Shang­hai man cap­tures his love for lane houses

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By XU JUN­QIAN in Shang­hai


The 61-year-old Shou Zhusen said his in­ter­est in pho­tog­ra­phy, es­pe­cially por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy, has been as in­stilled in him as his love for the Shang­hai lane house where he has spent his en­tire life.

When the for­mer taxi driver re­tired in 2012, it then nat­u­rally fol­lowed that he would com­bine the two in­ter­ests into what he called “an un­paid dusk­light job”: tak­ing pic­tures of el­derly who live in the Shang­hai lane houses.

Three years later, Shou, with a Nikon cam­era and a map of the city in his mind — drawn dur­ing his decades of taxi driv­ing — has zigzagged along the nar­row lanes of more than 1,000 neigh­bor­hoods of Shang­hai lane houses, and taken hun­dreds of thou­sands of pic­tures of life and peo­ple there.

“The neigh­bor­hood of Shang­hai lane houses is very unique in the way that, though its lanes are public spa­ces, they are rather hos­tile to strangers, mak­ing them feel like they’re tres­pass­ing into one’s home,” said Shou.

Shou has taken por­trait pic­tures of more than 20 el­derly peo­ple in their lane house homes. El­derly peo­ple are those older than 85, ac­cord­ing to Shou’s def­i­ni­tion.

“It’s a race with the time. I have to start from the most tran­sient,” he ex­plained. He does the shoots in their homes not only be­cause “home is the most com­fort­able en­vi­ron­ment for the el­derly, if not ev­ery­one”, but also be­cause the lane houses are quickly dis­ap­pear­ing in the city’s everon­go­ing facelift.

More than one- third of neigh­bor­hoods Shou has vis­ited have been torn down, he es­ti­mated.

There are things such as tele­vi­sion sets with glass cov­ers (to keep dust from screens) and hot wa­ter bot­tles, which can only be found in lane houses, as peo­ple are likely to dis­card them once they move into new apart­ments. On the other hand, they can be found in the same room with mod­ern gad­gets like com­put­ers.

Shou re­mem­bered tak­ing a pic­ture of a 90-year-old woman in her home, buy­ing stocks on her com­puter against the back­ground of a set of nut-shell­col­ored fur­ni­ture, a typ­i­cal color of 1980’s mass-pro­duced fur­ni­ture in China.

“It’s a photo that can tell the time for ev­ery Chi­nese with­out cap­tion,” he said.

Shou now lives in a 53-square-me­ter space with his wife on the sec­ond floor of what is called a Shang­hai new-style lane house in the city’s for­mer French Con­ces­sion. The space is sep­a­rated into a bed­room and a liv­ing room, with in­di­vid­ual bath­room and kitchen.

Shou re­called that the space, at its peak from 1950’s to 1980’s, was shared by three gen­er­a­tions — 11 peo­ple — in­clud­ing his par­ents, sib­lings and their off­spring. Shou is the youngest son of a cou­ple that em­i­grated from neigh­bor­ing Shaox­ing, Zhe­jiang province, dur­ing the 1930’s, dubbed the golden era of Shang­hai, where “gold can be found ev­ery­where”, as ru­mors had it.

Shou’s par­ents did find their for­tune then, by start­ing a textile fac­tory with rel­a­tives. Later, with sev­eral bars of gold, they bought the three-floor lane house down­town. The house was re-dis­trib­uted as the house­hold for three fam­i­lies in the 1950’s, as pri­vate prop­erty was not al­lowed.

“My son has left the house by mov­ing into the apart­ment build­ings with his small fam­ily. There isn’t much I can do about the rad­i­cal changes our city and our res­i­dences are un­der­go­ing. Record­ing the changes, how­ever, for me is a form of me­mo­rial,” said Shou.


Shou Zhusen spends most of his spare time doc­u­ment­ing daily life in shiku­men houses through his pho­to­graphs. A long­time res­i­dent of the lane houses him­self, he has tied his love of pho­tog­ra­phy to his fond­ness for the van­ish­ing tra­di­tional homes.

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