When Past and Present Collide: Reshaping the future of the historic Shanghai Ghetto


Cover Story
When Past and Present Collide
Reshaping the future of the historic Shanghai Ghetto
by Erica Lyons


Site of the former JDC office
Site of the former JDC office
Street view of the former Jewish Ghetto areal
Street view of the former Jewish Ghetto areal

Seemingly there is a real tension in Shanghai’s Tilanqiao district. The tension is between competing interests: historic significance versusa rapidly growing urban population (in need ofhousing and basic communal amenities) versus businesses looking to expand and cash in on the plethora ofpotential opportunities. At the center of the debate over landuse and redevelopment lies the fate of what was once theShanghai Jewish Ghetto.

But Shanghai is a city where the tension between sharpcontrasts defines its beauty, where old and new clash to createsomething entirely one-of-a-kind, something wholly Shanghai.Urban growth is often dramatic and the only certaintyoften is rapid change. While much of Tilanqiao is rundownand ramshackle, its notable features include Ohel MoisheSynagogue, Tilanqiao Prison, Xiahai Temple, Wayside Park(today’s Huoshan Park), the former site of the American JewishJoint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Settlement inWard Road (today’s Changyang Road) and the Mascot RoofGarden. The Ohel Moishe Synagogue, established in 1907,already recently underwent its own massive renovation andwas re-opened to the public in 2008. It now serves as theShanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and is a true monumentto the friendship between the Jews and the Chinese whocalled Hongkou home.

A collaborative project launched in October 2010 is nowwell underway to develop a conservation plan for the formerghetto, within the context and reality of Shanghai’s rapidurban development. The participating students from Tel AvivUniversity and from Shanghai’s Tongji Urban Planning andDesign Institute of Tongji University will soon present theirproposed designs at a joint forum in Shanghai in October2011. At the forum, their projects will be presented to the localgovernment as well as to the general public.

At their heart, the students’ designs reflect the understandingof the historic significance of the former Jewish Ghetto inShanghai. While urban renewal can sometimes result in the demolition and destruction of entire neighborhoods anda burying of the past, the proposed designs reflect a realsensitivity to the historical significance of the ghetto. But whatreally is the value of the memory of approximately 30,000 Jewswho left the city sixty years ago, after inhabiting the ghettofor a period of time that spanned no more than 16 years, in acountry of one billion with a history that spans from ancienttimes to the present? Well, as the popularity of the formerghetto as a tourist attraction continues to grow, there is areal economic value that is perhaps easier to quantify thanthe value of sentiment, but the importance of this area in thecollective memory of the Chinese of Hongkou and the formerJewish residents who lived among them can’t be dismissed.

This ghetto was not like the infamous ghettos of Europe whereJews were rounded up and forced to live in squalid conditionsonly to await transport to death camps. The Shanghai Ghetto,though conditions were certainly far from ideal, was a safehaven that saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jewswith literally nowhere else in the world to go to escape thehorrors of Europe. Shanghai was the last open port and itsestablished Jewish community mobilized to meet the needsof their brethren as the already crowded city, hit by wartimeshortages and serious deprivations, swelled overnight.The Jewish refugees lived side-by-side with their Chineseneighbors and together they weathered the harsh realities oflife in a war-ravaged city and Japanese occupation. It is a storyof true friendship and cooperation between two peoples evenin the most adverse of conditions.

There is an incredible sense of responsibility on the part ofthe collaborative team and its visionary leaders that includeDr. Wang Jun, Architect, Chief Researcher at Shanghai’sTongji Urban Planning and Design Institute, Tongji Universityand Professor Moshe Margalith, Architect, UNESCO Chair onModern Heritage and Head of the Tel Aviv Institute for Studyand Research of Architecture, Tel Aviv University. Ultimately,the upcoming October forum to be held in Shanghai anticipatesthe official foundation of the Sino Jewish Innovation Center inShanghai that will promote the continuation of the cooperation between the Chinese and Jewish people. The Institute willlead with the theme “learning from the past looking forward tothe future” and will present the continuous and unique role ofShanghai as a multi-cultural city, a center where dialogue andunderstanding between diverse peoples is evident.

The founders of the Sino Jewish Innovation Center also hopeto encourage the responsible conservation of the entirearea. A “mixed use” environment is envisioned consisting ofresidential, business, tourism and commerce. This “mixed use”concept actually mirrors the world of the former Jewish ghetto.According to Hila Sofrin, one of the students participating inthe project from the Tel Aviv University team, “This notionexisted very much so in the days of the Jewish Ghetto. TheJews brought with them the cafes from Austria and many otherinstitutes of education and culture.”


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

The titles of the Tel Aviv University students’ work alone speakto the complexity of the task at hand, “Slated for Demolition”by Adi Mor, “Small touch big difference” by Oded Narkis,”MiroShanghai” by Erez Gross & Dori Sadan, and “redefining0.00+” by Hila Sofrin. In their briefs they discuss the competingforces at work and the delicate balances between modernityand history, technology and authenticity, and Chinese andEuropean influences that the ultimate design will need toencompass. In the true spirit of multi-cultural cooperationand sensitivity, the Tel Aviv student team indicated that, “theChinese propositions tried to embed Jewish aspects intotheir projects and the Israeli propositions tried to embed theChinese spirit into their projects.” Each project raises differentquestions regarding conservation, modernity, community andurbanism but all reflect common ground and unified visionsachieved through the yearlong multi-disciplinary research of thearea’s historic and contemporary populations. This researchbroadened the Chinese and Israeli teams’ understanding thatthe redevelopment of Tilanqiao is not just about places but isabout people, their culture, values and heritage.

Together the World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for the Asia and the Pacific Region (WHITRAP), Tangji University, Tel Aviv University and the Zalman Shazar Center will jointly study all the proposals for the conservation plan. Throughout 2012, the joint cooperative will move forward with the formulation of strategic planning for the Ghetto’s conservation and the foundation of the Sino Jewish Innovation Center in the former ghetto area. By the end of 2012, an exhibition of the Ghetto’s past and future will feature in Beit Hatfutsot, the Diaspora Museum on the campus of Tel Aviv University.

Proposed designs by Oded Narkis
Proposed designs by Oded Narkis

Ultimately a development plan will be created that will aim to blend the modern, urban landscape with the historical and the East with the West and will combine elements of all the proposed designs. Whereas previous proposals for the redevelopment of the area have not gone forward, Ms. Sofrin reflects the collaborative teams’ view that, “cooperation of Jews and Chinese might just be the solution.”

In spite of the project’s noticeable achievements, thefinancing is rather difficult. Contributions to this projectshould be extended to the order of: Tel Aviv University,Prof. Moshe Margalith, Head Tel Aviv Institute, ShanghaiGhetto Project. Please email mm@margalith-arch.com for details.

Street view of the former Jewish Ghetto areal