City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Shanghai Diary #5

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The next instalment in Justin O’Connor’s Shanghai Diary series [context and introduction to this series is here]. This entry is dated 11th August, as Justin heads on down the Yishan Road, currency converter in hand …

The idea of speeded up modernity, telescoped modernity might come from a few facts gleaned from CCTV 9 – China’s international service. They ran an excellent documentary series on housing in China. (We used to have documentaries in England. I look forward, as the Chinese catch up, to ‘Apartment Blocks From Hell’ and, given the scale of things here, 50 long-haired designers talking a whole block of residents through their attempted makeover of the neighboring tower). The English-language magazines in the city have real estate supplements – and there is a dedicated real estate publication for foreigners. They also run ads on old property, refurbs, top locations etc. The streets near where I live are covered with new estate agent offers – who come and try the hard sell when you peer at the notices, trying to convert millions of RMBs into (in my case) pounds.

Half of all accommodation in Guangzhou is privately owned. Shanghai is catching up. So part of the modernization boom here is how ownership and property speculation is accorded a great responsibility for post SARS recovery. CCTV 9 tells me the first private mortgage (for 5.5 thousand pounds) in China was in Shanghai – in 1992! It showed the woman, with 00001 on her mortgage agreement – for the whole of China! It’s two decades since the great council house sale in the UK but my parents, upwardly mobile working class, bought a house in 1955. Here, the richest and the poorest started buying less than 15 years ago. Think of how the property boom in the UK has reshuffled towns and cities – changing cityscapes, mental maps, cultural capital, urban imagery. Shanghai has gone from centralised allocation to a pure free market in property in less time than it took Islington to gentrify. The sense of unreadability derives not just from the urban layout, or (it must be said) from the fact that I am foreign, but from the sheer scale and speed of redevelopment. Who knows where the next big construction is to be – and at whom it is targeted. Expensive apartment blocks are plonked down next to tin shacks. They might be near a metro – but they too are built next to tin shacks. Why are they expensive – well, apart from obvious locations such as waterfronts, they are expensive because they cost a lot of money. What I mean to say is, they don’t derive their economic worth from some symbolic or cultural value of the area. This in not culture-led urban regeneration – up-market developments milking the associations with urban villages, metropolitan living or cultural quarters. And, apart from a few areas, there are no ‘bad bits’, to be wrenched from the dodgy streets by walls and gates and hedges. There is crime, and all apartments come with walls and gates and hedges and concierge – but this is not Latin America. It’s only low-level crime that is feared. No, this is Barrett Homes building, completely unrelated to the cultural cache of location (unless there’s already some Barrett Homes there, and there usually isn’t). It’s about newness and money. The newer and the more expensive the better.

The old city centre certainly does have some cultural cache – though this is only just beginning to emerge. The foreigner magazines highlight some new refurbishment of a warehouse, or a concession-era villa, or even a courtyard hutong. But this is against a background of their systematic destruction. The old art deco city was ignored, frozen in time – then stripped out as soon as the money started flowing. There are ‘popular areas’ where lots of cheaper housing allows migrants and young people to live – but these are difficult to pin point and at any time a new modern block can land amongst them. But, if newness and price are the key attributes, if symbolic capital is not really required as yet, then this fits with the still democratic ‘enrichez-vous’ rush which is the slogan of the new China. In 15 years money is still democratic – its language is the currency of everyone. It’s no good going for cultural value – how much does it bloody well cost? The hidden codes of a city like London – where only the initiates know quite who is who and what they’ve got (are they stuffing me?), which serves to mark out some fairly old class lines – don’t appear here.

And of course, you have to put things in your new apartment. Nobody did DIY on their rented flats – why would you? But now, the whole new market has exploded in a few years. The street on which I live is – it took me two weeks to realize – the city’s DIY quarter. It stretches about a mile and a half and (apart from some real estate shops sneaking in the top end) purely DIY shops. There are big stores going down to backstreet stalls, bloke selling sinks and taps, and er, other stuff, which I’m not sure what to do with. In the general shouting match between shop signs a few under-stated bathroom and kitchen shops appear – usually called ‘Euro’, and associated with ‘style’. But in fact, the style is the latest-biggest-most expensive. If you’ve got it, put it in your front room.”

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This impression of Shanghai is by Justin O’Connor. All Shanghai Diary entries.


One response to “Shanghai Diary #5”

  1. Sephen Jones Avatar

    I thought this article was a useful introduction. I also noticed your use of a QR code … cool.
    Stephen Jones


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