Lessons from a building in Shanghai.
Among Shanghai’s many architectural gems is a sprawling, curved edifice that was once the largest apartment building in Asia, a building that more than half a century ago played a role in saving many thousands of lives. It’s set just on the north side of Suzhou Creek, a small river whose course has been hemmed in by concrete, and whose polluted contents are still routinely netted by illegal fishermen—mostly, to judge by their catch, in search of the famous Shanghai hairy crab. On the southern bank, there’s a small section of a walking path, which in the fall is hung with the heavy sweet fragrance of osmanthus blossoms, and which attracts elderly taiji practitioners, smoking office workers out for their lunch break, young couples, and a lone tenor saxophonist, who shows up every morning before eight and doesn’t leave until just before dark. Behind them is the heavy stone architecture of the Bund and a pair of neon gods, the Oriental Pearl Tower and the gigantic trapezoidal Shanghai World Financial Center, the world’s eighth tallest skyscraper.
All this I can observe from a window overlooking the creek, the only window in my tenth-floor studio. The unrenovated apartments are stacked up next to one another, so only the apartments on the ends and around the curved courtyard have more than one window. The building draws breezes through central airshafts that have cleverly been left open, providing essential ventilation in the muggy Shanghai summers. People stack plants on the sills there and hang their laundry to dry in the spiraling wafts from below.
In the late 1930s, the United States and many other countries were closing their doors and denying visas to Jewish applicants, as we seem on the verge of doing today with Syrian refugees. China, and in particular Shanghai, took the opposite tack. The city was one of the few places where Jews could flee without any paperwork. It was a long journey from Germany, but once they arrived, they would be welcomed into an established community of largely Russian and Baghdadi Jews. After Kristallnacht, nearly twenty thousand Jews made it to safety to Shanghai. When they landed in the ports, many of them were taken here to Embankment House, where Victor Sassoon—the developer and owner, himself of Baghdadi Jewish origin—had converted the first several floors of the 1936 building, originally seven stories, into a receiving hall for refugees. They were fed, registered, and given safe haven until they could find more permanent lodgings, often in the nearby Jewish quarter, where they were helped in myriad ways by the local Shanghainese population. Sassoon worked in concert with the Shanghai city government, aided by diplomats like He Fengshan, who issued visas to Jews in Austria—these allowed them not to enter Shanghai (it was an open port) but to leave their home country. For many of the lucky ones who made it out, Embankment House offered them their first sanctuary.
Today, the residents here are a mix of wealthy foreigners and much less well-off local Shanghainese, many of whom have been grandfathered in when apartments were handed over to Party elites in the late 1950s. The average age is skewed: on my floor, at least, it seems to hover somewhere between sixty-five and Tiresias. But older Chinese are an active bunch. They rise early and spend a large portion of their day gossiping in the hallway, as people once did in the courtyards and alleyways of previous centuries. If I come back in the evening after seven, there are two rows of old women (only women) in the large open foyer doing arm circles and leg lifts to the cues of an old-fashioned tape player, while the guard, who seems to spend all day smoking and staring off into space, smokes and stares off into space.
The building, which once boasted a swimming pool, along with central heating and four lifts, one for each of its main entrances, now houses a high-end flower shop, an electrical-distribution company, two small-engine repair shops catering mostly to scooter-drivers, and a general metalwork shop that sends sparks arcing high over the sidewalk.
I doubt that any of the people who work in these shops know much, if anything at all, about the history of the building. They’re just going about their daily business, thinking about the routine business and little annoyances an ordinary life entails. Just living their lives, in other words—and what a great privilege indeed.
Eleanor Goodman’s book of translations, Something Crosses My Mind: Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni, was the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and was shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize. Nine Dragon Island, a book of her poetry, will be published this winter.