Meet the German lady who wants to preserve Shanghai's heritage
By Wang Haoling
Thanks to Silvia, I gained the courage to start this column which has been in my mind for more than three months. This graceful lady became my first interviewee, showing her willingness to join this new and uncertain project.
Filmed by Holin Wang. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Special thanks to Andy Boreham.
I first met Silvia at Shanghai Library on a nice spring afternoon. She was using a library computer next to me, completely in Chinese settings. I was surprised how well she could use that computer, even though, in the end, she couldn't figure out how to check out her books. 'This foreigner must have been living here for a long time,' I thought to myself. She asked me for some help, which got our conversation started and allowed me to tell her about this idea I had in my head. I invited her to be my first subject. “Sure! I’d love to,” she replied with a smile.
We met again on another gorgeous spring afternoon. I went to interview Silvia at her home downtown, an exotic old villa with a private garden hiding in a small lane in the former French Concession. She thoughtfully prepared some German chocolates and tea for me. Then we dived into the task at hand, with two stray kittens that Silvia kept playing with while we all enjoyed the sunshine in her garden.
Silvia sits on some stairs at Xing Guo Hotel, one of her favourite places in Shanghai.
Name: Silvia Kettelhut
Job: Science Officer at the German Consulate General in Shanghai
Years in Shanghai: 12
Holin: Can you share with us any Shanghai stories that really left an impression on you?
Silvia: I have lived here (in her current home) for two years. Opposite to our house is the neighborhood committee. So we always say “hello” and “good morning” (to the committee members.)
Last time, it was just before the Dragon Boat Festival, they would invite ladies living in the area to the neighborhood committee to do some crafts.
All the people that went there were old Chinese ladies, and then there was me. It was a very nice morning. We chatted, and did some weaving. They especially invited a lady who was very good at doing these craft things to teach us. She explained everything carefully. They also invited a man who played the flute, so he was playing while we were making these crafts. It was a very nice event and I feel very honored because I was the only foreigner there.
Holin: What do you usually do on the weekends or in your leisure time in Shanghai?
Silvia: I go out to the old parts of the city to take photos, because I like photography and I enjoy taking photos. That's what I like to do. I usually go to lots of places in Hongqiao, Tilanqiao, and Nanshi area (a place in today's Huangpu District.)
The traces of history and the old architecture impress me most. Shanghai still has a lot of old houses, old architecture. I'm interested in the details, such as stained glass. I also like daily life things, for example, before Chinese New Year, when there's lot of meat hanging outside.
I also like to take photos of nature and scenery. When I go out, I like to eat some simple snacks, Shanghai snacks like xiaolongbao, dumplings, noodles and things like that.
Holin: Which place in Shanghai do you like most?
Silvia: One of my favorite places is the orchid garden inside the Botanic Garden. It's very secluded and has a nice vibe. Not many people go there.
I also like to take a walk along the Huangpu River Xuhui Bund part, and also the Pudong Riverside, but not the part where everybody goes, a bit further down by the Oriental Pearl Tower to the northeast.
I like the Shanghai Museum, they have some very good lectures. And the new museums at Xuhui Bund like the Long Museum, and the photography museum (Shanghai Center of Photography).
Holin: What aspect of Shanghai would you say you love?
Silvia: Shanghai has a history you can still see, you see the influence of the east and the influence of the west and they mix. I like the people. They are very open and friendly. And many people are like life artists. They have very simple means but they do a lot with what they have, for example, the water calligraphy.
I love the charm of history and the mixture in Shanghai. Some buildings are carefully restored, others are not ashamed to show their age.
Holin: And what do you hate about Shanghai? Do you have any suggestions to change it or make it better?
Silvia: They could improve the taxis. At the back, very often their seatbelt is hidden. But it’s very important, and you should have seatbelts in the back as well as the front. So every time I have to lift up the seat and look for the small part of the seatbelt to buckle it up. I think Shanghai city should have regulations that the taxi driver should take the seatbelt out and make it available. (Editor's note: The Shanghai government introduced a new law in March of this year, just a few days after interview. The new law requires car drivers and passengers to wear seatbelts, including taxis.)
It would be much better if not so many old buildings were being demolished. Shanghai should keep more areas in their original state. Now they just keep one house here, one house there, but in between, everything is new. I think some areas should be preserved in their entirety. It’s very important, because if everything is new, and you do not keep or renovate the old parts, Shanghai will look like any other Chinese city. Then people don’t see these treasures, they just lose the memories. I think if there’s no memory of what it has been in the past, you also don’t know how to go into the future.
Also 15 years ago, some friends and I, we founded a little group called “Save Shanghai Heritage,” it later changed its name to "Explore Shanghai Heritage." We have to make people aware there are so many interesting buildings that should be preserved in Shanghai. At first, our group consisted mainly of foreigners. I thought, however, that more Chinese young people should learn about their heritage. We have now been meeting about once a month for a lecture at the German consulate for some 15 years. In the beginning, the audience and the lecturers consisted more of foreigners, but now we have so many Chinese too, people who come as guests to listen and also so many Chinese lecturers. So I think it shows that young people have become more aware that there’s something that should be done. This is actually our goal, and I’m very happy about it.
I think the awareness of young people is stronger than before. However, many areas continue to be torn down, like the southern area of the Bund, close to Nanshi and Yuyuan. Many valuable old buildings have gone also in Hongkou District. That area had typical Shanghainese characteristics
Some books, written or translated by Silvia, about Germans in Shanghai.
Holin: Compared to 15 years ago when you first came, what are the biggest changes you've noticed in Shanghai?
Silvia: The subway. At that time there were one or two lines. It is much better now. There were not so many cars, and there weren't any traffic jams at that time.
The air was much better 15 years ago. I really miss the good air. We should plant more trees and grow more lawn. There are so many new buildings, and the plazas at their front are often nothing but solid concrete. If you had a square with grass and trees that would be much better. We could have roof greenery, green on the walls. This new concept would be good.
Holin: Could you share any life memories that have impressed on you?
Silvia: I was studying Chinese in Nanjing in 1986, and in 1987 I went to look for a job in Beijing. When I was leaving Nanjing, a friend of mine came especially to give me some grain coupons that could be used nationwide. At that time, life was much more difficult than it is now. So he took pains to exchange the Nanjing grain coupons for those that would also be accepted in Beijing. It was very touching. I have kept those coupons; they are still at my home in Germany.