The embankment

Society & Culture

Life inside a piece of Shanghai history

This article was originally published on Neocha and is republished with permission.

Situated on North Suzhou Road, a stone’s throw away from where the Suzhou River meets the Huangpu River, an aging building sits along the creekside. To the uninitiated, its drab exterior may seem far from inspiring, but for those privy to its history, there’s a lot to be appreciated.

This is the Embankment Building, also known as the Hebin Building. It finished construction in 1932 and boasted 282 rooms across eight floors. With nine elevators and a swimming pool on the ground floor of the building, it was—at the time of its completion—Shanghai’s largest residential building and the epitome of architectural decadence. In the late 70s, three additional floors were added to accommodate more residents.

Today, it’s become a city-level protected building. Originally built and owned by the Sassoons, a Baghdadi-Jewish family, the Embankment Building sheltered Jewish refugees who escaped to Shanghai during World War II. In the 1940s, it housed the China offices of United Artists, an American production company founded by Charlie Chaplin and other Western movie stars. Around the same period of time, the address also served as the China headquarters of the international relief agency UNRRA.

With its winding history and riverside location, the building has attracted artists and creative types from around the world. Today, the building’s popularity with creatives hasn’t waned. One of them is Ye Zile, a photographer who’s recently completed a photo series of the building’s residents. “The Hebin Building isn’t just an ordinary apartment,” he says. “Throughout Shanghai’s history, it’s played an important role in the city’s development. Its history makes it absolutely fascinating.”

Uncle Li was born in Hongkou District in 1935. He is a graduate of Jiaotong University and moved into the Embankment Building in 1965. In the past, he shared an apartment with a colleague. But in the 1990s, he bought a unit of his own. With two sons living abroad in Canada and Hong Kong, he feels proud of his accomplishments and believes he’s succeeded in life.
Julius is a designer from Hong Kong. He’s lived in the Embankment Building for 7 years but moved units three times. He never considered Shanghai as his home and flew back to Hong Kong every weekend. But since the epidemic, he’s started to consider Shanghai as a permanent home. Like his cat Milou, he stays up late into the night and loves sleeping in.

Ye is a Shanghai native who grew up in Hongkou District, where the building is located. But his appreciation of the landmark didn’t come about until much later in his life. “In 2010, I was there quite often,” he recalls. “My friend lived in the building and threw a lot of parties, but even then, my impression of it at the time was just that it was old, a place with shoddy infrastructure. I can’t say that I liked it.” After spending time overseas, this would change.

A decade later, the Shanghai government funded a billion RMB towards the building’s preservation and renovation, hoping to return it to the glory of its golden years. The exterior, its shared kitchens, elevators, and piping systems were all renovated. Despite all the changes, the spirit of old Shanghai can still very much be felt—in the spiral staircases, vintage mailboxes, and art-deco designs. Much of the interior still embodies the essence of haipai, a culture originating from Shanghai in the 20th and 21st centuries—it can be best described as the embrace of both traditional Chinese and Western aesthetics. Ye’s curiosity and appreciation of the building have only grown, and in 2021, he pooled his life savings, purchased an apartment unit, and moved in.

Uncle Tang’s apartment is one of the few units preserved since the early days of the Embankment Building. Born in the 1950s, he moved into the apartment in 1980 after marrying a women who grew up in the building. His father-in-law is a government officer, who was assigned to patrol the building in the mid-1950s. Today, Tang enjoys staying in, exercising, reading, and practicing calligraphy. His wife prefers to stay in Songjiang, where they own another house. He visits her every weekend.
Fon, a Thai-American woman who spent many years teaching around Asia, spent national holiday in Shanghai and accidentally met Adam in E.B., a researcher of historical buildings and sites in Shanghai. Only then did they find they were schoolmates from the same university in the United States. It is also from here that they started their journey of love and made new friends in the space designed in 1930’s Chinoiserie style.

In the past, the buildings’ residents were largely composed of those from the upper echelons of society, but this is no longer the case in modern times. People from all walks of life now reside in the apartment, and with them, the building has taken on an unpretentious charm. “Everyone living in the building is interesting in their own right,” Ye says. “The place feels like society in miniature, being inhabited by people of diverse backgrounds: the kids of live-in nannies who used to work for the affluent families living here, an ex-member of the “southbound cadre,” academic scholars, construction workers, and entrepreneurs from around the world and of all ages. In the elevator, you can encounter people from disparate cultures, of varying nationalities, and of unlikely backgrounds.”

Shortly after moving into the building, Ye was invited to submit works to PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai, an annual photography showcase. This was when the idea for the series was born. “There are countless images of the building and its architectural features,” Ye says. “But for me, people are always the most fascinating part of a place. So I thought I’d approach it from a different angle: to tell the story of the building’s history, I’d take portraits of its current residents.”

Odet is a Spanish woman who’s lived in the Embankment Building for 11 years. She holds a deep appreciation for the the history and architecture of Hongkou District. Following in the footsteps of her father, a film producer in Spain, she became a video producer in Shanghai. She’s also a history buff, and marrying these interests, she’s produced many videos on Shanghai and Chinese history. She also gives lectures to Chinese and foreign college students, teaching them how historical stories can be shared through a camera lens.
Lucy and her boyfriend Yam are music teachers who’ve lived in the Embankment Building for six years. She’s from the UK, and he’s from the Philippines, but they met in Shanghai. Lucy’s father once served in the British navy, and it’s rumored that he participated in the secret grain trade between the British Navy and China in the 1960s. The two teach music to international school students and compose music for Shanghai music festivals. The photo happened to be taken on their 12-year anniversary.

In Ye’s images, viewers are offered an intimate glimpse of the resident’s lifestyles and living spaces. Take, for example, Granny Jiang, who’s lived in the building since the age of five and boasts the title of the building’s longest residing resident. In Ye’s portrait, she’s shown in a crimson-red qipao standing in front of a photo of Mao Zedong. With a wide grin on her face, she fans out a deck of poker cards in her hands.

Then there’s Lucy and Yam, a pair of musicians from the UK and the Philippines respectively. The couple teaches music at an international school in Shanghai and composes music for events around town. They’ve lived in the building for six years. In their portrait, musical sheets, instruments, and framed photos of the two are shown scattered around their living space, giving Ye’s image a certain human warmth.

There’s also Julius, a Hong Kong-born designer who’s found himself stuck in Shanghai since the pandemic. He’s a night owl who enjoys staying up late. Living with him is Milou, an adorable cat who’s more than happy to stay up into the late hours with his owner. In his portrait, Julius painted his face with black paint to match the pattern of his cat’s fur.

Within these singular frames, Ye reveals the occupation, interests, and lifestyles of the building’s diverse inhabitants.

To photograph these people, Ye didn’t just go knocking on doors. Navigating bureaucratic hoops, he worked with the neighborhood committee and district officials to shoot the project. The series consists of 15 portraits, all of which were shot in a span of three weeks. “I talked at length with everyone I photographed,” he says. “The oldest person was born in the ’30s and the youngest was born in the ’80s. I did my best to learn their actual stories and learn about the objects significant to them in their homes. A lot of them asked me to rearrange their homes, and so, I’d stage the scene based on their personal stories. Through the items that have meaning to them and their past experiences, I tried to capture their life in a single frame.”

Ye also worked with writer Chen Zhongwei to complete the series. He met Chen—who was a neighbor—after conceptualizing the project, and the two bonded over their shared interest in the building’s history. Chen is a history major who studied in the U.S., but after coming back to China, he found himself fascinated by Chinese history and the Embankment Building. A few years back, he even penned an article on the building for Chinese media outlet The Paper titled “The Tenants of the Embankment, a Piece of Shanghai History.”

Working with Ye, Chen conducted interviews with the tenants who agreed to be photographed, and together, the writer-and-photographer duo wove together a compelling picture of the building’s history and the experiences of those residing within its walls.

“With each interview, I realized that no one is ordinary,” Ye recalls. “Every story was fascinating. What you observed of each person was hardly scratching the surface, and if you took the time to learn their stories, their lives seemed wondrous.”

Chris is from the UK and came to Shanghai as an exchange student at Fudan University in the 1980’s. Sam—who’s part Swedish and part Italian—moved with her family from country to country every five years. The two met in Hong Kong and decided to settle down in Shanghai. They’ve lived in the Embankment Building for 15 years. Sam is a psychologist while Chris works as a risk assessor.
Born in the 1980s, visual artist Ye Zile just bought an apartment in the Embankment Building just this year. He grew up in Hongkou and studied in England during his college years. After graduating from Central Saint Martins College in 2008, he moved around a bit, staying in Hong Kong, New York, and even Berlin. The epidemic convinced him to move back to Shanghai where he started this project documenting the historical building.
Out of all the other residents, Granny Jiang has lived the longest in the Embankment Building. She was born in Zhabei District (known as northern Jing’An today) in 1939, and moved into the building with her mom at five years old. At the time, her mom worked as a nanny for a British family living in the building. Growing up in Shanghai, she witnessed the Japanese surrender in 1945 and the CCP taking control of the city in 1949. She still remembers the area around the building as one of the sites of the last fierce battles in Shanghai. She now loves playing cards, often hosting games or sewing sweaters in her apartment.

In some ways, the Embankment Building is a microcosm of the current Shanghai zeitgeist. It’s become a place where people around the world co-exist in harmony, learning from one another as they build a home together. “The building, much like the city, is a place that welcomes people of all ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds; it’s a place that people can be proud to call home,” Ye says. “I see Shanghai as a place of optimism. It’s a place of dreams and aspirations, and my work captures that—every photo is rooted in daily life, but it also transcends that.”


Contributor: Pete Zhang
Images Courtesy of PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai
Image Captions Courtesy of Chen Zhongwei