SVAMA Global Marketing Blog

SVAMA's Special Interest Groups are designed to allow members and friends to network and learn from peers interested in the same marketing specialty. SIGs operate independently and frequently morph into face-to-face, book review, or email sigs depending on the needs of the group.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Mystery of Laoximen

You pass it a million times. Just another set of Chinese
characters to use as a landmark on street signs, subway maps,
and bus directories. Just part of the chore of getting to work,
coming home, and reaching There from Here. And then, one day,
the Chinese characters acquire meaning and you wonder: Whatever
happened to Lao-Xi-Men, the Old West Gate?

Look at a modern map and you'll know, sort of. Just inside the
boundary of the roughly oval area that contains Yuyuan Gardens
and the rest of Shanghai's Old Town is a dot marked Old West
Gate. Except, standing at the corner of Fuxing and Zhonghua
Roads, you can see that there's nothing there. Nothing that
resembles an old gate or wall anyway. These days, the only thing
marking the old city's walls are the names of a few bus stops:
Old North Gate; Large East Gate; Small East Gate; and Old South
Gate. And of course, Laoximen. So there's only one way to
solve the mystery...

Welcome to 1817. Please watch your step as you cross the
footbridge into the walled city. You check the guide map, The
moat surrounding the city is fed by five canals diverted from
the river, which isn't labeled, though in modern times it's the
Huangpu. The canals flow in and out of the city through
separate tunnels, part of an irrigation system that weaves
around the various homes inside. Up ahead, next to the canal on
the city's west side, is the fort-like gate that is probably
Laoximen. Crossing into the city, you overhear a conversation
between two portly merchants.

"It's all because Lord Amherst didn't kowtow before the
"Yes, but he's the second British ambassador to the Middle
Kingdom not to do so."
"True," replies the first, "but that was before the British were
exporting so much tea."

Twenty-three million pounds of it every year, in fact, all via
Canton. You step back and let the merchants continue on into
the city, noting the four watchtowers at the northern tip of the
city. Then the time effect takes you again.

You are outside the gate again, only it looks different, older.
This too is Laoximen, clearly labeled as "Porte de l'ouest" on
the 1848 map of "Changhaï" and its ports. There are three other
gates shown--North, Small East, and Large East--and probably a
South gate cut off by the map's edge. The Treaty of Nanjing
giving the British Hong Kong and access to Shanghai was only
signed six years before, after an earlier but bungled attempt to
end the First Opium War. Tensions are still running high. You
are advised not to enter the Chinese part of the city. In any
case, a courthouse, a British consulate office, and perhaps a
tax bureau are the only landmarks. A fortified road just
opposite the walled city's northern gate goes through a no-man's
land into the English Concession. You had hoped to stop there,
but you have no chance as the time effect takes you again.

You find yourself in the "Foreign Settlement" anyway, standing
at the corner of Rue du Consulat and Honan Road, just north of
the walled city. It’s 1855. Except for the names of the
streets (known in modern Shanghai as East Jinling Road and
Central Henan Road) the general pattern of the roads is starting
to look familiar. To the east, is the "Wong Poo" River, and to
the northeast, the Bund, easily visible without the modern
city’s apartment towers.

A group of Western missionaries hurry past you, heading for the
Chinese city. You decide to follow them. They speak English.
In slightly hushed tones, one is discussing Hong Xiuquan, leader
of the Taiping Rebellion. Hong and his followers have held
Nanjing as the capital of the "Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace"
since 1853.

"He claims to be the younger brother of Christ," remarks a
British missionary, causing the others to chuckle. A slightly
younger man looks flushed, but not from the heat.
"They adhere to the Ten Commandments, preach egalitarianism, and
aspire to an admirable austerity," the flushed man says, in an
American accent.
"They also destroy temples, religious images, and raise the ire
of the Chinese by forbidding ancestor worship," another British
missionary adds gruffly.
Hanging back, another American missionary quips, "But their
biggest mistake by far is their chilly reception of the British
envoy." The flushed American laughs.

Hong and his followers will hold Nanjing until 1864, but the
missionaries don't know that. What they probably do know is
that fallout from Hong has caused many Chinese to flee into the
foreign settlement areas where, since last year, they have been
able to purchase land.

The missionaries pass into one of the northern gates into the
Chinese city, probably on their way to one of the five
chapels/missions within, two of which are American. There is
another gate a few blocks to the east. Further south are two
eastern gates, and a southern gate. According to the map, there
are no gates on the west side. Maybe you have solved the
mystery, but the blinking holographic prompt says that there's
more. Clicking on it with your eyes, you see a sepia toned map
completed by the Royal Engineers in 1860, five years from your

The French Concession will be located where you are currently
standing, wedged between the Chinese city and the English
Settlement. Looking again at the map available for 1855, you
see no such indication. The French didn't have a concession
until they fought with the English in the Second Opium War.

Laoximen seems to reappear on the 1860 map, but the other gates
are not clearly visible. The engineers captured more of the
details of the streets and canals within the walled city of
"Shanghaï" and no wonder. An earlier ad hoc arrangement,
partially caused by the havoc of the Taiping Rebellion on
Shanghai’s outskirts, where foreigners collected customs dues,
including within the Chinese city, is now a formal system of
foreign customs inspectors working for the Qing dynasty

An 1867 map of "Shanghae" doesn't show any gates, but provides
other types of description. Just south of the Chinese City are
"crowded suburbs." To the north and west is open country beyond
which there are orchards and "numerous small villages." Though
not on the map, some of the older Shanghai residents are aware
that at this time there were several munitions factories in
Shanghai, one of which was on "Manufacturing Bureau" (Zhizao-ju)
Road. You are thinking of heading to 1867, until an 1882 map in
Chinese catches your eye and the time effect takes you.

It's not as quaint as the Chinese style drawing, but Laoximen,
big tunnel gate and all, is open for business again. It is even
connected to one of the east gates by a footpath, clearly noted
on the map. Beside it, is the western canal entrance. To the
north, bisecting the old city, is Fang Canal, now Fangbang Road.
Many of Shanghai's former waterways have been preserved in
street names, where "-bang" means stream or creek.

Although you didn't select a year, the time effect takes you and
you find yourself in 1902. Unfortunately, you are sinking in
the mud of the semi-marshy clearing beside a more modest
Laoximen, more like a break in the wall than the grand tower it
was in the past. The inner details of the Chinese City are
included in this map along with details of both the French and
English Concessions and also the area of Zi-Ka-Wei (now
Xujiahui), which looks like a village outpost. It is connected
to the main city by a fairly large artery, but is a world apart,
surrounded by agricultural holdings, tiny roads, and sparsely
populated areas that are quite a contrast to the densely
detailed areas of the Chinese City and Concessions. One thing
is clear. The city is spreading outwards, at least on the Puxi
side, into its modern incarnation.

A 1903 map indicating the routes of the trams in the French
Concession shows only 3 gates: West; North; and East. Line C of
the French tramways will go to what is now Xujiahui, though it
is not labeled on the map. It and the English tram system will
start running five years from “now,” with a Chinese tram system
starting five years after that.

The time effect takes you to 1912. Shanghai's wall still
exists, but is segmented into 12 pieces, including one that is
probably Laoximen. China too is segmented. Sun Yat-sen arrived
in Shanghai in December 1911 and became the provisional
president of the China republic. In Beijing, the last vestige
of the Qing dynasty lives on. Yuan Shikai, who will try to set
himself up as emperor before suddenly dying in 1916, controls
the armed forces there. World War I is only two years away.
The Japanese will join the allies and seize Germany's concession
in Qingdao.

There is one last stop on this trip through time: 1917. China
has just entered WWI. Although entering the war will secure it
a place at the Peace Conference in Versailles, it will mostly be
ignored there. In Beijing, Puyi, the last emperor, is allowed
by some northern military leaders to warm the throne as emperor
for a few days before being deposed by other forces there. Sun
Yat-sen's republican government exists in Guangzhou, while
shifting warlord governments exist there and throughout much of
the country. In Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution is underway.

And in Shanghai, you are standing more or less on the same spot
where you started this journey. At least until a tram beeps at
you, perhaps picking up passengers from the Laoximen stop. The
old city's walls are long gone. Gone too is its moat. There is
nothing between you and Shanghai's old city anymore, or between
it and the rest of the world.

Posted by Beth Epstein,


Post a Comment

<< Home