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东山小区 dong shan town

Around 5pm it’s impossible to get a taxi anywhere in town, and even if you do, it moves so slow it’s double the usual price. So much for multi-level motorways running through the streets. Last year I was in Dong Shan Kou and taxiless, took the motorbike taxi option for the first time. 100 000 dead every year in car crashes in China? What’s a helmet? But I didn’t expect the rider to head straight for the front door of an apartment block, go through into the courtyard, and then on through a bewildering spin of turns through alleys, fresh food markets, and lanes, coming out a spit from the Zhong Shan Interchange, about 5 minutes walk to my door. The magic motorbike riders, who know every shortcut in the city, like a good bicycle courier, they know a red light doesn’t mean stop, and ‘no entry’ only applies to cars.

So yesterday, having taken a good beating in class, and full of Japanese lunch, it was off to find this place, where every second building was glorious beach resort Art Deco and early modern. But the way in had gone, replaced by a school. So, wandering with Stone again, we headed as far east as the military walled town, and worked our way back, ending up a block from the Dong Shan Department Store. This was all once the area where rich Chinese merchants lived in gigantic mansions along gardened and tree-lined streets, the shops along the streets around Dong Shan kou being their local markets and businesses. Many of these houses are either empty or lived in by several families or migrant workers, and in serious disrepair. But the architecture and the opulence is still visible, and occasionally restored to their dazzling glory, and with the increasing number of foreigners permanently settling here, it wasn’t a surprise to see at least one obviously lived in by a non-Chinese. Further south, the streets are cut by canals, making this the closest thing I’ve seen to Amsterdam outside of Nederlans. More pictures, less words:

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liwan hutong

China is keeping me busy. I’m teaching contemporary dance at the Guangdong modern Dance Company School Yes, they have a school. I think. Or maybe not. There’s so many dance schools all in the same place it gets very confusing. Then I am teaching yoga at Yunna Studio, and also at Lotus Yoga, in both Tian He and Liwan. I don’t think I’ve done so many sun salutes every day in my whole life. Naturally I have the typical guailo dark rings under my eyes. They like to make me work hard. Sleep eat work eat sleep.

So yesterday, having the afternoon off, I jumped on the subway with Stone, and went all the way west to Liwan. This is the old part of town, and one of the shopping meccas of the universe. Like Tian He and underneath China Plaza this is one place worth living in Guangzhou for. And like Tian He, it’s not what’s in the malls that is so worth going there for, but in the streets, alleys, and apartments around and behind the monolithic shopping experience.

So, we were walking down one of the tree-lined streets , lined with the shop/apartments that have balconies overhanging the footpath, where the traffic is mostly buses, bicycle-utes and small motor-bike taxis or just plain walking, and the street is as good a place as any to walk, when I saw this alley with an astounding art-deco apartment entrance. The concrete lines and circular windows were showing their age, but this glimpse of the foyer could have come out of St Kilda, and so I discovered, with the wonderful guide of my friend Stone, (石头 shitou) the Liwan Hutong. Still lived in, and while being old and fragile looking, it’s clean and obviously well-loved by its Majong-playing inhabitants. Most of the pictures I took don’t have people in them, which belies the truth that the whole place is a bustling, lively, sprawling series of interconnected apartments, balconies, gardens, courtyards, alleys, and paths.

shanghai diaspora

A number of attempts to save the hutong in big cities from noddy-town toilet architecture developments, and to preserve something of the architectural and social history have been going on lately. One in the Shanghai suburb of Hongkou is trying to preserve the large Jewish presence that reached its height during the holocaust.

The first wave of refugees arrived in the 1920s, fleeing the Russian revolution. They settled in Harbin which was home to 20,000 refugees until the mid-1930s. There, the Chinese authorities have just restored two synagogues, a cemetery and a Jewish school and are planning the Harbin Museum for Jewish History and Culture.

“There was no other shelter open to the Jews. It was a unique situation. The Chinese not only let them in, they made them welcome,” Mr Maor said.

The next group came in the 1930s, fleeing from the Soviet invasion of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. Israel is still grateful to the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, who disobeyed Tokyo’s instructions and issued over 2,000 visas to Jews who until 1941 used them to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. From there they took a boat to Kobe, Japan, and then another to Shanghai.

Other refugees fled Germany, Austria and other countries as they came under the Nazi heel. The Chinese consul general in Vienna, Dr Feng Shan Ho, also ignored the Kuomintang’s orders and issued over 20,000 visas between 1938 and 1940.