Granny Above the Bell, the Price of Gentrification

Shanghai Snippets

One of Tianzifang’s many alleyways

“Happy birthday to you, happy bir — ,” and as if someone had flicked a switch, we were plunged into darkness. Illuminating her cherubic face in the glow of a flashlight, the owner of the tiny bar, Amay, smiled mischievously, and said, “I’ll handle this.” Sliding behind one of the sofas, she slipped out the backdoor. From a door window we could see Amay’s head gently nodding as an animated discussion quickly ensued from the other side. After a minute, the lights popped back on, and Ray Charles once again filled the room. “Apologies, the granny above the Bell wants us to keep it down. A round of drinks on the house!”

“She is saying enough is enough. Its time to respect the granny above the Bell.”

Within a watering hole half hidden at the dark end of a narrow alley, the celebratory song was eventually finished and the ‘Granny Above the Bell’ was quickly forgotten. Merriment, and the accompanying noise, in particular my own booming voice, followed. The clock striking eleven, darkness and silence once again befell the Bell. As our eyes adjusted, Amay said, “Look at the backdoor.” Through the glass, the ‘Granny Above the Bell’ was silhouette against the exterior’s single, dying light bulb. A broom held tight, she was ready for war. Short and sturdy, while her eyes were unseen, the wraith they emit were easily felt. “That’s the tenant who lives above the Bell. She is saying enough is enough. Its time to respect the granny above the Bell.” We finished heavily poured drinks in quiet respect for the elderly woman who continued to watch from the other side of the glass, candles now flickering around us.

The old woman had a point, enough was enough. But, perhaps she wasn’t just speaking for herself, and as Bob Dylan once sang, “The times, they are changing.”

Map of Tianzifang

That was 2008, and the tail end of a scorching summer. Bell Bar was one of the first bars to call Shanghai’s funky, bohemian-esque Tianzifang home. It had occupied a single floor, nothing but the standard bar, assorted libations aglow at the back, a few stools and a small room to lounge. The Granny above the Bell had moved out a year later. The Bell Bar took over her apartment upstairs. A single floor bar gradually became four. A whacky collection of varying ceiling heights and wicked twists and turns — a peculiar layout reflecting the property’s metamorphic past. It was complete with winding, creaky wooden staircases, tiny ladders to hidden nooks and crannies, and even a book exchange tucked away in the attic. The eclectic mix of design and style could lend itself to an Alice in Wonderland storyline, one where the Mad Hatter sups tea from a Victoria sofa to the Caterpillar and his smoking hooka, wrapped cooly around a pile of bean bag chairs. Every following visit brought forth a new discovery. The old granny’s spirit lingered. A part of her soul clung to its interior. Amay wanted it so. As did we. But, were they mere wisps and vapors of a life once lived, simply projected by its newest occupants, a facade and nothing more?

Older residents pedaling by

Where did the Granny Above the Bell go? I do not know, but I’ve been told, like others aging residents, she received financial compensation and is living in modernity. BUT, how much did she give up — a connection to what she knew, a slow-paced society held tight by neighborly friendship, its walled passageways separating it from the unfamilar advances beyond? She may have grown up in that tiny home, a collection of memories that would cloud with age. But does nostalgia trump creature comforts? The young had long ago moved away. Those in better financial positions did the same. The aging population of Tianzifang that remained were without plumbing. Which meant your most private of private moments became unpleasantly rather public.

“To you foreigners, these old lane houses are quaint, lovely places worth living in. But, let me ask you, ever crap in a bucket?”

A Shanghainese coworker once summed it up well. “To you foreigners, these old lane houses are quaint, lovely places worth living in. But, let me ask you, ever crap in a bucket? Well, if you haven’t, give it a try sometime, dumping its contents out alongside a neighbor you don’t want to know. You may just see why many of us are happy for a touch of modernity.”

Man and his chamber pot (alamy stock photo)

Pushing for and pulling against, these two forces are the yin and yang of gentrification. One side argues for an upgraded future. The other wants to retain the added respectability. What was once affordable, becomes inaccessible. Unique and historic is replaced by sterile, but easily consumed. Drafty, electrically-frayed antiques, it is often deemed easier to bulldoze than it is to upgrade and retrofit. Birds chirping from their hanging cages, laundry drying from bamboo poles are replaced by trendy, mass-produced kitsch and overly bright cafes. Charm is replaced by copied. But change is natural, and isn’t inheriantly wrong. There are those who move in, adding a unique cultural touch, once again altering, and hopefully for the best, Tianzifang’s landscape. Others attempt to reintroduce cultural pasts such as ear cleaning and cupping. A steadfast few residents remain in place. With one eye on the past, a steelier eye watches those who encroach on what they fear will be reclaimed, while giving a reluctant nod to those that are putting their best efforts forward.

Ear cleaning, past and present

As much as an individual, a place and the walls that define them have a story to tell.

Rare pockets of the world are able to retain their storied pasts in both text, mortar, and brick, where history is recorded in not just its hollowed walls, but through the occupants who reside there, both past and present. As much as an individual, a place and the walls that define them have a story to tell. If only it can be preserved, and just importantly, its tale shared and listened to.

Tools for cupping and an ‘ancient ear’

As the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, a self-prophesied “brother of Jesus Christ”, and his Heavenly Kingdom soldiers neared Shanghai’s borders, various foreign concessions began to build, with defense in mind. Chinese fleeing the murderous army and wealthy Shanghainese alike took shelter in the easily defendable Shikumen (stone gateway) structures and the narrow lanes hidden within. While built decades after the bloody, but failed coup was put to rest, Tianzifang utilized the same architectural design, combining both Chinese and western elements. First as a residential neighborhood in the 1930’s, the compact, twisting maze of alleyways transformed further into a collection of “the People’s” mini-textile factories and workshops during the collectivist fifties and sixties. Rooms were refurbished to fit that decade’s occupant: well-off residential to industrial and its crammed-in residents living above tiny workshops. Walls knocked down, then repartitioned, additional floors and staircases were added with little rhyme or reason. Secreted within the former French Concession, the small community, no more than a single-block radius, shop-front plaques once again underwent a metamorphosis as cafes, art galleries, restaurants and bars moved in and the locals moved out.

Tianzifang, a half a decade ago

“Progress is not possible while clinging to old ideas,”

Following the often roughshod footsteps of an ancient Chinese notion, “Progress is not possible while clinging to old ideas,” ancient structures have been scrubbed from history. With yet another inevitable makeover, one more member of the local gentry is swept away in the name of modernity. By the same token, it prevents the area from baring the ill-fated mark of 拆, or chai, ‘demolish’, which is often hastily spray-painted onto a wall’s surface, destined for the wrecking ball. Her sacrifice ensured the structure would remain.

For every drink poured in the tiny, multi-tiered nook of a drinking hole, perhaps a tiny bell should be rung in memory of the Granny Above the Bell.

Back when the Granny above the Bell wasn’t a granny?

An American half-pat “half foreign, half domestic” writer living in Shanghai, China, who tries to say how it is with a side of whimsical to keep it light.

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