Old Shanghai's disappearing corners: The Old Docks
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“The Sixteen Wharves” lie between the city walls and the Huangpu river. In old Shanghai, the river trade flourished here, centuries before Europeans annexed the marshes to the north and built their treaty port.
Today, most of the old Shanghai's docks have been liquidated. What remains is scheduled for demolition before the Shanghai 2010 Expo. Traces of four eras are overlaid here, and holdout residents have long memories.
Begin this tour of old Shanghai beside the baroque Spanish church at No. 175 Dongjiadu Lu . This is the only government-sanctioned historical site on our route; St Francis Xavier’s is the oldest catholic church in Shanghai.
Moving south, we find two rows of antique courtyard residences on Laiyi Matou Jie . They resemble farmhouses, with primitive stone wells sunk in each courtyard.
Mr Chen tells us that every household had its own well, that his family lived here for five generations, that his relocation is imminent, and (he shouts over the wall) “poor people have no rights in China!”
Mr Chen’s voice echoes against the extravagant deco building across the street . It is gutted on the inside, but the façade is perfectly preserved, as are the intricate tiled floors, lovingly carved staircases and the solitary embossed door on the second floor.
On Huiguan Jie we find a dusty lane compound in red-and-black brick . The street is wider than usual, for there was once frenzied business traffic from the wharves. Now, the extra space and silence gives the block a deserted outpost feel.
While we are peeking through the cracks, trying to take a picture of the courtyard, a Mr Hu reaches past us, touches a wire and swings the massive gate open.
Mr Hu says this was a gambling house during the Republic. We notice five men playing cards in the adjacent room beneath shafts of light from the shattered ceiling. One man looks up from his cards and says: “All gambling stopped after liberation.” Then he returns to his game.
Outside, a group of seniors push us through a concrete arch. Suddenly, we are transported 300 years back in time.
Shangchuan Huiguan (Marine Merchants’ Hall) was established in 1715 by the boatmen of Chongming island . It served as a private club and boasted a shrine to the folk goddess Mazu, aka "the Heavenly Consort." The engraved dedication was scoured away by the Red Guards, but the sweeping roofs and gilded eaves are breathtaking.
To the west, Xuejiabang Lu follows the course of the long-extinct Xuejia creek, red-planked balconies overhanging the "waterway" .
Walking further is like sinking into a time capsule: a Qing cobblestone alley (Qinglongqiao Hou Jie) glitters with laundry bubbles and fish scales; a 200 year-old Taoist stele stands between drainage pipes ; a boundary-marker for a Ming Dynasty apothecary is embedded beside a sewer lid.
Rounding back at Xuejiabang Lu, check out the colonial mansion at No.22 . Its third floor patio offers a fine view of the antique neighborhood.
Over the years, the residents of Dingfu Nong have transformed this alley into a labyrinthine garden leading to the House of Shen . This exuberantly spacious complex was built by an eccentric merchant from Fujian who wanted every doorway to face east, toward the sea, where he made his fortune.
Wangjia Matou Jie offers a century-old parade of crazy street adaptations amid the remnants of the old fabric market.
After a block, turn south on Miezhu Lu and check out the three stately doorways with classical tympanum and a ‘67’ Mao slogan; the red characters still rain contempt on the bourgeois facade .
On Xiaoshiqiao Jie, Mrs Rong tells us that "a nosy foreigner" accidentally unpeeled another smiling Mao right outside her house .
We end up at Zhonghua Lu, at the border of the Old Town. An archaic watchtower looms behind the gate of the police station . It was built in 1909, when house fires were epidemic throughout the Old City.
The ladder leading to the observation deck is blocked, so we can only imagine a panoramic recapitulation of the old docks.