Disappearing Shanghai lost but not forgotten

Yao Minji – Shanghai Daily

Copyright The Shanghai Daily
2008-2-18
The subjects in Howard French’s pictures are familiar and distant. An old lady carries a bamboo basket for groceries down an endless, twisting longtang (lane); families set up simple tables and chairs on a narrow street for dinner; an old man sits back and surveys the world through tired eyes from a rickety old chair outside his weather-beaten house.
The old-styled brick houses and the longtang are signatures of Shanghai that are vanishing, replaced by modern, high-rise buildings. And the lifestyles revealed in the pictures, so familiar to many who grew up in Shanghai, are also getting lost amidst these modern buildings.
The structures and the scenes are becoming distant memories because they are disappearing, just as the title of French’s photo exhibition at m97 on Moganshan Road says, “Disappearing Shanghai.”
The fact all of the pictures are shot in black and white only serves to add to the sense of nostalgia, even though they were only taken in the past three years.
“I’m trying to portray a lifestyle that is in danger. When it is gone, it will be gone forever,” explains French, a journalists and photographer who came to Shanghai in 2003 as bureau chief for The New York Times.
French says he is strongly attracted to the lifestyle in such neighborhoods, a community and lifestyle very different from that found within the walls of high-rise buildings.
Always interested in people, French did not have a particular project in mind when he started taking pictures of scenes and people that interested him in Shanghai.
But the pictures evolved as a series, mostly portraits of local people in natural surroundings.
“These are human beings who have a lifestyle that strikes me as very rich. It’s not based on a theory that they’re different from other people or similar to other people. Their humanity impresses me,” says the newsman.
French started his work from Shaanxi Road, a street to the north of Suzhou Creek which still features a good many longtang and old houses. It is in streets like Shaanxi Road that many old Shanghainese customs remain. Many breakfast vendors still set up tables and chairs on the street where neighbors gather and chat in the morning before going to work or grocery shopping.
Some families move dinner tables outside, especially in summer, since their houses are small and hot without air conditioners.
And retired people sit on small chairs outside houses, read newspapers, observe the street, and just chat with each other to kill time.
These customs have always been taken for granted but are slowly being lost amidst Shanghai’s rapid development in recent years which has seen many people move into new, big buildings. And just like in other big cities, residents in big buildings often don’t know each other very well, not to mention share tables or meet for a daily chat in longtang.
“There’s a certain poetry to these neighborhoods. As they are more developed, the poetry will disappear. There’s a loss involved. In life, every loss has an element of sadness,” says French.
Prior to his Shanghai exhibition, French also exhibited the works in Berlin and St Louis in the United States and hopes to have many more showings.
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