Restoring Urban Memories

For any Shanghai resident or visitor interested in the ongoing development of the city, the Hongkou District, situated on the Huangpu River to the north of the Bund and directly opposite the most spectacular skyscrapers in Pudong, is an area of particular fascination. Despite its proximity to many of the city's most dramatic landmarks - both traditional and contemporary - the tide of urban renovation seems to have largely bypassed this relatively unassuming neighbourhood, leaving it as something of a backwater. Yet it was the fascinating past of the Hongkou District, rather than its dazzling future, that first brought Ian Leventhal to the area in the spring of 2001, along with his wife Renee.

The Canadian couple were visiting Shanghai on a sightseeing holiday, and had a particular interest in the city's Jewish heritage. "With directions to the Ohel Moishe Synagogue scratched onto a piece of paper, my wife and I jumped in to a cab and headed for the Hongkou district of Shanghai." Leventhal's initial impression of the North Bund was of: "A virtual time capsule of decaying tenements, crumbling Victorian style brownstones and small stores. In the centre of all this proudly stands the Ohel Moishe Synagogue (now called the Refugee Memorial Hall). "Set back from the hectic swirl of Changyang Lu you enter the building through a majestic iron gate. Immediately as you move through the sanctuary door, you are overcome by an eerie stillness ... a place time forgot."

 It was at this site that Leventhal met Wang Liang, whom he describes as "the Museum's most important feature". Now 83 years old, Wang grew up in the district and experienced its history directly. Today he works at the Memorial Hall, introducing visitors to the site and its significance, his personal reminiscences enriched by diligent study of the Jewish Diaspora in China. In the early decades of the 20th century, when Shanghai was recognized as one of the great international centres of the global economy, one of the many cultural groups that flourished there were the Jews, who had come to the city from all over the world. First were the Jews of Baghdad, wealthy families like the Sassoons and Kadoories who left a splendid architectural heritage, including some of the finest colonial buildings in the city - among them the Peace Hotel and the Children's Palace. Next came a wave of refugees from the Bolshevik revolution, and finally there was the wave of refugees from Nazism who found shelter in Shanghai, one of the only ports in the world which did not require an entry visa. At the peak of this influx, Shanghai was home to tens of thousands of Jews. 

This community participated significantly in the vibrant cultural life of the city. In the Jewish area of Hongkou, where the European refugees from Nazism were concentrated, one could find Jewish newspapers, Yiddish theatre, violin concerts, European coffee shops, dance clubs and sports activities. During the Japanese occupation of the city, Shanghai's Jews were strictly ghettoized in the few blocks surrounding the old Hongkou synagogue. For both Chinese and Jews the period of Japanese occupation was a harrowing time, and Wang vividly recalled the feeling of mutual sympathy between the two groups that their shared tribulations provoked. According to Leventhal, "Mr Wang made the history of the former Ghetto leap out of the past with gripping clarity. I came away from our encounter charged with purpose. Filled with passion and resolve I would help Mr Wang tell his story to a new generation."

 Having returned home, yet still feeling inspired - even "electrified" - by his visit, Leventhal decided to organize an art exhibition on the theme of Sino-Jewish ties. The exhibition was to be called "The Gift of Friendship" and was conceived as "a gift from the Canadian Jewish and Chinese Community, to commemorate the safe haven Shanghai offered to the Jews during the war years." Together with his friend, Harriet Morton, Leventhal found "33 artists willing to donate their visions to the gift of friendship. Two thirds of the artists were of Jewish backgrounds, one was actually born in China. The other third were of Chinese ancestry but were now living in Canada." Canadian Governor-General, Adrienne Clarkson agreed to became the exhibition's honourary Patron. The show opened on May 6, 2002 at the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto, drawing a crowd of over 700 rather than the 200 anticipated. It was, Leventhal said, "successful beyond our wildest dreams".

The next stage was perhaps even more significant, shipping the show to China and its permanent home at the Refugee Memorial Hall in Shanghai. To assist with this process Leventhal turned to a friend from Toronto, Tom Rado, who became a solid partner in the ongoing endeavour. On October 23, 2002 the Gift of Friendship opened in an specially renovated section of the old synagogue, in a outbuilding that used to be a "matzah" factory, making the unleavened bread consumed during the Jewish holiday of Passover, but now restored and renamed the "Art Exhibition Hall". Later in the same month, the two Canadians had the opportunity to talk to Hongkou District government officials at a lunch to celebrate the opening of the show. A senior Hongkou District official, Madame Yao, presided. It was at this occasion that they began to learn about the ambitious redevelopment plans being explored for the Hongkou district.

 Leventhal's involvement with Jewish Shanghai was only just beginning. During the winter, and into the spring of 2003, Leventhal and Rado deepened their collaboration with the Hongkou District government, working on a concept for restoring the old Jewish Ghetto in keeping with the overall development plan for the area. The initial idea, Leventhal said, was to create a "mixed-use community, with emphasis on restoring heritage structures and sensitivity to the special qualities of the historical backdrop". To pursue this goal, Leventhal and Rado formed a company called Living Bridge dedicated to combining the modern urban renewal of the area with a "Jewish heritage component".

 By the summer they had formulated a block by block comprehensive overview, specifying which buildings would be restored, paying particular attention to green space and traffic flow. The plan envisioned "a lively neighbourhood encompassing old architectural gems, a new Jewish Museum, refurbished concert and venue hall in the old art deco theatre and an expanded Ho Shan park (currently the site of a memorial to the Jewish Ghetto Community)".

 Leventhal and Rado assembled an impressive array of financial partners, including major Canadian banks to support the project. In September last year, a delegation from the Hongkou District government came to visit Living Bridge in Toronto, where they were introduced to the Canadian team of advisors and legal counsel. This meeting obviously went well, because in December, the two Canadians returned to Shanghai to attend a forum on the future of the district, involving local experts and government officials. A public announcement was made for the first time that Living Bridge organizers would be working together with the Hongkou government to "advance plans for the protected redevelopment" of the area.

The various components of the project - shops, restaurants, museums, galleries - are scheduled for completion in phases, with the core areas to be completed by 2008 (in time for the Beijing Olympics) and the balance for 2010 (in time for the Shanghai World Expo). If Leventhal and Rado succeed in their plans, the future development of the city will also be a celebration of its rich and colourful multi-cultural past.