Published: Book review

My review of Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Lives by Jie Lie

A palimpsest is an old manuscript on which the original writing has been erased and replaced with new writing. It is an apt metaphor for the two traditional Shanghai alleyway homes featured in this book. These houses, built in 1915 and 1927 by Japanese and British companies respectively, served as the homes of individuals and families, collecting within them “the secret passions and disenchanted squalor of several generations”.

In Shanghai Homes, Jie Li offers a familial ethnography that is juxtaposed to Shanghai’s and China’s broader historical milestones, roughly from the 1910s to the 2010s. This period covers the Sino-Japanese War, the Communist Liberation, the Cultural Revolution, and China’s market reform. During this time, Shanghai evolved from “a semicolonial treaty port to a socialist industrial center to a global metropolis”.

In recent years, many Shanghai alleyway homes have been subject to demolition and urban renewal, while their existing residents are facing displacement and relocation from their family homes. With the older generation passing on with old age, and the younger generation living and growing up in new apartment housing, Li’s book is thus an important record of microhistories that would otherwise have been lost or silenced in a rapidly changing Shanghai.

Li seeks in this detailed look into two Shanghai alleyway homes to learn about the lives of the people who lived there. The book focuses on three dimensions of private life: the home as a haven of private family life; domestic artifacts; and gossips and personal narratives of history. Through these accounts, the book gives “color, texture, and nuance” to stories and perspectives that are “often lost in sweeping grand narratives”.

In the process Li asks such questions as: How can we understand their individual and family experiences, memories, and mundane everyday lives in relation to the broader cultural and historical upheavals of the city and nation? What are the private stories of familial and emotional lives that are usually obscured under the grand narratives of modernization? How do we make sense of human lives in the midst of broader spatial and material changes?

Born in Shanghai, Li left for New York at the age of eleven. Over the years, she would return to her grandparents’ Shanghai alleyway home to rethink and remap her family’s experiences onto the broader cultural and historical tapestry of the city. Her motivation to do so originally came from her creative writing coursework—and in fact, this book is reworked from her undergraduate thesis.

Coming from her training in film, literary and cultural studies, Li draws from “inventory material objects”—photo albums, certificates, documents, souvenirs, keepsakes, furniture—and oral narratives, some of which she captured on videos and photographs. Li also included simple line drawings by her parents. These take the form of cross-section views showing how family members occupy and use the interior and exterior spaces of their alleyway home, or illustrations of people going about their domestic activities. Interestingly, the drawings always show people in relation to their home and surrounding spaces. These “inventory material objects” complement Li’s text in producing a deeply personalized and illustrated reading of family life in the two alleyway homes in Alliance Lane.

The term “palimpsests”—tangible and physical records, testaments to how things have changed over time—aptly captures the spirit of this book. There can never be complete erasure, as the present has developed from, and is built upon, the past. In the midst of rapid urban development and the related pressures on people’s homes and lives, Li documents the voices and private memories that continue to live on while facing the threat of amnesia and erasure. As Li explains:

This book is built on the concept that an old house, inhabited by various families over several decades, is a layered ruin of their private lives, woven into but not subsumed by larger historical events. Even when wars, revolutions, market reforms effaced and replaced the public monuments and textbooks of old regimes to suit present demands, the past persisted in the form of artifacts and whispers in domestic realms.

This book does not offer an objective account of family life, urbanization, and history in twentieth-century Shanghai—or China for that matter. However, it does offer a glimpse into how life is lived, experienced, felt, meant, and understood from the perspectives of the residents. It is through these details of how lives are lived that one may begin to understand how broader societal changes impact upon individual human lives.

What is at stake is not just how lives are lived in relation to social change, but the deeply emotional memories that are associated with specific places and spaces. Li’s book is a subtle reminder of what meanings might be lost as we relentlessly pursue urban development for the future.


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