Shanghai Expo uproots lives

Families forces to relocate from centuries-old neighborhoods

Shanghai Expo uproots lives

Long-time Shanghai resident Ba Jin and his family were forced to leave their home once before.

That was during the Cultural Revolution, a turbulent time in the 1960s and 1970s that saw millions of urban Chinese sent to the countryside for re-education through labor.

This time the culprit isn't revolution, but progress. With the glitzy 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the city hopes to regain the status it enjoyed in its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, when it was known as the Paris of the East.

City officials are touting the expo, to be staged on a site nearly twice the size of New York's Central Park and involve up to US$25 billion in preparatory spending, as a coming-out celebration for a city where the landscape changes almost daily with new buildings.

Developers are hoping to cash in on deals for construction, commercial development and renovations, while exhibitors are readying their wares for the event's months-long run.

But lost in the hype and shuffle are people like Ba, who are being forcibly relocated. It has become a familiar scenario, as China puts individual rights on the back burner in favor of economic growth and development.

Still, as common as relocations have become in China, few can match this one for magnitude, with the resettlement expected to affect tens of thousands.

"My family has lived here for 200 years," says Ba, who runs a small restaurant on the site. "When we came back here after the Cultural Revolution our old home had been destroyed so I had to start again. Now we have to leave for good."

Ba said he expected to receive the equivalent of about US$1,000 in resettlement compensation, but added that this would be far from enough to buy a new home in his old neighborhood. He plans to stay in the area, though, while others are being moved to Minhang, a desolate industrial district south of the city center.

Such forced relocations are taking place across the country as China rushes to modernize, with new residential, commercial and industrial complexes springing up to replace older homes built during the Communist era and before.

In one of the biggest cases, more than 1 million people were forced from their homes to make way for the US$25 billion Three Gorges Dam, a massive public works project designed to better manage the Yangtze river's seasonal floods.

Relocations have spawned much local discontent, playing a role in many of the 74,000 protests that took place in China in 2004, according to government figures.

Another expo-destined area in the path of the wrecking ball lies in the shadow of Shanghai's towering Nanpu bridge, which spans the busy Huangpu river.

The dirty, bustling residential neighborhood is a warren of traditional "shikumen" stone houses punctuated by red windows. All now bear the same hastily painted character on their walls, "chai," meaning "demolish."

"I've never lived anywhere else," says one middle-aged man, standing with his wife in the narrow alleyway outside his house, which is slated for demolition in a few weeks.

Also doomed is the 140-year old Jiangnan shipyard, the international commercial shipyard built under Qing dynasty Prime Minister Li Hongzhang, which employed many of China's first generation of industrial workers.

Jiangnan and most of its 10,500 employees are to move later this year to Changxing island in the nearby Yangtze river. The company declined to answer questions about the relocation.

While many are leaving their homes reluctantly, shipyard worker Gao Shufei is one of a number who are more than happy to abandon dilapidated surroundings - many lacking even washing facilities - for newer homes and offices in the suburbs.

"It's good we're moving this October," said Gao. "The new place is much more up-to-date. It will be a better place to work."

Many also argue that the inconvenience of those being relocated is a small price to pay for the broader economic benefits that urban redevelopment brings.

Veteran Shanghai real estate consultant Sam Crispin said that, despite the downside, expos tend to benefit their host cities.

"It's a great opportunity for Shanghai to show itself off worldwide," said Crispin, who once worked at the Brisbane Expo. "I'm not sure what it does for a city's economy, but it's good PR - a kind of business Olympics."

Updated : 2021-03-06 23:43 GMT+08:00