Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Shikumen Open House Museum Tour: a Shanghai heritage simulation

The Shikumen Museum is a small-scale museum in Shanghai's Xintiandi district that is both housed inside and shows the typical life of a shikumen style of house. These predominantly three-storey houses were popular constructions in the city during the 19th and 20th centuries, though many have since become dilapidated or been replaced with high-rise. You enter the museum through a gift store which seemed to be mostly full of brightly coloured Karl Lagerfeld nik-nacs: busts with oversized heads, handbags and, of course, sunglasses. The shop had no obvious relationship to the museum other than this is where the reasonably priced tickets are bought. 20 RMB will not buy you very much in Xintiandi, this is an area where a coffee can set you back as much as 58 RMB, but it will get you into the museum and, if you come at the right time, onto their guided tour, too.

There is the expression in English, 'too many cooks spoil the broth' and there really should also be the expression, 'too many guides spoil the tour'. I guess we only have the former because people care a lot more about soup than guided tours, but the two of them are equally true. Tours given by two guides almost always suffer when each guide tries to take it in different directions but here the problem was something different again: neither guide really wanted to take the tour in any sort of direction at all. Perhaps in having two of them guiding us around, it offered them safety in numbers. This quite possibly held them back: if either of them were giving the tour by themselves they'd have known they'd had to up their game. As it was, we coasted through. Both of them were volunteers, possibly students, and they gave the impression of not really knowing very much about the place: the young man carried the tour's script rolled up in his hand. Because they basically knew only what was written down for them, they were unable to answer questions with any authority. They were, in effect, a living breathing version of the audio tour.

On the wall of the ground floor living room hung this wedding photo of the previous owners of the building, or so I was told. I took a picture of it and was immediately told by the male guide that it is bad luck to take the picture of a picture of people who have passed away. This was a rare and welcome moment of him going off-script and speaking as himself. I'd never heard of this belief before but one of the others in the group did seem familiar with it so it must come from somewhere. For me, it made me immediately think of the The Ring, the Japanese horror movie about a death curse linked to the reproduction and viewing of a video. So far, I seem to have got away with taking this picture, I have not been attacked by an undead bride with long black hair draped over her face. But who knows? Maybe this Benjamin-esque curse skips one level of mechanical reproduction and is now activated by the internet, a threat to all you readers of this blog. Beware!

We cruised around the museum. When I asked if all the objects were original the guide told me that some had been taken from other houses in the area. What we were looking at was, then, an assortment of objects displayed to appear as if they were the possessions of the family who lived in the building. Here in the master bedroom I asked myself how the curatorial process of accumulating, selecting and presenting the objects changed the look and feel of the space from how it would have appeared a century ago. One thing immediately stuck me as I stood here and gazed around: everything was so neat. In a genuinely lived in house there is almost always clutter. When I mentioned this to one of the guides, he retorted, "it's just a museum." 

We next came to the son's room. Looking at the framed photograph of the young boy, placed at the back of the table, I asked myself who this model boy might have been and wondered why he would have put a picture of himself on his writing desk. Was he a deeply narcissistic or nostalgic young man? The more closely I looked at this boy's things, the more my faith in his veracity was thrown into doubt. Did the ghost family in the photograph ever even have a son or was he and his possessions also something that was picked up from the assorted odds and ends discovered in the other houses? Seeing as this was "just a museum" everything was now floating in the half-light of representation. What was this construction trying to show me? Did this style of shikumen life ever exist?

Arriving at the top floor, we crossed over into a gallery space. Here all pretence of these being traditional buildings was dropped. The two guides left us to make our own way around the exhibition since there was signage next to the exhibits and there were videos that explained all things shikumen, too. The gallery was one of those that documented and presented that which it had replaced, making it into an acceptable object of nostalgia. The actual shikumen that still stand, however, as they usually house poorer residents, are far less likely to invoke such feelings.

I made my way downstairs, through the bling of the gift-shop and stepped outside onto the street. Looking at the museum from the side it became clearer that this is all reconstituted heritage. Most of the buildings on the block were torn down, some redesigning took place to make them suitable as shops, they were then rebuilt using modern materials and a choice selection of original architectural details were put back in place to lend their authenticity. This style of redevelopment is rather new to China where the wholesale obliteration of neighbourhoods followed by the construction of giant malls has been the model. This is, then, a specifically Chinese style of postmodernity where this new cleaned up image of the shikumen has come to displace the old one. This embrace of the simulation has been driven by consumerism and tourism. Tourists come here for the shopping and dining and they come here to take endless selfies in front of the fountains, reconstructed shikumen buildings and shops. With the poor moved on, the buildings cleaned up and luxury brands plastered in every window, this now represents a past worth remembering. The question that remains unclear to me is to what extent the idea of these buildings being heritage is able to spread beyond Xintiandi. Does Xintiandi kick start a popular reevaluation of the urban landscape of Shanghai or, is it simply a high-end shopping mall and tourist destination with seriously over-priced coffee?

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