City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Shanghai Diary #6

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We’re approaching the end of the Shanghai Diary series, written by Justin O’Connor. This latest entry is dated 17 August:

“I wrote earlier that I was wracking my brains for some stored images of Shanghai’s past. I knew they were in there somewhere, and I found them. Last weekend I was taken out to the ‘countryside’ around the city, to a ‘historic village’ now being promoted as a tourist attraction. The landscape outside the city is very similar to that on the Po plain between the Apennines and the sea: flat, slightly scruffy, with a mixture of intensive, small scale agriculture, farmhouses with adverts painted on the side (though here they are new and evoke modernity not the nostalgia or old brands of Italian beer), small scale industry, and one water buffalo. Hot, unpicturesque, cluttered, tedious. (On another trip we drove four hours from the coast to Shanghai at night. Only in the last ten minutes did we hit city – it rears up quickly out of the landscape.) Nearer to the city proper there is a jumbled spread of theme parks, water-worlds, science and technology parks, cemeteries and highways. Our historic village destination was preserved out of the many that must have existed here previously. For reasons I could not tell.

You paid at the entrance and were given some old Chinese coins – big, brass, with square holes in the middle – which you could spend in the village. The village was ‘traditional’ in more ways than one. It had the old street and lots of food shops; but it was also poor, and dirty, with clothes out to dry and families grouped in shabby courtyards just behind the main façade. There were about ten museums – textiles, brewing, an old cricket house (with jars containing a live cricket for your inspection), miniature furniture, miniscule writing on bits of jade, etc. One of these museums was an artist’s residence, that of Chang Chong Chen. I’d never heard of him but he was born in this village. He’d obviously done well under the socialist regime, and his busts and paintings on show suggested a late 19th Century realist-cum-symbolist – evolving nicely into a socialist realist. It was a small courtyard house, with the exhibition rooms grouped around in interior balcony. He’d done a bust of Mitterand, and of Deng Xiaoping. Suddenly, in the middle of a room was a bust of Hergé. Behind, in the glass cabinet, lots of press clippings in French, and then illustrations from Tintin. And there it was. I knew I’d seen them. Chang Chong Chen had been introduced to Hergé in Brussels. The cartoonist had been encouraged to treat China with sensitivity by the (presumably Jesuit) chaplain to the Chinese students at the University of Louvain; Chang Chong Chen was at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Brussels and worked with Hergé on The Blue Lotus.

tintin Herg&eacute’s book was anti-imperialist, and led to his invitation to China by the nationalists in 1939, though he never went. He was later invited to Taiwan – which partly explains why The Blue Lotus was banned until 1984 in mainland China, though the ban in the Soviet Union after Tintin’s first adventure there, also might have had something to do with it.

I’d read them when I was 8, 9 or 10. A picture of a barbed wire fence and some Japanese soldiers. A Chinese boy in a traditional gown and cap. Bankers in big hats. Shifty looking gangsters, smoking. Rickshaws. Big ships in the harbour. It was sort of a petit madeleine moment, bringing back memories of futures past – childhood memories of an already old modernity – and an unknown (and unknown to me, already disappeared) elsewhere.

Shanghai, 1933 (detail)
Full map and more Shanghai context at the Neal Stephenson Metaweb. More Shanghai maps at Wikipedia.

The Rough Guide says “parts of the city still resemble a 1920s vision of the future”. The Blue Lotus was an image of Shanghai Moderne; big ships, machine guns, money and corruption, rumours of war, fat white businessmen pushing Chinese around. It’s what I had in my head. It’s what many westerners have in their heads, though not necessarily from The Blue Lotus. The old Shanghai of the concessions, the interwar years – is this what’s coming back with the new Shanghai? The Rough Guide talks of one of “Asia’s great metropolises in the process of re-inventing itself”. Looking down from the Pearl TV tower in Pudong The Bund is displayed in full night-time illumination; is this the grain of sand in the oyster of this new global city?

The Bund at night

What is the memory of a city, the inheritance of the city and what difference does it make to the present, especially after an interruption, a hiatus? Writing on Manchester always has to start with the 19th century ‘shock city’, the experience of boom and slump, disorientating change, its embracing of the disturbing, the radical new. But does this persist in Manchester today, or does it merely satisfy the macho posturing the leaders of the North of England’s one party city-state? What was Shanghai?

Did I say Shanghai was new Crobuzon – no, I was wrong, that’s the old Shanghai. The Shanghai of European nostalgia. Where colonialism escaped its moral qualms and the restraining façade of civilizing mission. Shanghai was about money. Did I suggest that its layout came from a non-European perspective? – no I was wrong; the layout of the city streets and spaces derive from colonial times and represent a complete abandonment of any attempt at building for the future. This was a get rich quick city, and take your pleasures whilst doing so. Illusions of a new Florence, or Genoa, of Venice floated through some of the higher-minded inhabitants in the 20s and 30s. Some mix of East and West., a multi-racial paradise. This was illusion. They never built anything for the civic public, except for park (and they kept the Chinese out of that). Official and commercial buildings (mostly the same, in this oligarchic city falling outside colonial administrations), domestic villas, and entertainment – the rest was just left to get on with it. Government worked with gangsters; factory legislation was systematically refused; rents on rickshaws, slums, commercial licenses, brothels etc., along with local taxes (which the Chinese tenants paid not the landlords, and did not bring with it the right to vote in the municipal elections) all went into the pockets of the city bosses.

On the other hand it was an open city. Nobody bothered about what you were before – white Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese – Shanghai took you in. It was the only place to accept Jews without passport, visa, papers – just pay the customs on the way in (this ended after complaints from prominent British Jews –with strong local support – who thought the new arrivals lowered the tone. This in 1939.) It was modernity. Here everybody could re-invent themselves, if they had the money; if they didn’t they needed to in order to get some. Certainly the city allowed the British to brush with decadence, providing they kept up appearances (Hong Kong, as a colony was too stuffy and restricted). W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood had fun. But Shanghai was an escape from China; the new Chinese middle class found a new world beyond stifling tradition. They took it and made it their own. The Nanking road, then and now the main shopping district, was (I since discovered) financed by Chinese money. All the department stores were owned by Chinese businessmen. They invented a new entertainment industry. The Great World, some mix of Vauxhall Gardens, Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, and the London Palladium, became an emblem of the city. (It still stands, though being restored, probably after previous restorations as the nationalists bombed it at one point). A new Shanghai film industry, whose rumbustious history makes Bollywood seem like a NFT afternoon workshop, was set up, re-inventing the political film and as creative as early Hollywood or Berlin. Women found new freedoms in the city. Shanghai was where China got modern – forget that huge, dark continent upon which the city perched, this was to be the future.

Of course it wasn’t. The Japanese destroyed the city, and the Communists distrusted it. For those in the West it was a wistful dream. Shanghai by Harriet Sergeant, is based on lots of interviews (with some very posh people over sherry – she must be connected) with old Shanghai residents – of all nationalities – from the 20s and 30s. “Nearly everyone I interviewed affirmed that the period they spent in the city was the best in their life. Sounds, smells, and sights exuded a pungency never experienced again. Foreigners talked about those years as reformed drug addicts recall a hallucination” (p.337). These memories surround the word ‘Shanghai’, giving it an exotic charge, a resonance from elsewhere, a déjà vu, some peripheral image of a lost past; that’s how dead cities live on. For westerners this is what makes the city something else, makes it feel like it could be something else, even though maybe it’s not. Yet. Maybe.

Sergeant writes: “When Shanghai fell in 1949 to the Chinese communists a door was shut. During the Cultural Revolution it was bolted for good. A World had gone”. After her last visit (1989; the book was published in 1991): “Shanghai is bigger, there are more people and a few new skyscrapers but otherwise communism has fallen on the city like a sandstorm, burying and preserving. The street names are different but not the buildings, from the office blocks and hotels on the Bund to the villas in the suburbs. Even the interiors are untouched. The marble lobbies and art-deco swimming pools are as pre-war as the light switches. Communism has mummified Shanghai’s appearance in a manner inconceivable to a westerner. Shopping center, over-passes and subways are all missing. So, despite the carefully preserved wrappings, is Shanghai’s spirit.” (p.6)

The book was reprinted in 2002, with a short preface: “Now Shanghai is one of the most exciting economic centers in the Far east. The place is booming, with new investment and building projects. There is no place for sprung dance floors or an art deco swimming pool and no sentimentality at their loss. On the other hand Shanghai is not the spiritually dead city that I first explored. The highly charged atmosphere of the Twenties and Thirties…has returned. It seems entirely possible that Shanghai will overtake Hong Kong and Tokyo to become one again the leading city in the far East… Shanghai’s former inhabitants would have approved.”

Sergeant is torn (as she would say ‘like the city itself’) between the suffering and degradation of Old Shanghai and its energy, its bursting modernity. She is also torn between recognizing the heroism of the Communists in the city, and the depths of oppression which fed them, and condemning the authoritarian kill-joy mentality of the new system (and especially the Cultural Revolution). This ambivalence is part of modernity. It’s easier for the escapees to invoke ambiguity, chiaroscuro and paradox than it is to ‘change the world’ – with all that promethean hubris and drawing of clear lines (not to mention all those broken eggs in the omelette). (One of the illusions of this new post 1989 century is that we can have the paradox and eat the omelette (I’ll probably regret that metaphor): but let’s not talk about ‘creative industries’ just yet). She seems to feel most for the new Chinese middle classes; if the westerners had been living a dream, “their deception went deeper. They could not foreseen China’s past re-emerging beneath the disguise”(p.337). Communist was not modernity but the past, China’s past. Shanghai’s delirious excess and suffering the future; no matter, it’s now gone, and Shanghai is an economic capital once more.

And therefore ‘not the spiritually dead city’ of 1989? Well, forget the reactivated DNA memories or westerners in search of modernities past, the Chinese middle classes are back. How can you tell – well, skyscrapers and money. But has Shanghai come back with them?


Chinese people say Shanghai is very western, it is very open. Those attributes that 20 years ago were routinely condemned by the party now seem to gear the city up for its new global role. They mean open for business. What does the past mean to them? It’s hard for me to say. Looking down from the Pearl TV Tower onto the Bund there are mixed feelings. A great tourist attribute, a unique skyline; but also revenge, a memory of bad times, humiliating times, and a promise of the future – we now build bigger and better. I doubt if the world of the Chinese middle classes of the 20s and 30s means anything in contemporary historical memory. The modernity Shanghai bought was at the expense – or at least ignored the plight of – a whole continent. The modernity represented by Shanghai was a humiliating, degrading modernity to the many, not just the communists. The new Shanghai certainly wants modernity – but this modernity is not one of ‘liberation’, of new worlds and experiences, of the escape from old Chinese values (in communist disguise or otherwise). It is about leaving material poverty behind. It’s about consumption. And it’s orchestrated by the communists who – shaken by 1989 at home and in the Soviet Union (plus the fall of Marcos in the Philippines) – see consumption as the only way to buy legitimacy.


Shanghai is also famous for being the home of the Communist party, which it always dominated until the Japanese and Mao came along. It was also the home of the Cultural Revolution, base of the Gang of Four. And it’s well known for being the home town of the recent group of leaders who led China into the socialist market economy – and its uber-architect Deng saw it as his special place…. The party is well in control of the city. Its ‘return’ is a showcase of consumerism not the resurgence of Shanghai Moderne. Now it’s not perched on the edge of a ‘dark continent’ but its outlet, its economic motor, its display cabinet. The skyscrapers are there to represent the modern city; what happens inside them is rather dull.


The spiritual re-invention of Shanghai has yet to take place. In the foreign magazines they hope the Old City will add glamour to the same old clubs/restaurants/café bars/brunch places that make up the jaded fodder of those magazines world wide. Chinese people define modernity as more consumer goods. The communist party refuse to have nipples on the tv and persecute artists now and again. They control the production bases of the consumer economy and they are moving rapidly into establishing Chinese creative industries – from top down. So fashion shows, pop stars, soap operas, glamour writ large are the order of the day it seems. The culture bit of the cultural industries – art galleries, music, theatre, opera – well that might have to wait and who wants it anyway, apart from foreign tourists. Even Rem Koolhaus seems to see nothing odd about the absolute modernity, the hypnotic future of the Beijing Television production center and the vacuity of its products. Of maybe he thinks “do the building, culture will follow” (come back Corbusier).

I wrote about Benjamin’s ‘most recent past’, that which, abandoned by the modernity whose dreams it once incarnated, stands as a point of leverage (if critique too strong), a dialectic image which illuminates the present. What is that? It’s not the old Shanghai, at least not for the Chinese. Is it Tiananmen Square – the founding act of the new consumer economy – or is it the Cultural Revolution – currently the absolute other of the new China. I don’t know. But some wholesale abandonment of the past is going on, and a whole hearted embrace of westernization as consumption. The communist party, the intellectuals and most people still reveling in or hoping for a period of material prosperity and national pride – all these believe that traditional values somehow hold it all together. It’s when innocent consumption ends and some other, more complicated modernity begins in the city, when the Party starts to think about what next, and nobody can think of an answer. That’s when Shanghai might become Shanghai Moderne again and not just Singapore.”

This impression of Shanghai is by Justin O’Connor. All Shanghai Diary entries.


2 responses to “Shanghai Diary #6”

  1. mark Avatar

    wonderful blog…I want to go to S town
    here is a site you might like


  2. John Riley Avatar
    John Riley

    Am preparing a magazine article on Shanghai’s International Community of the 1930’s and am specifically looking for information on an American gangster named E.T. Riley who set up nightclubs and casinos there in those days. Among his clubs were D.D.’s cafe & the Fourth Marines Club. I know he was arrested & deported back to the U.S. in 1940. Any place to turn for background would be appreciated (photos would be excellent!)


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