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April 24, 2019

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Residents bid a fond farewell to chamber pots

A renovation project has been completed on two nearly century-old downtown shikumen neighborhoods which includes the installation of private or shared toilets for residents who were still using chamber pots.

Many residences in the city’s unique shikumen, or stone-gate structures, were created by dividing single buildings into multiple small flats, leaving no room for private or even shared toilets.

Citywide, about 178,000 residents living in such buildings still have to use chamber pots, and empty them at public toilets every morning.

The city government has made it a preferential policy this year to renovate these dilapidated neighborhoods.

In the latest “1-square-meter project” a total of 240 toilets have been installed for the Jinyangli and Taoyuanli neighborhoods near the North Bund in Hongkou District.

Designers took roughly a square meter from living spaces from eligible households, and rearranged pipelines without damaging the brick-and-wood buildings, for toilet installations.

It has helped 70 percent of the households in the neighborhoods, both built around the 1920s, get rid of the chamber pots they had used for decades, according to the Beiwaitan, or North Bund subdistrict.

“I used to empty chamber pots for a family of eight every day,” said Dai Weiying, a 71-year-old resident at the Jinyangli neighborhood.

“We also had to walk two blocks to a public bathhouse every night in summer to take a bath.”

Thanks to the project, subsidized by the city and district governments, a toilet with a shower has been installed in a former kitchen.

“At least I don’t have to empty chamber pots or go to public bathhouses which are vanishing in the city,” Dai said.

The project has also renovated kitchens shared by about six households living in the same building.

Electrical wiring on the walls and pipes once covered in black oil and dust has been rearranged and the floor and walls tiled. A closet has also been installed for each household to put their stoves.

“Dirty, disorderly and messy can best describe the former scenery in the public kitchen,” said Wang Ruichun, 53, who was born in the Taoyuanli neighborhood.

The name of the community means “the peach origin,” from an ancient Chinese poem describing an idyllic lifestyle, but Wang said their life is far from ideal.

“The kitchen becomes an inferno in summer when six housewives cook together in the 10-square-meter room without ventilation,” Wang said.

“The project has made limited improvements, but at least makes our living environment look cleaner now.”

It was a challenging task to persuade every resident to agree to the renovation plan, said Wang Jinying, Party secretary of the Taoyuanli neighborhood committee.

Toilets couldn’t be installed over the dining rooms or bedrooms of those living beneath, which is taboo in traditional feng shui. Furthermore, the public kitchen has to be redivided fairly.

Though most neighbors have good relationships with each other, their private interests remain untouchable, Wang said. Before the renovation started in early 2018, officials with the neighborhood committee solicited opinions from each household, while designers made bespoke plans for each building.

Several shared kitchens in the Taoyuanli neighborhood remain undecorated, because owners can’t reach a consensus.

The unusual structure of the shikumen residences in Taoyuanli also made large scale renovations impossible.

The two-story stone-gate houses are smaller than other shikumen in the city. A mezzanine dwelling with the height of only 1.5 meters is built above the shared kitchen between the ground and second floors.

Mao Dawei, 68, has been climbing up and down a wooden ladder to his bedroom since he was born. He can hardly stand upright in the 10-square-meter room, but still retains a positive attitude to life.

“Thanks to the decades of climbing, I have a healthy physical condition,” Mao said.

For those who have not benefited from major internal renovation campaign, the district’s housing authority has revamped the appearance of the shikumen buildings and replaced the cement floors with tiles.

“The living condition remains cramped, but at least we enjoy an ideal location near the North Bund waterfront,” Mao said.

Both neighborhoods are only five minutes’ walk from the riverside paths of Huangpu River.

The neighborhoods are also beside the historic Marden Warehouse built by Britain’s G.E. Marden & Co in 1930 and the Yung Shine Warehouse, once the largest storage site in the Far East, which will be converted into the Shanghai Fintech Park.

The city government plans to renovate a total of 500,000 square meters of such dilapidated residential buildings by the end of the year, along with over 4 million square meters of residences in a better condition.

One of the major targets is also to help residents get rid of chamber pots.


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