Shanghai residents who like to show visiting friends some of the city’s better preserved traditional neighborhoods, known locally as shikumen (stone-gated) houses, will be disappointed that one of the best is now off limits.
I’m referring to a recent clean-up of the shikumen neighborhood between Nanjing Road W. and Weihai Road, where a new gate has been installed to keep out everyone except for residents.
This kind of move is quite typical in Shanghai and throughout China, and at a broader level reflects the nation’s fascination with gates and fences that limit access.
I don’t know the origin of this fascination, though it seems more prevalent on the mainland than in Hong Kong or Taiwan. But the result is the same: even innocuous places like school campuses and parks often restrict access to a few entry points, giving an almost prison-like feel.
The recent gating of the Nanjing Road shikumen neighborhood certainly wasn’t unexpected, since authorities have been trying to clean up the area for several months now to improve life for residents.
The area had become rather commercial, and authorities worried it could become another Tian Zi Fang, the shopping and dining neighborhood that is wildly popular among tourists who make life noisy and inconvenient for locals.
The cleanup on Nanjing Road began over the summer with the forced removal of the many boutique-style shops selling everything from tea to handicrafts on the ground floor of many row houses. That was followed by this formal gating, which means that now only people who actually live in the complex can enter.
The pulling of this particular community from the tourist map is just a bit ironic, since the city devoted big resources to tidy it up around four years ago to make it a showcase for visitors to the 2010 World Expo.
The news report I read said authorities are still finalizing plans, seeking a way to placate both locals and outsiders who want to enjoy the old architecture and neighborhood feel.
Hopes for limited reopening
I certainly hope they will reopen the neighborhood on at least a limited basis, as it really is a nice contrast from all the high-end shops and malls on that part of Nanjing Road.
From a broader perspective, what happened in this neighborhood is a microcosm of the many changes taking place in China’s urban landscapes, and also reflects a national love affair with gated areas that I really think should be retired.
This kind of commercial development would never happen in a country like the US due to strict zoning laws dictating the activities allowed in individual areas. An area like the shikumen neighborhood would have been labeled as residential in the West, formally banning commercial tenants from operating.
But of course this is 21st-century China, where such zoning laws are a new concept and people set up shops and offices wherever they want until the police force them out. That creates a game of cat-and-mouse that often sees people open stores and restaurants wherever they can, and then race to do as much business as possible before eventually being forced out.
So in that regard, this eviction of shops from the Nanjing Road neighborhood is a good thing and will restore some peace and quiet.
But the gating is the product of another outdated mentality. My guess is this fondness for restricting access to everything, from schools to parks and hospitals, is a product of the massive work units that became widespread in the first 40 years after 1949.
Those work units were massive compounds containing everything from schools to hospitals, factories and homes, and were often like fortresses with access limited to three or four guarded entry points.
I’ve always found it a bit strange how access to almost every major area within many Chinese cities is controlled in some way or another.
Parks and school campuses in the West are usually broad, wide open spaces without any fences or gates, making them easily accessible for anyone. By comparison, most Chinese parks are carefully fenced and have strict operating hours. Schools are also tightly controlled to keep out everyone except students.
By keeping so many people out, this kind of fencing hurts development of community spirit by downplaying the idea that big open spaces should be enjoyed by everyone.
In cases like this, perhaps officials could take the unusual step of removing the gate to this historic neighborhood. Such openness could someday be replicated throughout the city, sending the signal that Shanghai is a place that welcomes outsiders and wants to make everyone feel at home when they are out and about.