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Chinese Cities

Chinese Cities
This paper divided in two parts:

1) The Zhabei Neighborhood in Shanghai from 1910s to 1940s;

2) The Comparison of Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong with the Shantytowns and the Shikumen Residences in Shanghai.


The Zhabei Neighborhood in Shanghai from 1910s to 1940s

Since the times of opening China to foreigners in the 19th century, Shanghai has been gradually turning into a huge metropolitan area divided into drastically different neighborhoods with differences in the standards of living, residents, industrial capacities, and entertainment opportunities, among others. The most prominent differences between various regions of Shanghai emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. At the time, not all neighborhoods could boast of the same level of living, and one of the key prerequisites of the neighborhood development, including types of residences available there, was the administration under which it was. As a rule, the International Settlement and the French Concession, as well as other neighborhoods under the Japanese and other foreigners’ rule, were the most developed while the ones under the Chinese administration were poor and full of shantytowns and slums. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, one Chinese-ruled neighborhood was a booming and rather developed industrious area with quality education, good residences, and many small businesses and factories ensuring its constant development and prosperity. Overall, this neighborhood of Zhabei could have become a prosperous urban area if it had not been subject to ruination and devastation by three subsequent military operations that turned it into a poverty-stricken region by the 1940s.

The image of Zhabei has significantly changed over the period of four decades from the 1910s to the 1940s, turning the neighborhood from a developing industrious region with relatively high-quality types of residences into virtually slums, thereby resembling typical Shanghai shantytowns. Henriot (2010) emphasizes that, in the early 20th century, Zhabei was “one of the major new-born urban neighborhoods of Shanghai outside the original walled city” (p. 292). In fact, it emerged long before the transformation of Shanghai into a huge metropolitan area as it appeared on the northern bank of Soochow Creek in 1737 and initially belonged to Gaochang Township (Henriot, 2010). Subsequently, it came under the governance of the Shanghai Municipal Council and remained under the Chinese rule throughout its existence despite the fact that it bordered on the International Settlement in the east and south (Henriot, 2010). At the same time, citizens of Zhabei strived to preserve some autonomy and established their own Zhabei General Bureau of Public Works in 1900 to counter the influence of the SMC in the neighborhood (Henriot, 2010). The simultaneous functioning of two authority bodies created some tensions, but the latter disappeared when Zhabei was eventually fully incorporated into the Shanghai-Wusong Port Directorate in 1926 and then the Nationalist municipality in 1927 (Henriot, 2010).

Traditionally, Zhabei is mentioned in the history of Shanghai as one of the most prominent small-scale factory districts under the Chinese administration that managed to successfully compete with foreign neighborhoods in the 1910s and 1920s (Honig, 1986). Honig (1986) mentions that Zhabei was completely Chinese-owned and Chinese-governed, and it still competed effectively with factories from Hongkou that was mostly Japanese-owned. Hence, Zhabei was one of the main six industrial districts in Shanghai that supported the increasing population of the city. It hosted most of the city’s silk filatures, small and medium-sized cigarette factories, and knit goods factories (Honig, 1986). Moreover, it was an important entry point to the city because of the presence of the railway station that carried 1,000 passengers per day in 1908 and increased its capacities to 10,000 individuals along with unloading of enormous amounts of freight in 1916 (Henriot, 2010). Due to the presence of the railway station with such capacities, Zhabei became known as “the Great Northern Gate” of the city in the 1920s. It saw the rapid construction of a wide range of various hotels, cafes, restaurants, shops, and other places that could be profitable thanks to an increase in the number of newcomers and tourists (Henriot, 2010, p. 294). Henriot (2010) supposes that the influx of newcomers benefitted the development of the region and promoted the well-being of its residents while Hanchao (1999) claims that it contributed to the rise of the shantytown known as Fangualong since most newcomers were poor rural residents who could not afford to rent a quality housing unit. Nonetheless, both researchers agree that rapid development of Zhabei and its transformation into a middle-class industrial and tourist zone was stopped by the wars waged by the Japanese in the 1930s.

The first large-scale destruction of the neighborhood occurred at the end of the 1920s as a result of the Civil War, yet the total number of casualties was not high and all destroyed factories and residences were subsequently rebuilt with joint efforts of public authorities and private individuals and industrialists. In turn, the two wars waged by the Japanese in 1932 and 1937 resulted in the death of Zhabei as a major industrial region in Shanghai and turned it into a wasteland that was subsequently transformed into the shantytown by the poor who built their straw huts there (Hanchao, 1999). The main reason for the decline was the fact that the Japanese and the Chinese fought almost solely within the borders of the neighborhood and destroyed all the constructions and buildings either by bombings and shelling or by setting them on fire to hide from the enemies. During the conflict of 1932, there was also a large number of casualties among civilians as they were trapped in Zhabei and could not escape to any of the neighboring regions because of block posts (Henriot, 2010). In turn, before the start of the conflict in 1937, most local residents managed to escape, which prevented the deaths of civilians, yet this war lasted for more than 3 months and the Japanese employed various modern warfare and arms, which resulted in the complete destruction of the neighborhood (Henriot, 2010). In the 1940s, pre-war industrial capacities of the neighborhood were not restored, and it became the location of one of the largest shantytowns in Shanghai that was continuously growing because of the rising population, the majority of which arrived through the Zhabei’s railway station (Hanchao, 1999). Such a decline of the neighborhood can be explained not only by destruction, but also by the lack of a comprehensive public-funded restoration program. Consequently, former residents were afraid and reluctant to return to the region after three subsequent military conflicts that deprived them of their residences and belongings.

In conclusion, the history of Zhabei from the 1910s to the 1940s is the story of how once prosperous and rapidly developing industrial region turned into a wasteland and a shantytown as a result of military operations and absence of restoration initiatives. The neighborhood managed to rise again after the first two conflicts, but the third conflict invoked too much damage to individuals and industrialists to be able to rebuild it on their own. Therefore, Zhabei became the place of residence for thousands of poor rural dwellers coming to Shanghai in the search for a better urban life.

The Comparison of Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong with the Shantytowns and the Shikumen Residences in Shanghai

Even when cities are a part of the same country, their architectural styles may differ significantly, reflecting the peculiarities of their development, the type of historic events they have lived through, and socioeconomic status of their inhabitants. This is particularly evident when conducting a comparative analysis of Shanghai with its shantytowns and Shikumen residences and Hong Kong with its Chunking Mansions. Overall, these types of residences display drastically different approaches to housing in cities and convey different meanings and attitudes to them.

The Shikumen residences and shantytowns with straw shacks and other typical slum housing options were the most widespread types of housing in Shanghai throughout the 20th century. In fact, these two types of housing were the most prevalent in all neighborhoods of Shanghai under the Chinese administration like Zhabei (Hanchao, 1999). The Shikumen residences were also known as alleyway houses with stone portals as doors while shantytowns consisted mostly of straw shacks built from bamboo with straw roofing and either clothed holes as windows or no windows at all (Hanchao, 1999). While the Shikumen residences might have had amenities like water, electricity, and the like, the shantytowns were deprived of access to these modern services and frequently did not even have an inside toilet not speaking about flush toilets (Hanchao, 1999). The main reason these two types of housing were popular with residents of Shanghai was their relative cheapness. The cost of residing in the shantytown was minimal and families migrating from rural areas could afford to rent the land plot and build a straw shack after saving part of their wages for some months. Besides, it should be noted that these types of housing were inhabited by the Chinese, with the Shikumen residences being affordable for employed urban dwellers and the shantytowns being inhabited by rural Chinese individuals migrating to the city and low-skilled and low-paid city dwellers. In Shanghai, foreigners traditionally lived in better housing conditions and did not inhabit shantytowns.

In turn, Chungking Mansions represents a drastically different part of the urban landscape than the above two types of housing. The main difference consists in the size as Chungking Mansions “is a dilapidated seventeen-story structure full of cheap guesthouses and cut-rate businesses in the midst of Hong Kong’s tourist district” (Gordon, 2011, p. 7), while shantytowns occupy large territories on the outskirts of the city and are never located in the center of the tourist district. Moreover, Chungking Mansions offers a relatively modern type of housing that may be small, crowded, and of poor quality, yet it has modern amenities like electricity and running water, as well as elevators and glassed windows that are not present in Shanghai’s shantytowns. Besides, Chungking Mansions is mostly inhabited by foreigners, mainly immigrants from South Eastern Asia, as well as low-budget tourists and criminal elements (Gordon, 2011).

Respectively, attitudes among the population toward these types of housing in Shanghai and Hong Kong are different. Whereby in Shanghai the two types of housing are common and are perceived by people as an integral part of the urban landscape, in Hong Kong Chungking Mansions is negatively perceived by the public, as well as being feared. Gordon (2011) claims that, despite the fact that this is only one building, Chungking Mansions may be considered a type of the city ghetto for poor immigrants, most of whom are illegal. However, the shantytowns in Shanghai comply more with the typical definition of the ghetto because of the socioeconomic status of their residents and their scale, as well as isolation from the rest of the city. Finally, Chungking Mansions combines the residences for the poor with restaurants, cafes, shops, vendors, and other institutions that make the building self-sufficient and attract visitors who do not reside in it. In turn, the shantytowns do not have anything but straw shacks and they are not as integrated into the city infrastructure as Chungking Mansions.

Overall, the Shikumen residences and shantytowns of Shanghai are drastically different from Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong as urban spaces. The latter seems to be more modern and better integrated into the overall urban landscape while the former are remnants of the past that lack any modern features. The only similarity between them is that they are mostly inhabited by the poor.


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