Alongside its rapid economic growth over the past 40 years, Shanghai has undergone a radical physical transformation. Communities built just decades ago can seem out-of-date and dilapidated when compared with the brand-new, ever-changing skyline.
As someone who likes to wander the city’s streets, however, I am especially fond of these old neighborhoods. They might not be as magnificent as they once were, but they have deep roots. And their exploration sometimes yields unique personal stories, hidden tales of Old Shanghai.
Zhangyuan, located in central Shanghai, was for years one of my favorite communities to visit. The area was originally developed by wealthy tycoon Zhang Honglu, also known as Zhang Shuhe, in 1885. Zhang turned the property into one of the city’s most famous gardens of the late Qing and early Republican periods. The largest privately owned park in Shanghai at the time, it was for years a popular haunt for stars and artists.
A postcard showing Zhangyuan as it looked during the 1910s. From The New York Public Library
But in 1918, the park at Zhangyuan was closed, the plot divided and sold off to become residential housing. By the late 1920s, it had already been transformed into the dense grid of narrow alleys known in Shanghai as lilong.
Like many other aging Shanghai neighborhoods, material conditions in Zhangyuan have long been subpar — the result of old buildings, poor infrastructure, and a densely packed population. In 2018, the district government included Zhangyuan in its urban renewal plan, and prior to the 2019 Lunar New Year it announced that enough residents had agreed to the proposal for it to move forward.
The district offered Zhangyuan’s inhabitants a choice of alternate housing or cash compensation and strongly encouraged them to move out by the end of February. According to a publicly posted notice, all residents had left by March 9. The district plans to renovate the area and turn it into a cultural and commercial center.
On Feb. 3, 2019 — two nights before the Lunar New Year — I made my way back to Zhangyuan to watch as residents prepared to both welcome the incoming Year of the Pig and bid farewell to their old homes. Many were still sorting through their accumulated possessions, and some old photographs that an elderly man was packing caught my eye. The man was 73-year-old Peng Zejin, and the photos contained the modern history of an ordinary Zhangyuan family.
A portrait of Peng Xiongjiang, taken in 1937. Courtesy of Wang Yuezhou
The first photo he showed me was of his father, Peng Xiongjiang. After graduating from the University of Shanghai with a degree in English in 1937, Peng Xiongjiang worked as a tax collector in the city from 1939 to 1944.
The photo was no ordinary portrait: It was a token of love. On the reverse side Peng had written: “For sister Huixin, as a gift. From Xiongjiang. April 16, the 26th year of the Republic of China (1937).” The photo’s recipient, Tang Huixin, wasn’t Peng’s sister, but his girlfriend — and soon-to-be wife. In those days, young lovers often referred to one another as “brother” or “sister,” and it was common for them to gift each other photographs as proof of their affection.
Peng Zejin has plenty of photos of his mother, too. Many of them were taken before Tang’s marriage to Peng’s father, and some had been beautifully colored in ink at a later date.
Peng Zejin also showed me photos of his father hanging out with friends. Fashion in 1930s and ’40s Shanghai was a diverse affair, and some of the photos show men dressed sharply in Western-style sweaters and suit jackets standing next to others in traditional Chinese robes. The two styles were not considered mutually exclusive, and together they reflect the lively, youthful glamor of the period.
Photos of Peng Xiongjiang (in black robes) with his friends in Shanghai, 1930-40s. Courtesy of Wang Yuezhou
From a historical perspective, one of the most interesting photos in Peng’s collection shows a group of men and women standing outside a dilapidated building. The figure on the far right, Fan Gaohu, was a participant in the so-called Two Airline Uprising. On Nov. 9, 1949, employees of the China National Aviation Corporation and the Central Air Transport Co. flew 12 airplanes and millions of dollars of aviation equipment from Hong Kong to the newly established People’s Republic of China. Once there, they also helped repair a number of civil aircraft, laying the foundation for the country’s civil aviation industry.
A group of men and women stand outside a dilapidated building. Courtesy of Wang Yuezhou
The text on the reverse side of the photo is damaged, but it’s possible to make out the words “airlines” and “station,” as well as the names of the people in the photo. Interestingly, Peng Xiongjiang’s name doesn’t appear on the photo, but the name Peng Yingxiang does. Peng’s son said no one in his family was named Peng Yingxiang, but the man in the photo bears a striking resemblance to his father.
In Peng Zejin’s memory, his father was an ordinary clerk who worked in a paint factory from 1949 until he retired. But then, where did the photo come from? Was his father using an assumed name? And does it have anything to do with the Two Airlines Uprising?
Peng Xiongjiang and Tang Huixin’s wedding photos. Courtesy of Wang Yuezhou
Sadly, the answer to these mysteries may be lost to history. But not all the photos in Peng’s collection are a puzzle. Many of them are classic images of family life in 20th century Shanghai. Peng Xiongjiang and Tang Huixin’s wedding photos, for example, bear the stamp of William’s Studio, one of the most famous photography studios in the city during the 1930s.
Peng Zejin isn’t sure when his family moved to Zhangyuan, but he thinks it was when he was 3 or 4 years old, or around 1950. After the move, Tang Huixin devoted herself to her family. Later — Peng Zejin doesn’t remember when — she became a teacher at a local primary school, where she taught until she retired. Peng Xiongjiang, meanwhile, spent years working as a clerk in a paint factory. Photos of him taken later in life show he had traded in his Western suit for a Mao suit.
Left: A portrait of Peng Xiongjiang in a Mao suit; right: Peng Xiongjiang and his younger daughter Peng Huizhu. Courtesy of Wang Yuezhou
In another photo, taken in the mid-1960s, either just before or shortly after the Cultural Revolution began — again, Peng Zejin cannot remember the exact year — Peng Huizhu, Peng Zejin’s youngest sister, sits with her father before her departure to the far northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In those difficult years, millions of young Chinese were “sent down to the countryside” by the government to spur rural development. While in Xinjiang, she married another sent-down youth from Beijing and together they had two children. Half a century later, she lives there still.
Left: A young Peng Zejin; right: A retired Peng Zejin plays the ‘erhu’ in Shanghai, 2019. Wang Yuezhou for Sixth Tone
For his part, Peng Xiongjiang survived the violent chaos of this period with the help of music. One of Peng Zejin’s father’s favorite hobbies was playing the erhu, a Chinese string instrument. He was good enough at it that he was recruited to play for model operas during the Cultural Revolution, an important role that helped shield him from danger. Peng Zejin also picked up the instrument, and after retiring, he became well-known in Shanghai’s amateur Peking Opera circuit.
Peng and his soon-to-be erstwhile neighbors spent much of the first months of 2019 looking for new homes. Although they’re now scattered across the city, they’ve formed a discussion group on popular messaging app WeChat, where they exchange housing information and organize regular dinners. Peng has only returned to Zhangyuan once since he moved, arriving to find the entrance to the neighborhood barred and a guard telling him “outsiders” were not permitted to enter.
After almost a century, Zhangyuan is off-limits to its former residents. In time, memories of their lives there will fade, and the emotional bonds between the neighborhood’s former inhabitants will gradually weaken.
In the meantime, however, I hope to keep collecting, reproducing, and cherishing the everyday experiences and memories of the individuals and communities that have made Shanghai into what it is today. If the streets and buildings that compose a neighborhood like Zhangyuan are the bones and tendons of a city, the memories of people like Peng — the ordinary son of an ordinary family — are its lifeblood. I hope that, whatever happens to Zhangyuan in the future, there will still be space left to commemorate its past.
Peng Zejin and Lu Wentian assisted in the writing of this article.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Ding Yining, Lu Hua, and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A 1935 portrait of Tang Huixin, on display at Peng Zejin’s home in Zhangyuan, Shanghai, February 2019. Wang Yuezhou for Sixth Tone)