Shalom Life | December 18, 2014

When Past and Present Collide

Reshaping the future of the historic Shanghai Ghetto

By: Erica Lyons

Published: November 30th, 2011 in Culture » Society » News

When Past and Present Collide

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.


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

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.

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