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January 15, 2016

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Stalking history in the back lanes ere it disappears

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WHEN Katya Knyazeva visited the Dongjiadu fabric market in 2009, the Russian native hadn’t bargained for much beyond a few tailor-made jackets. Instead, the foray led to a two-volume book on the Old City of Shanghai and the Dongjiadu area surrounding it.

She calls it “the Chinese Shanghai,” referring to the fact that the area was governed and populated by Chinese even amid periods of foreign occupation in Shanghai.

“It’s very different from the rest of Shanghai, such as the International Settlement or the French Concession, where urban plans were made before any blocks were built,” the author told Shanghai Daily as she began the launch of the first volume of the work.

Entitled “Shanghai Old Town: Topography of a Phantom City,” the book was published by Suzhou Creek Press and is available at Garden Books and online at Taobao. A second volume will be released soon.

On Sunday, Knyazeva will give a talk at Old China Hand Style, followed by a walking tour of Dongjiadu on January 16 and 24.

“It is a spontaneous creation with more than 700 years of history, with wonderful layers for you to peel back and see what’s behind them,” she said of the area. “Some streets make gentle turns because they were paved over former creeks. Some just are dead ends because they used to go around old estates that are no longer there. Even the street names are all meaningful. It’s all extremely intriguing for me.”

Knyazeva is a journalist and photographer from Siberia. She studied design in Russia and South Korea, where she developed a passion for roaming through local neighborhoods. In 2006, she came to work as an illustrator and designer in Shanghai, where she continued her interest in traditional neighborhoods.

“Since my first day in Shanghai,” she said in an earlier interview, “I was smitten with old neighborhoods, wandering the streets, peeking into gateways and windows, and photographing everything. The old city in particular drew me in, with its crooked street pattern, density and diversity. I was so enchanted that I remember following the voice of the cold noodle vendor on his circuit through the lanes.”

She has been a guest speaker for Explore Shanghai Heritage, the Royal Asiatic Society and the Shanghai Expat Association.

Her journey into the city’s history came in small steps of discovery.

She recalled the time when she encountered an old Chinese man sitting playing cards. He got up and approached her, offering to reveal “something wonderful.” Following him through the inside of a modern building and then out into a maze of alleyways, Knyazeva suddenly found herself standing in front of a very old building almost obscured by higgledy-piggledy houses surrounding it.

The building was Shang Chuan Hui Guan, or the Sea Merchants’ Guild Hall, built in 1715 by fleet owners from Chongming Island and the city of Nantong in Jiangsu Province. The hall was home to the first industrial guild in the city and helped mediate disputes among merchants.

For the last six years, Knyazeva has explored back alleys and old streets, taking photos, conducting interviews, digging out forgotten history and documenting changes to buildings and streets in the area.

Speaking of the guildhall, she pointed to a photo in her book, showing a lone, decrepit building standing on an empty lot, flanked by incongruous modern skyscrapers in the background. That’s how it looks today.

“Now everything has been cleared out, like most places I have documented in this volume,” she said.

The Dongjiadu area, or Dong’s Dock, was a major water entryway to Shanghai, reaching its heyday in late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It had long been a gathering place for merchants from all over China, she explained.

Today, the area is part of a redevelopment project in the Huangpu District.

Progress hasn’t been kind to some of Shanghai’s history. Rapid development in the city has razed many old areas. The demolition of shikumen stone-gate houses and sometimes entire old communities has provoked an outcry from those who fear the city is stripping away its past.

Some of the city’s earliest shikumen areas, such as West Siwenli Lane on the south bank of Suzhou Creek, are already gone despite calls for heritage preservation. Where once there were more than 9,000 shikumen lanes in the city, the number has dwindled to less than 2,000 and counting.

Knyazeva, who has witnessed the changing landscape through the camera lens and expressed it through her writing, rues the losses.

“Old towns and natural old neighborhoods in Europe are magnets for tourism,” she said. “Chinese people go to Europe to see these old streets. In Shanghai, you have all these old neighborhoods that could be tourist attractions if they were restored and preserved.”

Another building that stimulated her to ambition to compile the book is less than 100 meters from the popular tourist spot Yuyuan Garden.

“In the low-rise neighborhood on Wutong Road, right near Yuyuan Garden, there is an ancestry hall that belonged to the same person who built the gardens,” she said, recalling her first visit there in 2008. The building later was converted into a school and then used as a senior citizen activity center.

“This was such an absurd situation,” she said. “A building actually older than Yuyuan Garden, whose significance and history were ignored.”

This discovery will be documented in Knyazeva’s second book.

“The second volume will be twice as thick because there are more surviving artifacts, although the walled city is losing ground as well,” she said in one interview. “Most of the northwest quarter has been demolished and built up with high-end properties. More disruption has come to the old town in the last two decades than in the previous 700 years. I’m in a hurry to document it before it’s all gone.”


Book launch and talk

Date: January 17, 11am

Admission: 80/100 yuan

Address: Old China Hand Style, 374, Shaanxi Rd S.


Walking tour

Date: January 16, 24, 2pm

Admission: 200/250 yuan


Reservation for both


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