Gene, his parents, and his mom’s cousin are standing at the only remaining back door of the estate Gene’s great-uncle had built for his still-expanding family in 1947. For much of her early childhood, Gene’s mother lived there with a large pack of cousins. Great-aunt A-tai had sixteen children, thirteen of whom lived to adulthood. When the sons married, they brought their wives into the estate and built additional wings onto the original mansion.
Three generations lived together in the compound until the early 21st century. Then, the city exercised eminent domain over the area, redeveloping the land into a high end commercial district filled with shops and restaurants. Great-uncle was reimbursed for his property as best he could negotiate, but the loss of the estate the family had grown into (and beyond!) still hurts.
At first, the buildings look historic, the narrow alleys seemingly inviting visitors into a slice of Ningbo untouched by 21st century urban development. Instead, one finds Gucci, lounge bars, a Starbucks and a karaoke club, among other fancy novelties. And, in what remains of the family home, now unrecognizable, the restaurant where we had lunch.
Our dining party included ten people who’d grown up running through the alleys that once were there, before most of the original buildings were razed and new “old” buildings filled in the holes between the pieces deemed worth preserving vaguely intact. That’s how we ended up eating in great-uncle and great-aunt’s bedroom.
Yes, amazingly enough, the only piece of the compound left is one wing of what was once a large two story house. Led up a stairwell that wasn’t where the old one used to be, once oriented, the cousins exclaimed that we were in their parents’ room and their grandmother’s room. Gene’s mom and the cousin closest to her in age slid away the barrier separating off the third dining room – this one was ours! – they reminisced.
Before we left the restaurant, we found our way onto a large balcony and the cousins explained more of what had changed. Having never seen the original home, I found myself utterly unable to imagine it. They said that the window frames were new and ugly – ours let in more light and weren’t so old fashioned! – and how the well had been here and the garden had been over there. I just saw beautiful textures of gray tiles.
After lunch at the old home, we went to a photography museum named in honor of Gene’s uncle, a famous landscape photographer. Like the larger history museum nearby, its exterior is decorated with salvaged bricks, shingles, and tiles from old buildings that hadn’t had the luxury of being made into restaurants. Designed by award winning architect Wang Shu, from far away the tiles look nothing more than cracked and irregular bricks. Close up, they silently tell parts of stories – a favored flower design, a brick imprinted with a family name – for long disassembled homes. It’s mesmerizingly beautiful.
Cities change shape for many reasons – some good, some bad. Who am I, a total outsider, to judge Ningbo’s alterations? Old bricks find their ways into new walls, old buildings find new purposes. For a time, some people are left to tell us how things once were, but for those of us who weren’t there, how can we ever really see what they saw?
We build ideas about history with jumbled tiles, the prettier pieces prominently displayed. Riven with cracks, they may yet hold a story, a moment, a long-ago whispered wish. How are we ever to know for sure we understand?