A Shanghai That Didn’t Last

Copyright The International Herald Tribune

By the time I moved to Shanghai, in 2003, the most famous features of the city were so well known that even first-time visitors could arrive enjoying a feeling of familiarity.

Like them, I quickly toured all the obligatory places, like the city’s picture-postcard central riverfront, known as the Bund, with its grand, old, late-19th- and early-20th-century buildings that once housed European finance and trading companies on one bank, and the whimsical, hypermodern Chinese-built towers that wink back at them from the other bank in comeuppance.

I strolled the city’s grand shopping boulevards and, because I lived in the heart of the French Concession, I also became intimately familiar with its lane houses and old, tree-lined streets.

DESCRIPTIONHoward W. French

I was a new resident, though, and not just a visitor, so it did not take me long to exhaust Shanghai’s tour book highlights. Once I had done so, my wanderings led me steadily away, not just from the Shanghai of familiar landmarks, but from a certain way of seeing the city, indeed of seeing China. It was a way colored by a constant shock and awe over the huge scale and impressive numbers that attach to so many things in a country one easily associates with rapid and nearly across-the-board progress.

I came to call the Shanghai realm that I subsequently discovered and began photographing ‘‘disappearing,’’ not just because the tattered old neighborhoods that drew me in were vanishing before my eyes under the onslaught of wrecking balls and bulldozers. More interesting to me than the startling pace of physical change to the city was the fact that, along with it, a highly distinctive way of life was ending as the residents of these quarters were evicted and dispersed.

It was easy to dismiss the demolished neighborhoods, all of which were centrally located, as little more than eyesores and slums. The more I got to know these places, the more I came to feel, though, that to do so would be, at a minimum, an oversimplification, and arguably wrong.

As much as the more famous parts of Shanghai that were created by and for Europeans, they were the relics of a unique form of Chinese urbanization, one born of an early wave of East Asian industrialization that married Western capital with the labor of Shanghainese and of poor migrants who were drawn from nearby provinces by the novel lure of jobs in the modern cash economy.

The densely populated neighborhoods that housed those workers and their families became the stage of an extraordinarily intimate community lifestyle, where food was bought and sold in street markets, meals were cooked and often eaten in the open, and people lounged in chairs right in front of their doors and socialized freely. These were worlds where everyone knew their neighbors and often enough looked out for them.

DESCRIPTIONHoward W. French

Although the comparison isn’t perfectly exact, while walking around and photographing in these places, I often imagined another great urban environment and melting pot: the stickball streets of prewar Brooklyn.

Long before neighborhoods like these were flattened to make way for an unending landscape of high-rise buildings, they had become all but invisible to Shanghainese who didn’t reside in them, despite their central location. There was no room for them in the image that China’s spiffiest city sought to promote for itself.

As a result, when these photographs first began to be shown in China they tended to receive two kinds of responses: ‘‘How did you get so close to these people?’’ some would ask, including many Chinese photographers. Another question, even more revealing to me, came from people who proclaimed themselves genuine Shanghai natives who wondered, sometimes challenging me, whether these photographs were really taken in their city or, alternately, whether the people in them were ‘‘real’’ Shanghainese.

This world, where everything was lived up close, was as real as could be while it lasted. My aim was to leave some record of it before it was gone.

For the entire piece and photo gallery, please click here.

Photographs Copyright Howard W. French

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