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.


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.


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

Disappearing Shanghai – An Essay by Teju Cole


All photography is a record of a lost past. Photography does not share music’s ability to be fully remade each time it is presented, nor does it have film’s durational quality, in which the illusion of a present continuous tense is conjured. A photograph shows what was, and is no more. It registers in pixels or in print the quality and variety of light entering an aperture during a specific length of time. There are no instantaneous photographs: each must be exposed for a length of time, no matter how brief: in this sense, every photograph is a time-lapse image, and photography is necessarily an archival art.

There are certain oeuvres within the history of photography in which this archival pressure is felt more intensely than in others. Eugène Atget’s facades, architectural ornaments, and street corners depicted a Paris that was, even while his work was ongoing, already passing away from view. Atget’s images have a sense of speaking out from a buried visual subconscious, a sense aided by, but not wholly dependent on, the depopulated views he preferred and the melancholia of the sepia tone bestowed by time. The other part of the charge of the images comes from what we know about the places they depict: chiefly that those places are gone.

The same kind of embedded charge, that of evanescence caught on the wing, can be felt in all the photographs presented in Disappearing Shanghai, the new book by Howard French. French is a journalist of unusually broad expertise: he was Bureau Chief for the New York Times in several countries, and has had many years of experience reporting from Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, and Asia. His work as a photographer is less well-known: the selection in Disappearing Shanghai marks the first appearance of his photographs in book-form.

It might be assumed that French is one of those dilettantes who, unwilling to leave well enough alone, insist on dabbling in areas beyond their specialization: a writer of well-received books and articles turning his attention to something less taxing, something easy, like the occasional snapshot. But one hardly need look at more than three or four of his photographs to be disabused of this notion: there is much more going on in the images than hobbyism. The images, in fact, look like work. They indicate intent, thought, order. They provoke questioning, demanding from us what all good photographs do, which is that they be placed in some relation to the wider practice of photography and to the ethics and possibilities of the form.

Disappearing Shanghai is a visual account of five years worth of shooting in the rapidly changing backstreets, homes, and alleys of China’s largest city. The work originated during French’s time living there as a Times reporter, and developed side-by-side with that work. The instinct that brought these images to the surface (it seems natural to think of them as having been submerged) was that of a flâneur. Around the time that French began to learn Chinese, he also started to go on long walks in the less glitzy areas of the city: the older areas, the more traditional areas, precisely those parts of the city that were beginning to be effaced by the economic boom. He began to take photos of the people he met. Soon, he was invited into their homes.

The photos that resulted are notably different from what we might ordinarily think of as photojournalism: they are dynamic, but they are not the action-packed singles of the kind that win photojournalism prizes. There is something far more patient at work in them. We feel that the photographer has not so much captured a “decisive moment” as gained us admission into private moments of long duration. Many of the images project the longueurs that are, after all, a substantial part of regular life: unhurried, unharried, the part of life that isn’t caught up in working for pay, the part of life that is a simple, unfussy catalog of the passing minutes.

Please click here to read the entire essay, which includes a selection of images.

Shanghai: The Vigor in the Decay

We get no clichéd pictures of a beggar in front of a Louis Vuitton mural, no workers looking uncomprehendingly at a Bentley pulling into a five-star whatever. Instead we are thrust deeply into ordinary people’s lives, into their tiny living rooms with moldy walls and faded curtains. We see them living out on streets of cracked sidewalks and crumbling facades. We watch them sitting and waiting in poses of leisure. The transience and decay tells us that all this is vanishing.

Ian Johnson has written a piece about my new book, Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life at the New York Review of Books, which I produced in collaboration with my friend, the poet Qiu Xiaolong. You can find the piece here.