Home to one of the world’s most dramatic skylines, Shanghai is a 21st-century boomtown, a glittering, nonstop celebration of economic success. Yet there are hidden pockets of the city’s former life here, made all the more precious by the neon glare around them.
Author Gabrielle Jaffe Photography Chris Sorensen
In the 1850s and 1860s, the Taiping Rebellion swept up through southern China, leaving the country in turmoil and displacing millions. The foreign concessions that had opened in Shanghai in the 1840s promised security and economic opportunity, and refugees flooded into the city. To accommodate these arrivals, a new style of architecture was born: shikumen (named for its trademark stone gate entrance), which drew on European townhouses and traditional Chinese design to create adjoining two- or three-story courtyard dwellings.
Originally, one family lived in each house. But as Shanghai’s population boomed, several families often packed onto a single floor, so that by the 1950s the average person had just 43 square feet of living space. At their peak, shikumen dwellings accounted for 60 percent of Shanghai’s housing. Today, vast swaths have been demolished; many people, fed up with sharing kitchens and bathrooms with their neighbors, weren’t sorry to see them go. Still, there are those who mourn the loss of this communal way of life, and the unique architecture that fostered it.
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If you think of mass-produced wares when you see the phrase “Made in China,” it’s time to think again. The fact is, for every market in Shanghai selling cookie-cutter handbags and generic dishwares, there’s a small boutique lovingly filled with artisanal creations by talented and conscientious local designers.
One such store is Spin Ceramics on Kangding Road. The porcelain here is modern in design but fashioned using ancient techniques. Egg-shaped vases, clay cups that look like paper ones, translucent green teapots—the pieces deftly combine elegance and whimsy. There’s also an element of old-and-new, since everything here is designed by up-and-coming Shanghai-based artists and fired in kilns in Jingdezhen, a town 350 miles southwest of Shanghai that has been China’s pottery capital for 2,000 years. Under the spotlights in the spacious Spin studio, the ceramics look like gallery pieces, but they do share at least one thing with their less auspicious Made-in-China cousins: They don’t cost an arm and a leg.
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Area, in square miles: 2,448
Population: 23 million
Size of city subway system, in route miles: 270 (No. 2 in the world)
Number of cars per 1,000 residents: 53
Number of shipping containers handled at the Port of Shanghai annually: 29 million (No. 1 in the world)
Per-capita disposable income: $6,483 (No. 1 in China)
Number of buildings in The Bund, Shanghai’s “museum of international architecture”: 52
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“If you can book a table, eat at the original branch of Jesse (Lao Jishi) on Tianping Road. It’s tiny and usually packed, but it’s the iconic Shanghainese restaurant. The opium fish head and eight-treasure duck are mind-blowingly glorious.”
YANG PEI MIN
FOUNDER, PROPAGANDA POSTER ART CENTER
“To get a feel for what the city was like before all the high-rises were erected, for the communal way of life we had in the 1950s and ’60s, walk around the shikumen houses on Anqing and Shanxi North Road in the Hongkou district.”
FOUNDER, SHANGHAI FLANEUR
“Check out 1933, a former abattoir in Hongkou that now holds design shops, galleries and restaurants. And I love Creative Garden, the rooftop café—it presents a compelling urban landscape different from the iconic Pudong skyline.”
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