In 2005 I spent three months attached to the East China Normal University in Shanghai as an Asialink resident. Perhaps fortuitously, we didn’t end up living in one of the newer parts of the city, but in an apartment at the top of an alley house not far from the corner of Huaihai Lu and Shanxi Nanlu in the old French Concession.
The dodgy wiring and rats aside, it was a fascinating place to stay, not least because it gave me the opportunity to get to know some of the last remnants of Old Shanghai. For all its well-deserved reputation for criminality and vice, Old Shanghai was also the site of an incredibly fertile collision between European and Chinese modernity. This collision gave birth to writers such as Shi Zhecun, and Liu Na’ou (I’d probably also lump Eileen Chang in there as well, since although her work concentrates on the years of the Occupation, and was published in the 1940s, it exists in the shadow of the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s she grew up in), nurtured political radicals such as Mao and his wife, and most visibly these days, resulted in the peculiarly Shanghainese fusion of European and Chinese architecture that can be seen in the remaining pieces of the pre-1989 city.
Even in 2005, when I was there, these remnants of the old city were vanishing fast. The pace of change in China is (or was, until recently) dizzying, and the Chinese have little interest in preserving what they see as the European city (Shanghai may have been the site of the most potent encounter between Europe and China, but it is also, for that very reason, seen by many Chinese as a symbol of the West’s exploitation of China: not for nothing were the towering buildings of Pudong built straing back across the river at the symbols of European power and wealth that dominate the Bund).
The process has created a city which is very much in flux. Buildings, streets, even whole neighbourhoods seem to vanish overnight, swept away without trace. The results can be startling, shocking, and just plain disconcerting: my partner and I often ate in a restaurant a few blocks from our home; a few weeks after we left a friend who’d eaten there with us was back in Shanghai, and he discovered that not only the restaurant was gone, but everything within a radius of a few hundred metres had also been demolished, apartment blocks already rising on the site.
One of the ironies of this process is that it is largely undocumented. Images of Shanghai tend to fall into one of two categories, seeking to capture either the gleaming modernity of the new China, or the elegance and mystery of Old Shanghai.
In a very real sense this is a reflection of a more profound double-vision that afflicts most Western interest in Shanghai. Whether in guidebooks or literature, Western eyes seem unable to see that there are other Shanghais lurking beneath the surface of the city, histories and realities laid down during the Occupation and the Cultural Revolution which exist alongside the more comfortable images of Old Shanghai’s glitter and decadence and New Shanghai’s shining skyscrapers and designer boutiques.
These questions are on my mind because I’ve been working on a non-fiction piece about the city, but they’ve also reminded me about the one book I’ve ever seen that seems to me to catch something of the accretive nature of Shanghai as a city, its sense of layered history, which is Greg Girard’s splendid Phantom Shanghai. The images in Greg’s book show a city in flux, a place where the past is being gradually wiped away, yet they also show the many, often enigmatic, traces its past has left. Somewhere – and it may be in Denton Welch’s marvelously strange Maiden Voyage, but I can’t find the reference – there’s a wonderful description of the way Chinese cities and towns often seem to be constructed out of detritus, repaired and repurposed, yet still resembling nothing so much as a conglomeration of offcasts and broken things, and there’s something of this in the images in Phantom Shanghai, as well as a sense of the almost surreal light of the city at night, the reflected glow of the pollution and the neon. But there’s also a sense of the ghostliness of the city, of the way its seems haunted by its past, and by the simultaneous closeness and irretrievability of that past.
With Greg Girard’s permission I’ve reproduced several images from the book in this post, and you can see more by visiting the Monte Clark Gallery website, or Greg Girard’s website (where you can also read William Gibson’s introduction) but I really do urge anyone with an interest in Shanghai to buy the book, – it’s a remarkable document of a city in transition, and of a world which is vanishing even as we speak.