The first modern metropolis: How Shanghai was born of a refugee crisis

Shanghai in 1930. Image: Getty.

When George Balfour, the first appointed British consul of Shanghai, envisaged the future of his British-only settlement at the end of 1843, he stood on a piece of marshland by the Huangpu River.

Balfour could not have imagined in his wildest dreams the prosperous modern metropolis to come. The settlement was to be built, first and foremost, to house an influx of refugees from the Chinese hinterland.

Balfour’s master plan was neither visionary nor inspirational; it was a rudimentary division of land blocks driven by sheer pragmatism. East-west roads were laid towards the Huangpu River bank, which has lasted to this day as the enduring urban feature of Shanghai – the Bund.

The early buildings in the British settlement – consulates, trade offices and houses, sitting oddly on the muddy ground to the Chinese eye – were not meant to last. The settlers slept rough. Hoping to make a quick fortune in Shanghai, they did not intend to stay put for long.

This piece of “wasteland”, of one-kilometre-long river frontage with easy waterways connecting to the vast interior, turned out to be the most convenient and indeed strategic location for the British. The French too quickly saw the advantage. In 1856 they secured the segment between the old Shanghai town and the British Bund as the French Bund, though not as grand.

A haven in times of conflict

A remarkable population boom and prosperity occurred in the second decade of foreign settlement, when droves of Chinese refugees sought sojourn in the safe haven of foreign concession lands.

During years of turmoil, which started with the threat of the Small Sword Society in the old Shanghai town and continued until the collapse of Taiping Tianguo in 1864, the British Shanghai was never taken. More than 30m people lost their lives during the 14 years of revolution and rebellion.

Three sisters take tea at the Shanghai Lawn Tennis Club in the 1920s. Image: author provided.

It was against this background that the Chinese refugees flocked to the foreign settlements. By 1865, the population in Shanghai’s foreign concession had reached 150,000. This was 21.5 per cent of the entire population in Shanghai, and included approximately 110,000 Chinese.

Although foreign merchants were predominantly involved in trading (opium, silk, cotton and tea), building houses and letting them to the Chinese refugees proved to be far more profitable than what they originally set out to do.

An English merchant declared his naked business ambition to Balfour’s successor as British consul, Rutherford Alcock. With a profit margin of 30-40 per cent in this property development business, he showed zero concern for Shanghai’s future:

In two or three years at farthest, I hope to realise a fortune and get away; what can it matter to me, if all Shanghai disappears afterwards, in fire or flood?

This was the first time in Chinese history that the notion of profit-driven property development was explicitly displayed before the Chinese. The segregation of Chinese and foreigners as determined by land regulations was broken. The consuls of Britain, America and France subsequently revised these without any consultation with the Qing Court.

Rise of a modern metropolis

The influx of people into the foreign settlements also enabled the inevitable transition of economic structure – that is, the shift from a primarily trade-driven one to that of production and industry.

In addition to the building industry, reeling mills, yarn and flour factories emerged on the banks of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek. These provided a vital force that pushed the unskilled farmers from the hinterland into various trades – a marker of the rapid urbanisation and modernisation of Shanghai.

The hybrid shiku men housing at one time dominated Shanghai. Image: kafka4prez/Flickr/creative commons.

The early houses were makeshift timber terraces built in shanty construction, which were known as li (the ancient name of neighbourhood). But the governments of foreign settlement abolished this sort of construction after 1870, mainly because it was prone to fire.

From then on, the mixed construction of timber and masonry called shiku men (stone gate building) had gradually replaced the early makeshift timber terraces as the dominant residential pattern and urban form of modern Shanghai.

Better built and more costly than the earlier timber houses, the parsimony of their land use meant dwellings were clustered together like the English terrace house, one next to the other within the parallel urban grids of the streets and laneways. Being low maintenance and high rent, the shiku men housing became very popular in Shanghai.

This form of housing quickly spread over the old Shanghai town and other places occupied only by the Chinese. The country gentry and land owners had their first taste of modern urban life when they stayed in these houses. They were small, confined, dark and poorly ventilated.

Only in Shanghai: fashion in the street in 1948. Image: author provided.

The Confucian world of paterfamilias, though tenuously held by the hall and symmetry of the old shiku men, begun to be shaken by the distraction and allure offered by the larger interior of the city.

The extension of confined shiku men to the laneways and streets led to the world of delicious and exotic food, intoxicating drinks, shops selling fine things, sleazy opium dens and brothels, splendid dancing halls holding elegant balls, racetracks and casinos. All were irresistible.

The porosity between the house and street became the precursor of a lively urban life. It exuded the glitter of the city as the replacement of the internalised Confucian world – the courtyard. “Shanghai petty urbanites”, coined by one of Shanghai’s favourite literary daughters, the exceedingly talented Eileen Chang, are symbiotic with this urban fabric that houses them.

The Bund in 1928, hardly recognisable as a Chinese city. Image: Author provided.

Shanghai could hardly be recognised as a Chinese city. But Chang laid bare her affection for the intoxicated city and its residents:

Shanghai people are distilled from traditional Chinese people under the pressure of modern life; they are the product of a deformed mix of old and new culture. The result may not be healthy, but in it there is also a curious wisdom.

Rooted in its inception as an asylum haven, one aspect of this “curious wisdom” appears to be xenophilia. It is telling that, unlike xenophobia, this word is a modern coinage.

Modern Shanghai was soon more globalised than today’s European Union – no-one needed a passport, let alone a visa, to enter Shanghai. That some 20,000 Jewish refugees were embraced in Shanghai during the second world war was another example of the innate character of this modern metropolis.


Such magnanimous urbanity has arguably continued to this day. As the popular saying goes, Shanghai is the sea where all rivers run into it.The Conversation

Xing Ruan is director of architecture at UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.