When Past and Present Collide: Reshaping the Future of the Historic Shanghai Ghetto

Site of the former JDC office

by Erica Lyons

Seemingly there is a real tension in Shanghai’s Tilanqiao district. The tension is between competing interests: historic significance versus a rapidly growing urban population (in need of housing and basic communal amenities) versus businesses looking to expand and cash in on the plethora of potential opportunities. At the center of the debate over land use and redevelopment lies the fate of what was once the Shanghai Jewish Ghetto.

But Shanghai is a city where the tension between sharp contrasts defines its beauty, where old and new clash to create something entirely one-of-a-kind, something wholly Shanghai. Urban growth is often dramatic and the only certainty often is rapid change. While much of Tilanqiao is rundown and ramshackle, its notable features include Ohel Moishe Synagogue, Tilanqiao Prison, Xiahai Temple, Wayside Park (today’s Huoshan Park), the former site of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Settlement in Ward Road (today’s Changyang Road) and the Mascot Roof Garden. The Ohel Moishe Synagogue, established in 1907, already recently underwent its own massive renovation and was re-opened to the public in 2008. It now serves as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and is a true monument to the friendship between the Jews and the Chinese who called Hongkou home.

A collaborative project launched in October 2010 is now well underway to develop a conservation plan for the former ghetto, within the context and reality of Shanghai’s rapid urban development. The participating students from Tel Aviv University and from Shanghai’s Tongji Urban Planning and Design Institute of Tongji University will soon present their proposed designs at a joint forum in Shanghai in October 2011. At the forum, their projects will be presented to the local government as well as to the general public.

At their heart, the students’ designs reflect the understanding of the historic significance of the former Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai. While urban renewal can sometimes result in the demolition and destruction of entire neighborhoods and a burying of the past, the proposed designs reflect a real sensitivity to the historical significance of the ghetto. But what really is the value of the memory of approximately 30,000 Jews who left the city sixty years ago, after inhabiting the ghetto for a period of time that spanned no more than 16 years, in a country of one billion with a history that spans from ancient times to the present? Well, as the popularity of the former ghetto as a tourist attraction continues to grow, there is a real economic value that is perhaps easier to quantify than the value of sentiment, but the importance of this area in the collective memory of the Chinese of Hongkou and the former Jewish residents who lived among them can’t be dismissed.

Street view of the former Jewish Ghetto area

This ghetto was not like the infamous ghettos of Europe where Jews were rounded up and forced to live in squalid conditions only to await transport to death camps. The Shanghai Ghetto, though conditions were certainly far from ideal, was a safe haven that saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews with literally nowhere else in the world to go to escape the horrors of Europe. Shanghai was the last open port and its established Jewish community mobilized to meet the needs of their brethren as the already crowded city, hit by wartime shortages and serious deprivations, swelled overnight. The Jewish refugees lived side-by-side with their Chinese neighbors and together they weathered the harsh realities of life in a war-ravaged city and Japanese occupation. It is a story of true friendship and cooperation between two peoples even in the most adverse of conditions.

There is an incredible sense of responsibility on the part of the collaborative team and its visionary leaders that include Dr. Wang Jun, Architect, Chief Researcher at Shanghai’s Tongji Urban Planning and Design Institute, Tongji University and Professor Moshe Margalith, Architect, UNESCO Chair on Modern Heritage and Head of the Tel Aviv Institute for Study and Research of Architecture, Tel Aviv University. Ultimately, the upcoming October forum to be held in Shanghai anticipates the official foundation of the Sino Jewish Innovation Center in Shanghai that will promote the continuation of the cooperation between the Chinese and Jewish people. The Institute will lead with the theme “learning from the past looking forward to the future” and will present the continuous and unique role of Shanghai as a multi-cultural city, a center where dialogue and understanding between diverse peoples is evident.

The founders of the Sino Jewish Innovation Center also hope to encourage the responsible conservation of the entire area. A “mixed use” environment is envisioned consisting of residential, business, tourism and commerce. This “mixed use” concept actually mirrors the world of the former Jewish ghetto. According to Hila Sofrin, one of the students participating in the project from the Tel Aviv University team, “This notion existed very much so in the days of the Jewish Ghetto. The Jews brought with them the cafes from Austria and many other institutes of education and culture.”

From the students' designs (clockwise) by Hila Sofrin, Adi Mor, Adi Mor, Adi Mor

The titles of the Tel Aviv University students’ work alone speak to the complexity of the task at hand, “Slated for Demolition” by Adi Mor, “Small touch big difference” by Oded Narkis, “MiroShanghai” by Erez Gross & Dori Sadan, and “redefining 0.00+” by Hila Sofrin. In their briefs they discuss the competing forces at work and the delicate balances between modernity and history, technology and authenticity, and Chinese and European influences that the ultimate design will need to encompass. In the true spirit of multi-cultural cooperation and sensitivity, the Tel Aviv student team indicated that, “the Chinese propositions tried to embed Jewish aspects into their projects and the Israeli propositions tried to embed the Chinese spirit into their projects.” Each project raises different questions regarding conservation, modernity, community and urbanism but all reflect common ground and unified visions achieved through the yearlong multi-disciplinary research of the area’s historic and contemporary populations. This research broadened the Chinese and Israeli teams’ understanding that the redevelopment of Tilanqiao is not just about places but is about people, their culture, values and heritage.

Together the World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for the Asia and the Pacific Region (WHITRAP), Tangji University, Tel Aviv University and the Zalman Shazar Center will jointly study all the proposals for the conservation plan. Throughout 2012, the joint cooperative will move forward with the formulation of strategic planning for the Ghetto’s conservation and the foundation of the Sino Jewish Innovation Center in the former ghetto area. By the end of 2012, an exhibition of the Ghetto’s past and future will feature in Beit Hatfutsot, the Diaspora Museum on the campus of Tel Aviv University.

Proposed designs by Oded Narkis

Ultimately a development plan will be created that will aim to blend the modern, urban landscape with the historical and the East with the West and will combine elements of all the proposed designs. Whereas previous proposals for the redevelopment of the area have not gone forward, Ms. Sofrin reflects the collaborative teams’ view that, “cooperation of Jews and Chinese might just be the solution.”

In spite of the project’s noticeable achievements, the financing is rather difficult. Contributions to this project should be extended to the order of: Tel Aviv University, Prof. Moshe Margalith, Head Tel Aviv Institute, Shanghai Ghetto Project. Please email mm@margalith-arch.com for details.

Erica Lyons is Founder/Editor-in-Chief, Asian Jewish Life.
Copyright Asian Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.