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December 12, 2014

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Recalling life in the alleyways

ASSISTANT professor Jie Li at Harvard University still remembers the two old women living downstairs who often argued over the communal kitchen, although she has been living in the United States for more than two decades.

Part of her childhood, it happened in an alleyway in today’s Yangpu District in northeast Shanghai, called You Bang Li. Out of a sense of nostalgia, Li published a book this year about the people and events that went on in the alleyways of Shanghai.

She came back to her home city last week to speak about her book to Historic Shanghai, an organization founded by expats that studies the city’s history. The book, “Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life,” is a micro history and memoir that collects the stories of generations living in two Shanghai longtang (lane) during various periods.

The book is available in Shanghai bookstores.

Li says her motivation to write the book was her sweet childhood memory. “The alleyway in my memory was filled with interesting characters and stories,” she says. “It was cluttered and sordid, but also brimming with life.”

Born in Shanghai, Li spent her childhood between Harbin in northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, where her parents worked, and Shanghai, where her maternal and paternal grandparents lived.

Built in 1927, You Bang Li was originally housing for workers of a Japanese company and a British firm. The lane was eventually dismantled in 2006.

Li says she remembers many things, like how the skinny old woman was barely literate but studied her Bible all the time, singing hymns and praying in her small room. She remembers how the fat old woman loved to sit in front of the alleyway, observing everyone who passed by and gossiping about them afterward.

“After I moved to the United States with my parents in 1991, the memories of alleyway life became my muse for creative writing classes at school and a point to understand the human impact of modern Chinese history,” she says.

Around the beginning of the new century, Li learned that an increasing number of alleyways were being demolished in Shanghai, so she decided to salvage the untold stories of her grandparents and their neighbors.

“As multiple families of diverse backgrounds came to inhabit them over the decades, these homes also became a microcosm of society at large,” she says.

For the next decade, Li interviewed nearly 30 people in the two alleyways in Yangpu. She first talked to family relatives, who also took her to neighbors. There she heard stories — some funny, some touching and some sad.

“I think alleyway women talked more about their own families and neighbors, whereas men talked more about what they heard on the radio or read in newspapers,” says Li. “For this book, I was more interested in personal narratives than political opinions; that’s why women seemed to be better interviewees.”

Li encountered some difficulties because many of the seniors she talked to have become hard of hearing, and some had suspect memories.

“Not everyone was eloquent or described the past with vivid details,” says Li. “And there were sometimes contradictory accounts of the same events, and I also couldn’t always check the veracity of all the stories or gossip I heard.”

But the difficulties didn’t stop the stories from going into the book. It details everything about life in the alleyway homes — from furniture, sewing machines and radios inside to gossip spreading among families and neighbors, and finally to the demolition of the alleyway and relocation of the residents.

Li says she was especially fascinated by people’s accounts of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). Many homes were ransacked, and some people were publicly humiliated.

“These traumatic incidents are quite stereotypical, but some of the stories I heard were also full of unexpected humor and irony,” she says. “I loved hearing stories with several historical layers as well as twists and turns of fate.”

One of the stories was from Li’s paternal grandfather. As a graduate of the former St John’s College in Shanghai, the man was afraid that the Red Guards would search his house and find his diploma written in English. He used a red pen to vandalize the diploma to show that he had already denounced himself, but actually the Red Guards never came.

In her book, Li says the longtang lifestyle was much more communal than it is in today’s apartment complexes, especially in the period from 1950s-1980s because every house was inhabited by multiple families. The shared spaces meant more intimate neighborly relations but also more intense conflicts. By contrast, people don’t need to interact much, if at all, with their neighbors in today’s residential apartment complexes.

At Harvard, Li majored in East Asian Studies, and the book is actually based on her undergraduate thesis. After studying literature at the University of Cambridge and University of Heidelberg, she returned to Harvard for her PhD in modern Chinese literary and cultural studies. Now she is an assistant professor teaching courses on modern Chinese culture and East Asian cinema.

Li is also finishing another book on the Chairman Mao era. “It discusses those little-known memories, such as the Great Leap Forward and the ‘cultural revolution’,” she says.


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