Lane life in the shadow of the sage

The old neighborhood near the Confucian Temple retains the traditional way of life, adding a charm that complements the historical significance of the religious site in its midst.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

An elderly woman does some needlework in a lane close to the Confucian Temple.

The Confucian Temple on Wenmiao Road sits in an old neighborhood where the traditional way of life persists, adding a charm that complements the solemnity and historical significance of the religious site in its midst.

I disembarked at Laoximen Metro Station and walked along Zhonghua Road. I was immediately struck by the dichotomy.

On one side of the road is an upmarket community of 30-story apartment blocks with glass façades. On the other side are low-rise, shabbier buildings and a variety of shops selling dim sum, sausages, second-hand books and electrical appliances.

From the road, back lanes fan out. On a web of overhead cables, clothes were hung out to dry. A spittoon sat in front of a door, a man sharpened knives in the lane, women washed vegetables in big bowls outside, and dogs napped on doorsteps.

“If you are not guided by a resident, you could easily get lost in the lanes,” Wang Jialiang, neighborhood Party secretary and a longtime resident, told me.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

A woman on Caojia Street is about to hang clothes out to dry.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Perhaps in tribute to Confucius, the names of most roads in the area contain the Chinese character xue, or “learning.” Other street names come from the history of the area. Menghua Street refers to a watchtower established for defense against Japanese pirates in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

At the gate to Puyu Lane, I stopped to look at Chinese couplets, carved on wood. Looking up, I saw balconies with wooden frames, which reminded me of my days as a child living in my grandparents’ old house.

A middle-aged woman broke my nostalgic moment.

“Come, come,” she beckoned putting down the laundry fork she was using to hoist garments onto a line and inviting me to tour the Puyu Lane neighborhood.

Located at the intersection of Penglai Road and Xuexi Street, this traditional residential neighborhood was built in 1925. It originally was the site of a home for the disabled and terminally ill, but later was turned into a prison. All that is gone now.

“As a pilot program for renovating old residential neighborhoods, Puyu Lane underwent a big overhaul in 1984,” Wang said. “All the houses were repossessed by the government. Two or three floors were added to existing buildings and private bathrooms and kitchens were installed.”

In 2012, Puyu Lane was designated as a cultural heritage site.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Puyu Lane is Shanghai's first neighborhood devoted to promoting the culture of couplets, which adorn the front doors of every household.

“Originally, my family lived in the No. 12 building, but after the renovation, we moved to building No. 30,” said a 78-year-old woman surnamed Xu, who has lived in Puyu Lane for half a century.

As we were talking, an elderly man approached Xu and asked her to help distribute “longevity” noodles to local residents to celebrate the birthday of a Buddhist deity.

Feeling hungry myself, I looked for a restaurant on Wenmiao Road, where numerous vendors sell street food and other items. It was once an area famous for its snacks.

“The food that I liked best was pan-fried bun with beef,” said Wang. “When I was young, people would spend up to 10 yuan (US$1.59) to sample all the food sold on the street. It was that good.”

A 66-year-old man told us his favorite food was toasted marshmallow with hot and sour vegetable. He recalled begging his parents for the pennies to buy it.

Not only has the street food lost some of the luster of the past, but the neighborhood itself has undergone many changes.

 “The places of my childhood have all but disappeared,” Wang said somewhat ruefully.

An older man selling model kits reminisced about what he called the golden era of the 1980s and 1990s, when street businesses thrived.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Catnapping in front of a store on Wenmiao Road

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

An elderly resident on Jingxiu Road reads a newspaper on her doorsteps.

Amid the new are remnants of the past. I asked Wang if he knew any hidden gems in the neighborhood. Yes, he said, pointing to one of four houses once owned by the Fang family.

The houses, at least 100 years old, were originally interconnected but are now separated by walls.

The houses still retain a wooden beam carved with the pattern of a bat, engraved wooden doors, polished bricks paving the ground, glass windows and wooden pillars on stone.

“They are the only one of the few things that have been preserved,” a 65-year-old woman surnamed Zhang told me. “The renovation changed the layout of the houses. The most beautiful features are gone.”

The renewal project changed the whole character of the neighborhood. Zhang recalled her childhood, when neighbors often ate together and sat out in the courtyard in the evenings to cool off. Now those courtyards are filled with bicycles and junk.

“There are 33 households living in the first two houses,” said Zhang. “About a third of the residents are migrant workers. Everything has changed.”

I can’t resist asking her if nostalgia means she would prefer to be living back in her old house.

“No,” she said. “I prefer my modern apartment, which is cozier. But the past will always be part of my life, and I wish the neighborhood had more of its original appearance, even though I know that’s impossible.”

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Children frolic in Yifeng Lane.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

One of Wang’s most important jobs as a neighborhood leader is looking out for the welfare of elderly residents.

“We frequently have to carry elderly men on our backs to hospitals,” he said. “Most of them don’t have families, and many don’t have the money for medical fees, so we pay the fees and make sure they get home. It’s part of our responsibilities.”

Indeed, there is really no end to responsibilities. Wang, born in 1983, and his staff are at the frontline of community needs, dealing with everything from burglary reports to blocked sewers.

After a stint in the military and work at a now-shuttered steel company, Wang took up the post of neighborhood Party secretary after seeing a wall recruitment poster for the job when he returned to his old childhood neighborhood for a meal with friends. He said he’s happy to be “home” again and determined to better the community.

“It is undeniable that the surroundings of this area are not satisfactory,” he said. “It’s my job to try to make the daily lives of residents as happy as possible.”

The neighborhood committee holds many community activities, including classes on cooking, gardening and procedures for dealing with emergencies.

A project is underway to remove unauthorized construction in the area.

“I hope older buildings that have surrounded the Confucian Temple for decades can be preserved as a place to appreciate the culture of the past,” Wang said.

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

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