Dr. Jun Wang, a researcher in the Urban Planning and Design Institute at Tongji University in Shanghai, is standing in the central square of the old train station complex in Tel Aviv and surveying the buildings around him.
The complex opened about a year ago, after a long period of renovation and preservation. Called simply Hatachana – the station – it now houses cafes, restaurants, clothing shops and several authentic railroad cars from the period when the place was in use as an Ottoman train station.
A building in Shanghai’s old Jewish ghetto. Clear European influence.
Photo by: Dori Sadan
Along with its popularity among denizens and tourists, the complex has been the subject of considerable criticism because of its over-polished and saccharine feel, making it a kind of Disneyland of preservation.
Jun actually agrees with those who praise it. Shanghai, he says, is full of overly precious preservation complexes of that type. Personally, he would add a few more tall buildings, “maybe even in the middle of the square.” When I ask his opinion of the Neveh Tzedek tower looming nearby and its integration into the historical fabric, he answers simply: “Just as a person wears a shirt, jeans, a hat and shoes, the city also has to ‘wear’ various kinds of buildings.”
In the name of economic growth thousands of historic neighborhoods have been demolished in China in recent years, making way for new buildings. .
But alongside the large-scale demolition there are also the first signs of an awareness of preservation in China. In Shanghai a series of plans for preserving historic areas are being promoted today, including a plan to preserve the Jewish ghetto, which is located in the Hongkou District.
Jun was in Israel as part of a high-ranking Chinese delegation that came for a three-day Israeli-Chinese conference on the study and preservation of the ghetto, which ended yesterday. The team also included Prof. Xia Nankai of Tongji University and six officials from the Shanghai municipality, headed by Mrs. Chan Hai, the deputy planner of the Hongkou District.
The delegation came to Israel at the invitation of Prof. Moshe Margalit, a lecturer at the school, who holds the Unesco Chair on Modern Heritage.
Margalit visited Shanghai about a year ago and heard the story of the Jewish ghetto. He made contact with academic groups and the government and asked to begin a cooperative project with them, which will lead to the preservation of the neighborhood.
Rich life in poor conditions
Jewish presence in Shanghai began to conglomerate in the mid-19th century, shortly after England’s victory in the First Opium War. At first about 500 Iraqi Jews came to the city, including the Kadouri, Sassoon and Hardon families, who engaged in commerce and real estate and became very wealthy.
More significant Jewish immigration to the city took place in the late 1930s. Due to international agreements between the world powers and China, one could immigrate to the city without a passport or a visa, and about 20,000 European Jews managed to flee there during World War II.
The Jewish refugees were housed in squalid Hongkou, living in great poverty and in overcrowded conditions. Still, they managed to develop a rich community life with synagogues, a hospital, youth movements and other institutions. Even after Shanghai was occupied by Japan in 1937, the Jews were permitted to continue living there.
After the end of World War II and the rise of Communism, the ghetto emptied out almost completely. Many of the Jewish refugees immigrated to the United States and Israel.
As is the case of other historic neighborhoods in Shanghai, the ghetto is today under constant threat of demolition because of vigorous real estate activity. Its proximity to the city center is causing the price of land there to soar very quickly.
Last October Prof. Margalit traveled with a group of students from the Tel Aviv University School of Architecture to visit Shanghai, in order to promote the ghetto preservation project in cooperation with Tongji University and the municipality..
The students collected materials and met with residents, researchers and academics. They presented their conclusions to members of the Chinese delegation.
Later they will formulate concrete planning proposals. Several of them – for example connecting the streets of the ghetto to the bank of the river that crosses Shanghai – look promising.
But there is very little left of the Jewish community there, beyond a few remaining community buildings and some mezuzah nails stuck in place.
The neighborhood remains poor and any residents would benefit from razing it and putting up new buildings. Beyond that, some wonder what, if anything, can be preserved of a fabric of life that existed there for only about 15 years and has now all but disappeared?
“The ghetto symbolized the connection between Chinese society and Jewish society,” says Margalit. “The Chinese authorities understand this symbolism very well and therefore have been doubly cautious in their handling of the site. Although the Jews were refugees, they succeeded in contributing to Shanghai’s social life and culture. Furthermore, in Hongkou a unique urban fabric was preserved that is gradually disappearing from the city.”
Jun says that over the years at least 10 different plans have been presented for developing the ghetto, some calling for its demolition, some wanting to integrate high-rise building into it and to turn the historic buildings into a local “train-station complex.”
The solution is apparently somewhere in the middle, says the Chinese planner, between overdevelopment and kitschy preservation.
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