Architecture: Saving a jewel of Shanghai
Sheridan Prasso
Friday, March 12, 2004

SHANGHAI: Until a few months ago, there was a thriving community here along the waterfront of the North Bund, the American/International Settlement that harbored more than 20,000 Jews who fled Nazi Europe from 1933 to 1941. The early morning hours promised animated scenes: Young men loading newspaper inserts onto the backs of motorcycles, an old man in his underwear playing tennis against a backboard with his pants folded nearby, vendors hawking mung beans and tofu from carts.

"Then the buildings started to disappear," said Christopher Choa, an architect from New York who jogs through the area every morning and has become involved in its preservation and development. "Now there's just cranes and pile drivers."

The wrecking ball is slowly making its way toward this old Jewish ghetto. The area, known in Chinese as Hongkou (or Hongkew), was a haven for stateless refugees in a city that did not require a visa, and the Jews fleeing the Nazis joined 5,000 to 10,000 others who had fled Stalin's Russia.

After most of the refugees resettled in the United States, Canada, Israel and Australia as the Chinese communists took power in 1949, they left behind a charming neighborhood with pink- and gray-brick row houses, a synagogue, a park, schools, a hospital, even a Little Vienna Café. It is still here.

But now, as part of Shanghai's rapid gentrification, the city government has declared its intent to turn the North Bund into "a masterpiece of the 21st century," a modern business and residential district with skyscrapers, apartment blocks, cruise ship docks, even an enormous Ferris wheel. It held an architectural design competition to put forward a master plan for the new North Bund a year and a half ago.

Choa's firm, HLW International LLP - one of New York's oldest, which designed The New York Times building - was one of three foreign firms that won the competition.

The gleaming metropolis that Shanghai city planners have in mind doesn't necessarily leave room for a quaint old ghetto whose run-down old buildings are now inhabited by working-class Chinese, some of whom live in rooms lit by a single hanging bulb and with three or more families sharing a kitchen and bathroom. Planners have earmarked for preservation about 400 old buildings across the city, but in the old ghetto, only the synagogue, Ohel Moshe, and a block or so of row houses made the list.

It seems likely that much of the old ghetto may be torn down. The developers essentially have free reign. They hire their own architects to draw up plans for the buildings they will construct. Their profit motive means they will pack as many residential units into as small an area as possible to ensure the highest returns per square meter. That means high-rises, said Choa, not quaint old row houses. "The winning schemes are used only as a guide to the Chinese planners' work, which is done privately," he said.

But the government recently signaled that all might not be lost. An article in the March 2 Shanghai Daily News indicated that city officials may consider including in the final development some Canadian-Jewish businessmen, led by Lan Leventhal, who hope to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for a more comprehensive preservation. "Some have put forward half-baked plans to build ridiculous fun fairs or high-rises in this area," the article quoted the professor and preservationist Ruan Yisan as saying. "If priorities are not set correctly, and much is focused on profit, the project will flop." The development plan is to be released in April, the article said.

Ohel Moshe synagogue is already something of a tourist attraction. No longer a place of worship (Judaism is not among the religions recognized by the government), it operates as a small museum and Jewish cultural center supported by private donations. A panel that lists visitors over the last few years included photos of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Madeline Albright, Gerhard Schröder, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, Chaim Herzog and a number of rabbis.

Also listed is W. Michael Blumenthal, President Jimmy Carter 's Treasury secretary, who, according to his official biography, spent his teenage years in the ghetto before going to the United States.

The neighborhood was featured in the 2002 documentary "Shanghai Ghetto," and the North Bund as a whole appeared in Steven Spielberg's 1987 movie "Empire of the Sun."

The preservation plan designed by Choa, whose great grandmother was a Sephardic Jew but is himself a Roman Catholic, keeps a few more of the ghetto structures than the city requires. His plan makes the synagogue the center of a memorial park that would include gravestones of former Jewish inhabitants and link the park in "a symbolic connection" to the waterfront on one end and an ornate Buddhist temple on the other.

The headstones would come from four Jewish cemeteries in Shanghai. The graves were moved to a central location in 1958, said Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli who guides tours of Jewish Shanghai, but that cemetery was then destroyed also, and the tombstones scattered during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Bar-Gal has been collecting the tombstones, and said he has come up with about 80 so far "from villages in the west of Shanghai; locals were using them in many trivial and degrading ways, such as stepping stones, washing boards and construction."

Because the city has not yet released the development plan, no one knows what, if any, buildings will be preserved. All Choa, Bar-Gal and the other would-be preservationists can do is keep urging the government to consider the tourism potential of the area, so that they will transfer that pressure onto the developers who are ultimately chosen. "You're just trying to save as much as possible," said Choa with a sigh.