Another year, another visit to the 黄浦区档案馆 Huangpu District Archives in Shanghai.
Shanghai is presently sub-divided into more than a dozen districts. In addition to the main Municipal Archives on the Bund, each district also maintains its own archive. (Administrative divisions change periodically in Shanghai, so some of these archives also have the holdings of now defunct districts.)
If you don’t know already, district archives get you a few steps closer to the ground. For a city as big as Shanghai, the holdings of the Municipal Archives tend to provide you a 10,000 foot view of local developments. The Municipal Government promulgated a policy, but how was it actually implemented? District archives help to answer this question–you can read the reports of committees and cadres on the streets (街道) and in the alley ways (里弄). You can discover how an intimate mobilization meeting of only 100 or so people actually unfolded. You can see how citizens responded and what they are reported to have said.
I have visited four other district archives in Shanghai only once or twice each, but I keep coming back to Huangpu. I have gathered a lot of sources from here, although, as I will elaborate below, it’s been a slow process.
When I started coming to Huangpu in summer 2013, you could access the catalog remotely though their website. Fortuitously, I copied the archival signatures (citations) for anything and everything that looked related to my dissertation project and saved these in an Excel spreadsheet.
Last time I checked, the catalog was not online. I also learned this in person on my second or third visit, when I presented a list of citations and received a confused stare in response:
“How did you get these?”
“Yes, but how did you see the catalog?”
“There is no catalog online.”
“Oh, well there used to be…”
It is my understating that hard bound catalogs for each archival fond (全总号) are also not accessible on site, even though you can see shelves full of them behind the service desk. I imagine if you showed up today with only a research topic, you might be able to negotiate a compromise: staff search files for you, and tell you (some of) what they have.
Every visit I’ve made has generally unfolded the same way: I present my letter, explain who I am, and hand over information for a dozen or so documents I want to read. The receptionist(s) search for a few of the files in their electronic database and see that the information checks out. They then discuss amongst themselves what to do, when finally someone says to show my request to the lingdao and let him decide. Today I preemptively suggested this to the young lady I spoke with: please give my letter and this request to the boss for him to review. I was in-and-out within 15 minutes. The most tedious part was waiting for the elevator and riding it up and down 18 floors.
That’s the first day (never expect to get materials from these types of places in one day). Then begins a war of attrition. Who will give up first? I start calling every other day to check if the boss has approved my request. At first, I get the run around–he hasn’t had a chance to review the files, call back in a few days. But after calling enough, eventually the story changes and I’m told I can come back. I imagine this is what will happen again.
When I return to the Huangpu Archives, I usually find that only some of the files are ready for me. A handful were not approved for whatever reason. But I’m often happy with getting at least something, so I don’t complain. Plus, there’s always next time.
(I could try to repeat the cycle immediately by submitting another request, but I’ve found it helps if I wait a few months. Let them forget that they’ve already showed me a lot of stuff.)
Now, I already mentioned that one of the advantages of an urban district-level archive such as Huangpu is that it gets you closer to the grassroots level. I should also caution that this also presents certain research challenges.
Typewriters, for instance, were not necessarily common at offices and committees at the district, street, and alley way levels for the Mao-era and beyond. I’ve requested (and obtained) many files from Huangpu and other district archives that, unbeknownst to me, were complete chicken scratch–sloppy handwriting that I can only read very slowly or not at all.
The other big challenge is (surprise) accessibility. District archives, in my experience, are not designed for research. They mainly provide services to district residents.
Huangpu District Archives is built like this. There are four or so service windows where you sit and interface with staff on the other side of a desk. Things like archival catalogs, reading rooms, and research tables are not provided. You tell staff what you want, and they run a search in their computers for you. What do they find? They may not tell you in whole.
I put in my request for files today. With National Day celebrations set to commence next week, I’m willing to bet the lingdao doesn’t review my application until closer to the middle of October.
Fortunately I’ve got time. And I know their phone number.
The Huangpu District Archives is located on the 18th floor of 黄浦区广西北路158号.