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Historic Shanghai: Shu Yin Lou, the oldest house in the city
How an old woman and her daughter cling to their historic home, Shu Yin Lou, as it crumbles around them
Madame Guo, 90, and her daughter Yuwen, 57, descendants of the Guo clan, spend their days alone behind a high wall, in a sprawling, decrepit, historic Shanghai courtyard in the southeast corner of the Old Town. They are the inheritors and last residents of Shu Yin Lou, the oldest house in Shanghai, at 77 Tiandeng Nong.
Shu Yin Lou, “The Secluded Library,” is the remnant of a lavish garden complex built in the 16th century by a scholar called Chen Suoyun. But the decline of the various occupying families' wealth has seen the complex sold off bit by bit, until all that remains now is dilapidated and decaying.
That's a far cry from its past as a scholar's opulent abode. When Chen’s grandsons divided the estate, the library fell to Lu Xixiong, who became one of the most prominent scholars in the Qing dynasty. Lu’s contribution to the ‘Four Treasuries,’ an epical scholastic work, was acknowledged by the Emperor’s personal gift -- a painting with his autograph.
In old age, Lu became a hermit, living alone in his vast mansion surrounded by literary treasures. His seclusion gave the courtyard its name.
Madame Guo, 90, and her daughter Yuwen, 57, descendants of the Guo clan, spend their days alone behind a high wall, in a sprawling, decrepit Shanghai courtyard.
Historic Shanghai: Rise of the Guos
By the 1880s Lu’s successors had diminished in status and sold the historic Shanghai house to nouveau-riche merchants from Fujian, named Guo, who have lived there ever since.
As modern Shanghai rose, according to an article by Tongji University, the fortunes of the family declined, but they tenaciously held on to the shrinking property on Tiandeng Nong. After liberation, the Guos lost control of their mansion. During the Cultural Revolution, a toy factory and workers’ dormitory came to occupy this once regal courtyard.
Historic Shanghai: Faded glory
With the return of the market economy, the secluded library was returned to the Guos, but they were now penniless and the historic Shanghai compound was falling apart.
When Yuwen got married, the newlyweds had to build themselves a concrete shack under the west wall, effectively squatters on their own estate.
Now mother and daughter share a single room in the center of the compound. The other 37 rooms are locked and dark. Guos believe that the concentration of ‘Yin’ in abandoned dwellings is poisonous to the living, and the ceilings could fall down.
They play badminton in a barren backyard that used to be a gallery of interconnected carp ponds and osmanthus gardens.
Madame Guo watches the walls and ceilings for signs of impending collapse. The typhoon of 2002 crushed the western wing. Occasionally, as reported in a piece by Xiao Bian, a team of district workers half-heartedly checks the overhanging stone ornaments and breaks off faulty pieces. 250-year-old carved panes, aprons, eaves and screens are piled in a former stable.
Her five other children fled the courtyard long ago; most live abroad.
This year a documentary crew from the Shanghai 2010 Expo filmed in an empty gallery filled with ghostly standing doors. The younger Ms Guo is sad that she never got to see the footage shot in her historic Shanghai home. Although the filmmakers promised to send it to her they did not.
So if Shu Yin Lou does collapse, all she will have will be her memories.