Alison posted a good rundown of our guided tour through the memories of an ex-pat Shanghailander (as they call themselves), but I wanted to add one more important aspect of what we saw.
First Patrick gave us the most important instructions we would hear on the tour: always look up. It’s true: the storefronts here in Shanghai (and all over the world, probably) all look very similar with their plate glass, glitzy framing, signage, etc. But all of that is constantly changing and updating as stores move in and out of the spaces, as landlords renovate, as time passes. But above the ground floor the older buildings are largely unchanged (except, perhaps, for coats of paint). Metalwork around windows and balconies, window treatments, stonework, carvings, etc. can all tell you a lot about the age of buildings, and often about the condition of the building inside and out.
In the case of the Astrid apartments — first stop on our tour — above the common storefronts there are immediate signs of an older art deco building. Above the doors leading to the residences are large and beautiful stone carvings with a rising sun/chevron pattern. Above that, wrapping around the building (except on the balconies), is a dark band of metal(?) echoing that chevron pattern. A ha.
Before we tried to get into the resident’s hallways (which was locked by a security gate with a punch-code activated latch), we walked through a passageway that lead to the middle courtyard of the building. Above us we could see the rear windows of all the apartments, and we could also see a two or three story separate building set in this courtyard. According to Mrs. X this was where the servants were quartered, which saved space in the apartments themselves. Today the servants quarters are simply additional apartments occupied by residents of the city. Mrs. X remembered the courtyard well, but was unable to pick out the windows of her grandmother’s apartment, nor her own apartment.
She did, however, remember the door she used to enter the building, so we walked out of the courtyard to the street, and then over to the locked door. Patrick had asked one for the pass code from one of the courtyard residents, and she was happy to give it to him(!?). However, when he tried it, he couldn’t get it to work. Another resident who seemed to be working at a sidewalk news stand nearby walked over and opened the door for us with her key, and we were in.
(When Patrick took us on a first quick tour of our neighborhood he told us that it was always OK to walk into the narrow lanes where people lived because despite the hanging laundry and other living materials they were public spaces. He also said that if you asked nicely most people were happy to show you inside of their homes, and if you found an older resident they often knew a lot about the history of the lane and the buildings surrounding it. Asking older residents these questions was often the ONLY way this knowledge could be obtained — it’s not written down anywhere, and the neighborhood organizers (basically the grassroots of the Communist Party) seem more interested on future “improvements” than in understanding the past.)
Inside the door it was dark, but you could see a small lobby space now filled with parked bicycles and mailboxes. Mrs. X assured us that she remembered it being much nicer, and that there should be an elevator around the corner — indeed there was. We took the elevator (small but modern) up to the third floor (where Mrs. X remembered as the floor to her apartment) and walked out onto the landing.
We saw two doors facing each other on the landing of the stairway. The stairway was tiled in an interesting pattern (which Mrs. X verified was originial), and the trim around the doors was very stylish, which we admired. Mrs. X and her friend took out cameras and began taking pictures of the doors, of the tiling, of the windows along the stairwell, and of light fixtures. Patrick was very excited because this was the first time he had been inside of the Astrid apartments, and he also took photographs as documentation for his Historic Shanghai association.
As all these pictures were being taken, we heard a door open one flight above us. Patrick’s head jerked up, and he immediately bounded up the stairs and started talking to someone. A minute or so later he called out in English, “Mrs. X, you should come up because Mrs. Y would like a word with you.”
Mrs. X walked up the stairs and we followed. When she got there Patrick was still speaking to her in Mandarin, then he turned to Mrs. X and said, “Mrs. Y is trying to get comfortable with the notion of letting you look in her apartment. She wonders if you would describe the layout for her.” Mrs. X laughed, then quickly rattled off what she remembered of an apartment she last saw sixty years earlier, and Patrick translated. Mrs. Y, who was dressed in a blue rain coat, listened carefully, considered the information, then slowly nodded and spoke to Patrick. “You’ve passed her test,” Patrick said, smiling, and Mrs. Y opened the door to the apartment and motioned that we follow her in.
What followed was a remarkable tour around one of the few, if only, intact apartments in the Astrid building that had not been chopped up even though there were three families living in it. It was not the apartment that Mrs. X had grown up in (she was fairly sure it was on the third floor, and based on the layout of the apartment we toured, her memory was of the mirror image, so it’s likely that it was on the opposite side of the landing), but was still a remarkable window into the past of the building because the “bones” of the rooms were still there, including much of the trim, the high ceilings, the beautiful wood floor, and most if not all the fixtures, including the bath tub. It even still had the button in the wall of the former dining room (now a bedroom) which was used to call the servants.
What was more remarkable were the current tenants of the apartment and the fact that an apartment that had housed one family in 1949 now housed three, in tight quarters (as you can see from the bedroom and balcony room of one family at the top of the page). Two of the three current tenants of these rooms (they lived “together” sharing a kitchen and a bathroom, but each had a “private” suite of two or three rooms) had lived there since 1949, including Mrs. Z, 81 years strong, whom Mrs. Y introduced us to and explained that she was an original tenant from the time of the Revolution. Farther into the rooms was “Auntie,” 89 years old, another original tenant but now restricted to her bedroom. From the pictures on the walls of all the rooms it was clear that their kids had grown up in this shared apartment before growing up and moving away.
Mrs. Y knew about 50 words of English, but couldn’t really understand it at all. Mrs. Y and the other apartment residents spoke none at all. So Patrick served as interpreter. Mrs. Y had many questions for Mrs. X and seemed delighted to learn more about the building she had lived in for the past 60 years. Patrick’s intermediary roll allowed him to ask follow-up questions of Mrs. Y on his own, which led to the discovery that Mrs. Z and Auntie had arrived in 1949 and had been related to ministers/officials of the last dynasty of China, the Qing Dynasty. This explained why they had many exceptional pieces of Chinese antique furniture, but it also meant that the families had likely faced persecution during several periods post-Revolution. It also might have explained how they had come to live in what had formerly been the residence of the upper crust of Shanghai society before 1949… Both women were very poised and confident in their manner, neither looked their age, and in fact both appeared quite beautiful, especially in the pictures of themselves in their younger years. The apartment was very clean and well kept, despite the clutter of jamming all their possessions (including their refrigerators) into their one private room.
So here was the intersection of several families who were casualties of history in their own ways, but who stood together in these rooms in pretty good shape, sharing a happy moment for them both, related by a pile of bricks in a restless city.