The Xia Family

Snapshot from the documentary of the Xia family.

'Waiting for Paradise' - Three generations move
Created: 2007-7-14 0:00:01
Author:Jenny Hammond

When three Chinese generations living under the same roof are given a bundle of money and told to relocate, the clash of dreams and expectations is definitely the stuff of a riveting documentary.

A French journalist and film maker has just completed a five-year documentary of the Wang family as they have relocated, moving from their old home targeted for demolition in one of Shanghai's oldest districts to a new home in Pudong.

Filmmaker Sylvie Levey, or Le Shiwei to her Chinese friends, has been living in the city for eight years and has documented the lives of three generations of the Wang family as they underwent a major upheaval - moving.

"Shanghai, en Attendant le Paradis" or "Shanghai, Waiting for Paradise," explores their everyday existence, offering their perspective on China and the rest of the world. They all have expectations.

She started filming in 2001. The documentary, in French and English, begins with a fire in the neighborhood on Fangbang Road M. where many of the houses were of wood. Though their house isn't burned, it is condemned, they get resettlement money amounting to the equivalent of US$120,000. They start to dream: at last they can move out of their cramped quarters.

"It is hard for people to live in such conditions with the unique matong, the Chinese chamber pot, as bathroom, and a tiny attic to share between three generations as bedroom," says Levey.

Inspired by their predicament, Levey bought a camera and decided to film the process of their move.

At least, that was what she thought at first; in fact, her whole film ended as something else (as documentaries often do). A film of years of intimacy with ordinary Chinese people, the Wang family, whose realm is confined to a few square meters on a street corner with a little shop.

"A world within a world is condemned to vanish on the behalf of modernization and the irresistible globalization - 'made in the USA'," says Levey.

When the man from the Demolition and Relocation Committee comes, the family is happy, Levey says, "his visit provokes dreams in their mind."

But indeed, the grandmother (first generation) thinks they would move together; and the second generation, a young couple, wants space of their own.

"This necessity of modernization came so suddenly that it broke up the family-type relationship, creating a huge argument in the film," the filmmaker explains.

The 92-minute documentary will be shown on the French Channel 3, public television, early next year, and possibly sold to other channels around the world. It is not expected to be shown in China; while interesting to foreigners, it isn't considered that interesting to locals. The Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club is expected to screen it in coming weeks.

Levey created the documentary by herself, with help in editing and post-production from Ermanno Corrado and Olivier Mille, the co-producer who finally joined in her adventure, ARtline FilmS.

There was much solitude, she says, "but it was the only way to meet the people and get so close, which produced a truly intimate film. In the end I had 180 hours of footage, I had to re-watch everything to cut it down to just 92 minutes. I sometimes had to ask my ayi, Ling Jiankun, to help out with the translation as I could not understand some of the Shanghainese so now her name is on the credits."

Levey found the Wang family in Shanghai about a year before she actually relocated, to the city herself.

"It was like destiny, I came to do a report on the Shanghai Opera House, but while exploring the city further I was attracted by the beauty of the old wooden houses on Fangbang Road M.

"I saw a little girl with her hair in ponytails sitting with her grandmother, so we started talking. I asked if I could have my picture taken with them and promised that if I returned I would give them a copy," she recalls.

Afterward she returned to Paris, forgetting about her encounter until one month later when she developed the pictures.

"When I saw them I was really moved, I looked at the family's home and knew that it was condemned for demolition, which made me want to go back and 'save' through words, what could still be saved, immortalized. A foolish dream of eternity for the beauty of the old Shanghai condemned to vanish one day or another."

Inspired by these pictures, Levey finally moving to Shanghai in 1999 with a view to writing a book on China. She arrived on a very cold winter night. It was Valentine's Day and one of the first years that Chinese people were starting to celebrate it.

Although on her own, the French native saw this as very symbolic: the beginning of her long adventure and relationship with China. "When I returned I decided to try to find this family whom I had earlier photographed so I could give them the picture. I found them and we became friends."

Although her initial intentions were to write a book, other jobs got in the way. She was asked by CAPA, the famous French Press TV agency, to make a report about China's one-child policy for public television. "I prepared the film in the family's tiny kitchen and they provided a lot of help and support," she recalls.

While she worked on her project, they told her of their own troubles, of being forced to relocate because their building was to be demolished.

Initially she was shocked. "I thought they were destroying history but now I realize that this was wrong. I did not understand what it was like to live in those houses. They had no space or privacy, their daily life was very hard."

She draws an urban planning parallel between Shanghai's urban designers and the days of Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the French planner famous for the redevelopment of Paris under Napoleon III. "Like me, people are often outraged when they hear about this but a similar thing happened in Paris in the 1860s to the old wooden Parisian houses, potentially threatened by fire."

As Picasso said: "if you know exactly what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it?"

"I started this film not sure of anything, I was just grabbing life experiences which is probably why I shot so much footage. However, if I did not have this hunger I would not have been able to capture the special moments I have," she explains.

"Thanks to those people, I learned more about China than any amount I have ever read or learned at university, and through journalism later on. Those five years spent with them was like an open book. I shared their hopes, their fears, it was like a beautiful life's lesson."

Primarily a journalist who is very interested in people, she says. "In China there are so many journalists who cover economy but I like to work on officially sensitive subjects. I work on the borderline, not because it is foolish or for a scoop but I like what is sensitive for human beings. For documentaries, as the famous British filmmaker Nick Fraser says, "even if they often intrude, go where contemporary journalism cannot."

Deeper, much deeper to the human soul, adds Levey.

Levey has made several films in China and has received international prizes for them. She has made documentaries about dancer-choreographer Jin Xing, China's most flamboyant transsexual, and about daily life of three female prisoners on death row in a Shanghai suburb - for French viewing.

"Usually people have a vision of China but it is not always as black and white as they think. As they say in Chinese it is more mohu, which means fuzzy. Society here is changing so many people are lost, so I like to work on what is not clear as 'new China' will come from that," she concludes.

For more information, visit, or contact: Olivier Mille at,