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City Chronicler Katya Knyazeva

My name is Katya Knyazeva. I’m a historian, a journalist, a photographer and a tour guide in Shanghai. Originally I am from Novosibirsk, an industrial city in Siberia, where I trained as an engineer and economist. Then I went to South Korea to get a master’s in digital design. That was pretty random. In 2006 I came to Shanghai and stayed here for ten years, before moving to Italy. I'm back now, but not for long.

Initially, I came to Shanghai to find illustrators for a Korean publisher, and then I just decided to stay. The streetscape was fascinating, everything was in flux, and you had a sense that the scrappiest, most ambitious people in China came here and would try their luck at anything.

Then there was the food — the best provincial cuisines are available here.

We were tremendously lucky to find a flat in the Normandie Apartments, also called the Wukang Mansion, back in 2006. We found it on Craigslist; those were the days. It was a fantastic place to live. Shanghai’s last century of history is really present in the architecture and the population of the building. Some neighbors were high-profile army and Communist Party retirees in huge original apartments with fittings and furniture from the 1940s, while others lived in subdivided spaces, one family per room, sharing kitchens and rearing chickens in the hallways.


Normandie Apartments in 2010, when Katya first lived there. (photo by Katya)

My penchant for cataloguing things overlapped with a huge curiosity about Shanghai’s older neighborhoods. Many buildings had an unexplained aura about them. Some mansions on the Bund were vacant and dusty, with broken windows, and they were accessible. The former British Consulate, now a prime luxury villa, was a ghostly ruin. Everything seemed to imply a magic, enigmatic narrative. Tracking these “discoveries” got me into the routine of consulting old maps and archival material.

I remember walking through the old town for the first time, on my way from the Dongjiadu fabric market, being struck by how different it felt from the lilong neighborhoods, or the leafy tunnels of Xuhui, or the heft of the Bund-side blocks. In the old town, you could feel something ancient was alive.

When I tried to read up on the old town I found very little in English, so I began to compile an English-language photo-atlas. The book project stretched into years as photography began to take a backseat to more systematic historical research. I called it Shanghai Old Town: Topography of a Phantom City, and my research became Volume I: The Old Docks.


What I love about Shanghai is that: the streetscape is still wonderfully varied; the downtown is so huge; and there are surprises and unexpected ambiances around every corner.

What made me leave, after ten years, is the low intensity of intellectual and artistic life. As long as there are so many things you can't say, you will have a meek music scene, a weak, irrelevant theater, baby-talk public discourse, and the continued destruction of the old city fabric. This last item was – and still is – a constant heartbreak. I hate seeing lively and characteristic downtown neighborhoods replaced with corporate and faceless consumer spaces. I don’t much like the Jianyeli or the Prada-Rongzhai approaches to historic preservation. It's removing grassroots communities and replacing them with cash flows, and normalizing acceptance of fakery and low standards.


The view from the Normandie Apartment's glass-enclosed corridors. (photo by Katya)

When we were here, we liked cheap local places. I used to love Wujiang Road, the street food alley behind the Nanjing Road subway station, but it has been gone for almost a decade now. One of Wujiang Road’s best restaurants, the little Hua Hua Chuan Cai, has moved to nearby Fengxian Road where it still thrives.


Zikawei's reading rooms. (photo by Katya)

I often visit Zikawei Library and work there, at the massive wooden desks, under the green lamps. I love guiding walking tours — this is when I feel the most connected to the city. It is a pleasure walking and biking in Shanghai, and there are still many delightful streets: Yanqing Lu, Anfu Lu, Yongjia Lu, Qiaojia Lu – basically anywhere with human scale buildings and vibrant local life.


I enjoyed getting physically lost in a place and snooping around. I only began to chase data in archives to contextualize my experiences wandering in the city. I always recommend sneaking into alleys and interesting buildings — this is still a great city for this. History research has gotten easier over the last couple of years, with so many online groups for history buffs; the hive mind is solving puzzles and answering questions.


Coming back after two years in Bologna and London, I expected to see a completely futuristic landscape, but to my surprise, not much has changed, except for the ubiquity of WeChat payments. Things seem to have slowed down.

Though I'm now based away from Shanghai, I follow what gets published about the city, and I was both excited and skeptical about the city government’s promise “to protect 90% of its remaining historic lane buildings.” I hope in 2019 this promise is honored and even out-performed, reaching 100%. But more importantly, I hope that in the year 2019, residents of historic neighborhoods begin to have their voices heard in the process of the changes in their city.

I'm only back for a few months. The first volume of the old town book was published in 2015 and the second volume, The Walled City, is finally coming out end of this month, so I am here to launch it. Additionally, I’m looking at materials pertaining to the Russian diaspora in Shanghai. Maybe this'll be the next book?


[Shanghai Famous]:

Shanghai Famous is a SmartShanghai column focusing on people out there in the city makin' the scene. They're out there around town, shaping Shanghai into what it is, creating the art, culture, and life around us. We asked them what's good in Shanghai. We asked them what's bad in Shanghai. We asked them to tell us more, more, more about their wonderful selves.

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