9 December 2010

The Vanishing Slum

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As the bus traveled past a flyover overlooking an unusual area dwarfed by swanky-looking skyscrapers on both sides, I looked out on a sea of irregularly shaped roofs, covering rows upon rows of decrepit tenement blocks. Among the shabby buildings were several gaping holes, strewn with rubble and the occasional excavator equipped with a hydraulic breaker, hammering away with little regard for the residents living nearby. Every day, thousands of people, including foreigners such as myself, pass by this area on foot or in tour buses. Hardly any of them venture into the narrow alleys of this slum.

Standing strong.

At once, I knew that I had cover this fast disappearing piece of Shanghai before I returned home. Judging by the rate the excavators were going, I might probably see a new building standing in it's place when I return here in the future. The housing was built decades ago by refugees from war and destitute peasants fleeing intolerable conditions in the countryside. But Shanghai, intent on burying this past, is now methodically bulldozing slum areas around the city as it builds new six-story concrete apartment blocks. As China continues to keep up with new real-estate developments popping up at an alarming rate, it seems rather sad that these old buildings, often an integral part of many a city dweller's life, have to go in the name of progress and commercialization.

One sunny morning, I took a walk from my hotel to the city block where the slum was located. Sticking to the shadows, I chose to enter the area from a point far away from where the municipality had set up safety barriers to prevent the public from coming close. For my effort, I was rewarded with the discovery of a precious slice of life in Shanghai. In contrast to the crumbling buildings on both sides of the narrow alleyway against a backdrop of newer residential and commercial buildings, the place was bursting with fascinating hues. It is the perfect example of order in chaos. Amongst the debris, a myriad of colours emerged as clothing of different shades, hung from windows, balconies and lampposts fluttered lightly in the winter breeze like banners on a festive day.

Oblivious to the noise and dust

I actually saw a mailman deliver letters to this house before I took this shot.

Continuing my way deeper into the slums, I could see some residents peering at me from behind their windows. I'm pretty sure I would have seemed pretty weird to them, walking around with a camera, snapping away while excavators were firing on all cylinders, breaking down another wall some 15 feet away.

Yet another casualty

An stenciled advertisement for certification, one of many painted wall ads

It is little wonder many of these slum dwellers refuse to leave the place. With rents as low as 200 yuan (SGD$40) a month, lowly paid migrants workers - mostly from farming backgrounds - flock to slums for refuge with other forms of accommodation rendered impossible with sky-high prices. Slumlords make an easy living, roofing their courtyards and partitioning their houses into tiny, dark rooms to be rented out. Conditions in the slum are grim but for many of these occupants, the slum offers a solace from the crazy rat race going on outside their four walls.

Almost every turn I made within the maze like slum led to a depressing sight, a building reduced to rubble and dust. There was no way I could guess what these crumbled stones used to house. I noticed that some walls, which were perforated, were defiantly patched up with bricks by the slum dwellers. Crude, but effective.

Somewhere in the midst of the dystopia, I came across a pretty curious sight. In a main alleyway which might have been the main artery in this complicated network of nooks and crannies, was a bustling market place. Stalls were lined up crudely on one side of the walkway, and there was definitely nothing pretentious here as hawkers shouted out their offers to passers-by, hoping to make a sale. While most hawkers minded their business, a couple waved me away before I could take any photos of their stalls up close.

Most turned away as I pointed my camera at their stalls

Pork, anyone?

Moving on, I entered another area of the slum. This area felt different. It was less populated and the buildings here, or whatever was left of them, were mostly abandoned. This would definitely make a good movie set if the script called for an urban landscape which had been nuked.

The old, against a backdrop of the new

Entering an abandoned building, I took my chances and went up a musky smelling flight of stairs, arriving at a doorway at the second floor. Imagine my shock when an elderly man appeared at the doorway, shouting in Chinese and gesticulating: "Who are you? What are you doing here?!"

I replied in English: "I'm sorry. I'm just taking photos." while holding my camera up.

"A foreigner?! Get lost!" replied the man before he disappeared behind the doorway. I made like Usain Bolt, half-expecting him to come after me with a chopper. I guess I have never descended a flight of stairs that quickly in my life before.

Where the angry man lives. Beware.

A little comfort for the sweltering summer months, perhaps?

Fresh from running for my life, I continued walking through the collapsing locale, hungry for more photos to compliment this unique journey.

News is spreaded via this bulletin board. Often, the names of people
who die in the slums are scrawled here as well, making for a crude obituary.

With my round almost complete, I walked towards the main road, snapping away as much as I could, hoping to capture every angle I could of this unique piece of Shanghai's lesser explored landscape. I knew that this was possibly a once in a lifetime experience that I had to absolutely capture on film to the best of my ability.

Clear and present danger?

Apart from the piles of dirt here and there, the alleys seem cleaner than one would have expected. Looking in from the outside, most will assume that the living conditions must be appalling when compared with modern standards. Many of the daily amenities that we have come to take for granted, are sadly lacking in most of the homes here. I have seen some families cooking on makeshift stoves in the alleyways outside their homes.

And while many would sneer at the chance of living in one of these slums, from the warm smile and chatter I see among the residents, I know deep inside that these people are truly contented with what they have, living their lives happily and taking each day one step at a time. It was a heartfelt scene, something which would remain with me for a long, long time.

Article & Photos copyright of Aaron Chan

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  1. you r seriously lucky to brought back so much precious memories....

  2. Thanks Xin. It was a memorable experience, especially the part where I had to run for my life! LOL.