Last weekend, while I was at the Shanghai International Literary Festival I picked up Duncan Hewitt’s Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China. I’ve been ill over the last week so I’ve had lots of time to go through it.
Hewitt’s first two chapters cover the demolition of old and ancient buildings in Beijing and Shanghai. The fact that he covers this movement is nothing new. Hewitt explains the situation that most of these homes are ancient cultural treasures — Western modeled ones in the sense of Shanghai and Chinese ones in the Sense of Beijing. He doesn’t stop there though.
Hewitt really injects humanity into the people here. He shows that people aren’t really just trying to save some old buildings, but a sense of community that has developed in Shanghainese lane communities and Beijing hutongs. This sense of community can’t survive in modern apartment buildings because the individual units put up divisions that isolate people from their communities in ways that don’t allow them to connect the same way as in the old buildings — even if its the same people.
It’s an interesting idea that holds people to these old buildings. You think a lack of private space and bad facilities would make people want to leave but instead it keeps them together and makes people want to save the buildings because they help to create the residents’ sense of community.
One of the last signs of China’s ancient community?
(Image from Greg Girard’s Phantom Shanghai)
I guess it’s just another idea that us Westerners have trouble getting our head around. We think that with our single-family detached homes that we have the only viable attempt at creating a community because we have a balance between private and public space. But once again the Chinese show us there are other ways to do things.