The times they are a-changing, the man sang, long ago. So long ago, that it seems as if it is ancient history now.
Well, the Shikumen may disappear as well, unless they are resurrected in some fashion, the way that they have been in the Xintiandi. The Xintiandi, as we know, is a well known watering hole.
The Shikumen that I visited do not resemble anything like the Shikumen in the Xintiandi. They are very beautiful, no doubt, and add to the charm of the city. As I mentioned, they combine elements of Chinese and Western architecture. They do have the central areas that allow for a good degree of socialising, and it is this element of socialising that does make a society what it is. It allows, in it's own way, for the exchange of family news, of gossip, of ideas. It builds friendships, and support systems. Jealousies as well, no doubt, and conflict as well.
Yet, in allowing the space for social interaction, it allows time to slow down a bit, and allows us the space to laugh and to appreciate some of the small things in life.
In Bengal, there is a great tradition of art, music, and street drama. The courtyards in the local communities allow time for the evening dramas to take place. As a result, there is an explosion of artistic and musical tradition in Bengal. Some of the old Chinese dramas and musical traditions, no doubt, benefited from such social interaction.
My old boss, one day, while waxing eloquent on the great diversity in Shanghai, and the mix of the old and the new, told me rather grandly that it would be a sad day in hell when Shanghai loses this. He is correct, in part.
Yes, this mix does give Shanghai much of its charm, however, I would not choose to live in the dark and dank spaces that exist inside the Shikumen quarters. The people told me that they had been offered money to move to shiny, new apartments. These would, no doubt, provide them with much better living quarters than they have today. They would move to faceless apartment blocks, and lose their social interaction with their neighbours in the process.
Life would become an endless surge of entries on Facebook and Twitter. But, it would be comfortable.
So, what is the answer?
To leave the Shikumen as they are?
To move people to faceless apartment blocks that rob them of their social interaction, apartment blocks that would rob the city of it's charm?
Or, to renovate the Shikumen, to allow the city to retain its charm, yet in a manner that would help people maintain their social interaction with their neighbours?
The times are changing. I hope that they change for the better. Change is inevitable. It always has been.
And now, it is time for me to cycle out of Shanghai, and on to Beijing.