative work of people struggling to maintain their humanity in difficult, even dehumanizing, circumstances deserves to be recognized, celebrated. But necessity isn't the only mother of invention...

Jie Li, Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life (NY: Columbia University Press, 2014)

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