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Echoes of spies, martyrs reverberate in old lanes
From:Shanghai Daily  |  2021-05-08 04:29

SHANYIN Road in Hongkou District is narrow, winding and mostly quiet. It bears the history of Shanghai’s political left a century ago.

The area was once home to many influential left-wing writers, including Lu Xun (1881-1936) and Bing Xin (1900-99). Its lanes brim with old tales of spies and martyrs.

Longtang, or “old lanes,” along the road, are of distinctly different styles. On the eastern side, red-brick townhouses line Hengfengli and Hengshengli lanes, while on the western side, pale blue stucco houses fill an area of blocks called Qian’aili.

A restoration under way for more than six months in Hengfengli is nearing completion. It is designed to strengthen the century-old houses, add kitchens and bathrooms to some and restore façades to their original look.

Hengfengli and neighboring Hengshengli residents might know why early 20th century writers favored Shanyin Road. It was once a lower-rent area than downtown but fell short of being shabby.

In fact, living conditions there were quite comfortable. The houses were built with flush toilets, an uncommon amenity at the time.

A pleasant environment remains. The lanes are full of greenery that contrasts nicely with the red-brick walls. The lanes are free of the litter and other detritus frequently found along other old lanes in the city.

Some of the houses have been modified into cafes or small shops, and flowers pots decorate home balconies.

On the façade of No. 90 in Hengfengli, three plates on the gate tell us that the house was once home to the Jiangsu Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, as well as the central Party school.

Today, the residence is home to a family obviously cautious about strange people lurking around outside, hoping for a peek beyond the gate.

The Party school was established here in 1926. A year later, the then ruling Kuomintang government initiated a purge against members of the Communist Party of China. Four Party members were arrested by authorities in the house at No. 90.

Zhao Shiyan, secretary of the Jiangsu committee, was later arrested at his home on nearby Duolun Road and executed a month later. He was 26 years old.

Xia Zhixu, Zhao’s wife, later wrote in a memoir about the last time she saw her husband. “It was raining, and when the Kuomintang agents broke into our house for a raid, comrade Shiyan was not home,” she wrote.

“We had left a flower pot on the balcony as a signal of danger, and my mother managed to push the pot out to the ground. However, Shiyan failed to notice the broken pot because of the downpour and still returned to the house. I still remember how he looked back at me and my mother as he was escorted down the stairs.”

Many other notables of the era left their marks in Hengfengli and Hengshengli.

Writer and historian Guo Moruo once ran a bookstore and publishing house at No. 77 in Hengfengli. Three other writers and translators, Fang Guangtao, Hu Yuzhi and Zhang Kebiao, shared a three-story house in Hengshengli.

On the opposite side of Shanyin Road, in Qian’aili and its extensions Songyun Villas and Liuqing Villas, there are more Japanese-style homes that once housed Japanese businessmen and military officials.

The name Qian’ai itself has the quite romantic translation of “a thousand loves.” It is said the name is actually a homophone of the word for “cherry” in Shanghai dialect because so many cherry trees were planted when the lane was built.

Today the area is covered with trees and artistic graffiti on some façades. There is still a romantic feel.

Some of the lane’s old tales, however, are more thrillers than romances.

No. 28 of Liuqing Villas was once home to Tsutomu Nakanishi, a Japanese agent who worked with the Communist Party during World War II. Later arrested by the Japanese army, he was twice sentenced to death and twice escaped that fate.

Nakanishi organized a team of Chinese agents to collect intelligence for the Party. His activities seldom drew attention because the agents he recruited were part of a “special investigative” team working for the South Manchuria Railways Co, a Japanese intelligence front in China.

Nakanishi persuaded his superiors to let him form the team by arguing that “Chinese know best about Chinese.”

Nakanishi usually wrote intelligence the team gleaned on a tiny piece of paper, rolled it into a cigarette and gave it to an agent who passed it on to the Communist base in Yan’an.

A comrade, Japanese journalist Hotsumi Ozaki, lived in a nearby Shanyin Road lane, which looks quite shabby today. Ozaki was responsible for passing intelligence to the Soviet Union. He was arrested and hung in 1944.

Today’s lane residents no longer worry about spies and intrigue lurking about. They can focus on modern problems, like an uncertain work promotion or a marriage in the throes of breakup.

The past is in the past, but it always leaves some indelible imprint.