THE crowd started to gather as soon as Li Yafeng and his friend Zhang Zhuowei dragged a huge plastic sheet and tried to pin it on the door of a partly destroyed shop.
The store — its three sides already torn down — stood next to a gate of traditional shikumen (stone-gated) houses in the Jing Yun Li residential block.
As the crowd watched, Li and Zhang sprayed white paint over the sheet. A little while later, they pulled the sheet away to reveal an image.
“Isn’t that Lu Xun?” someone muttered from the crowd. It was — and others nodded in agreement.
Among them was Cheng Shaochan, a local historian and columnist, and part of the “51 Personae” project at the 11th Shanghai Biennale, entitled “Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter-arguments, and Stories.”
The “51 Personae” project, which took off in November last year, involves the presentation of 51 performances — based on 51 real life scenarios and incidents — across Shanghai.
Li and Zhang, both art students, are part of Cheng’s team, and were highlighting the fact that celebrated names such as Lu Xun, China’s best-known writer, lived in the neighborhood that is now earmarked for renovation.
Built in 1925, Jing Yun Li covers an area of 1,650 square meters and houses three rows of traditional shikumen houses — 32 households in total. Each house is three stories high, featuring black-painted doors with brass rings and granite door frame. Each house’s main room has four to six French windows. The kitchen is accessed from the back, and the top floor opens to a spacious deck for drying clothes.
Currently, the two rows of the former celebrities’ residences in Jing Yun Li remain intact. The front row has been more or less demolished.
Cheng still lives here and that day’s special activity is her “story” of a historic locality.
Born in the 1950s to a well-educated family, Cheng was raised in Shanghai. Her mother was an architect and her father worked at the court. After graduating from Tongji University, she worked as a clerk at the Shanghai Statistics Bureau before taking up a teaching job at a banking school affiliated to the People’s Bank of China. She moved to the United States in 1996.
After her parents passed away in the late 1990s, Cheng bought a three-story shikumen house in Jing Yun Li on Hengbang Road in Hongkou District.
“It was 1998. I looked at several houses and had done my research. When I discovered Jing Yun Li and found that many well-known authors of the 1920s, including Mao Dun, Ye Shengtao, Lu Xun and Rou Shi, used to live there, I paid the deposit immediately,” says Cheng.
At the time of Japanese occupation, the neighborhood was jammed between the international and the Japanese settlements. Cheap rents and easy transportation to and from the Commercial Press — the city’s first modern publishing organization — had made it a popular locality for Chinese writers, according to Xue Liyong, a member of the city’s Committee of Historical and Cultural Area Protection.
In October 1927, Lu Xun and his wife Xu Guangping moved to No. 23, Lane 35 Hengbang Road and lived there for three and half years. Their eldest son Zhou Haiying was born here in 1929.
In March 1930, the League of Left-Wing Writers, commonly known as the Left League, was set up at the insistence of the Chinese Communist Party and the influence of Lu. It soon became influential in Chinese cultural circles, and attracted many young revolutionaries in Shanghai.
Sometime later, prominent writer Rou Shi, a member of the New Cultural Movement, moved to Jing Yun Li, drawing even more closer to Lu.
Along with Lu and a few others, Rou founded the Morning Flower Society, which published several progressive journals. He later succeeded Lu as editor of the literary journal Yu Si and wrote a collection of short stories. He was among the earliest to translate Maxim Gorky’s works.
On January 17, 1931, Rou and some others were arrested by the British police while attending a secret Communist Party meeting at the Oriental Hotel.
Weeks later, five members of the league — Li Weisen, Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Yin Fu and Feng Keng — were executed along with 19 other patriots in Longhua.
“This year marks the 86th death anniversary of Rou Shi and his friends,” says Cheng. “I am not sure how many here remember them and what they died for.”
Cheng is doing her bit to revive their memories. She took Jing Yun Li residents and few outsiders to show them the history of the locality in the hope of saving the neighborhood from wrecker’s ball. She even got woodblock artist Zhao Yannian to illustrate works from Lu’s book “A Madman’s Daily,” which were then sprayed on the dilapidated walls of the community.
According to Knews, Jing Yun Li was listed as the “No. 1 Celebrity Lane” of Shanghai. That meant residents would need to move out to preserve the area for cultural significance, according to Zhao Siqi, a spokesman for the land planning department of Hongkou District.
But Cheng is bent on defying that. She thinks the government really needs to reconsider the decision (of asking residents to move out), because “as common people, we too can take part in activities such as heritage protection,” she says.