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By Yap Soo Ei, Ji Xing, Nicolai Volland, Yang Lijun, and Paul Pickowicz

Feng Xiaogang’s blockbuster Aftershock is making headlines these days, setting new records at the box office in China. We cannot say yet if the excitement is justified—Aftershock has only just hit the theaters here in Singapore. It is clear, however, that the current cinema craze in China is not at all a new phenomenon. In fact, new releases on the silver screen created similar sensations in Shanghai as early as eighty years ago. And many of these old films continue even today to fascinate. Films by pioneering Chinese directors of the 1920s and 1930s still dazzle, with their opulent sets, the metropolitan glamour of Shanghai, not to speak of their melodramatic stories of love and distress, passion and agony.

At a workshop held at the National University of Singapore in June and July 2010, directed by Paul Pickowicz and chaired by Yang Lijun and Nicolai Volland, we took a closer look at some of these films, gems of China’s silent film era. Although interest in “Golden Age” Chinese cinema has gradually picked up in recent years, many of these films remain little known, as opposed, for instance, to the works of directors from China’s “fifth” and “sixth” generations. Yet after several days of collective movie-watching and intensive discussion, there is little doubt about the richness of this treasure trove of early Chinese films.

Imagine, for example, the following opening shots: The camera zooms in on the supple thighs of a young woman. A few seconds later, you—the viewer—see her charming smile. She is wearing a simple short sleeved shirt, both arms exposed, and clad in shorts with one of the seams torn. In full view now, you are able to admire her slender body. She is in a playful mood. Such are the opening shots of Sun Yu’s 1931 film Wild Rose (Ye meigui), set in an idyllic countryside. But this dream world will not last; misfortune will soon befall the female protagonist and the man she loves. Painful separation seems inevitable. Will the couple eventually reunite? What will lead them back together? Just a hint (spoiler alert!): they both sign up for a vaguely defined “revolution.”

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By Marta Cooper

Shanghai is a city where one has to work particularly hard to find simple, unadulterated culture. So, when the blue moon opportunity comes to bask in it for two weeks, I do just that. Most recently, that’s meant heading to the sophisticated Glamour Bar, overlooking the curve of the Bund and the sci-fi lights of Pudong, which has been hosting the 2010 Shanghai International Literary Festival (SILF) this month. The venue has been brimming with excitement, with authors from County Cork to Manila sharing their work with the spoiled audience.

On a mild Saturday, hot off the heels of Paul French’s swim through the depths of decadent and dirty Shanghai, two more authors took us back in time.

In the morning, historian Andrew Field launched his new book, Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954. Plunging into an untapped reservoir of Chinese sources, government documents, novels and magazines, Field described a time when cabaret and ballroom dancehalls decorated old Shanghai.

Thanks to the pockets of Westerners in Shanghai’s concessionary areas, the city had its own edition of the Roaring Twenties. Shanghai’s dancehalls were awash with American musicians blending jazz beats and riffs with Chinese folk, taxi dancers being paid to drink, dance and converse with men, and local girls from a variety of class backgrounds cruising the town in 3-inch heels. It even seemed from his presentation that the glamorous and decadent cabaret halls, adorned in nickel, crystal and marble with electric lights, sometimes echoed more Saturday Night Fever than Paris of the Orient.

Dancing the cha-cha and Charleston were not only Shanghai’s answer to flappers, but also the city’s gangsters, who often used the venues for their own rackets. The scandalous underworld of sexual dancing and criminal culture unsettled the then-ruling KMT (Nationalist Party), which banned cabarets in 1927 but failed to outlaw the dancing halls and ballrooms that were conveniently situated in the concessionary areas, and therefore under foreign control.

What Field reminded us of is that the local Shanghainese quickly jumped on to the cabaret bandwagon and eventually “elbowed the foreigners off the dancefloor.” Despite the fact that the dancing was controversial in terms of Confucian cultural values, these venues sprung up during an enlightened era in which the May 4th Movement had set the stage for a context of change. What was initially a puzzling development for the locals was soon appropriated as a liberating transgression (however, when asked what the Chinese thought of this ballroom culture, Field simply responded: “read the book!”).

Field wrapped up by drawing parallels between the then and now. Even without the 1920s’ glamour, Shanghai’s nightlife is still one the city’s greatest assets: the club scene is alive and well, and bars of both the sophisticated and seedy varieties are not difficult to come by. For Field, the past still echoes through the amplifiers.

In the afternoon, 80-year-old (or, going on 25) Tess Johnston took us on a more personal journey. Having spent forty plus years abroad in the US Foreign Service, Johnston descended on Shanghai in the early 1980s. She called the city she found a combination of 1938 Warsaw and Calcutta: “grubby, grey and crumbling…but all entirely intact,” she said. She heralded the Bund, her most cherished Shanghai sight, as “a scruffy showcase of Western architecture, but wonderful.”

Tess Johnston

For the next hour, Johnston regaled us with tales of the mystique of the French Concession, foreigners-only markets in old warehouses, not wasting one bite of a decadent Snickers bar that had already been half-eaten by rats, and struggling to find an available dish on the Western menu at the Park Hotel. In between her escapades, Johnston managed to write 25 books, including several on Western architecture and the life of an expat in old China.

Johnston’s words were infused with nostalgia, but not for the glamorous Paris of the East that Field had described. Instead, Johnson yearned for simpler times: “there was no glitz or lust for money,” she said of 1980s Shanghai.

The city’s superficial reality certainly overshadows its creative and immaterial vibes. For a jazz enthusiast spoiled by London’s delicious culture, I arrived here with an immature pang for the Paris of the Orient I never experienced.

However, it is useless to criticise the materialistic currents running through the city’s nouveau riche. As Johnston affirmed, “who could begrudge China these new opportunities? The Shanghainese are taking this city into the twenty-first century with a vengeance.”

Marta Cooper is a British-Italian writer and student based in Shanghai. She currently writes for Shanghaiist and Global Voices Online, and keeps a blog titled …in Shanghai.

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Howard French, former Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times, has recently posted a new collection of black-and-white photographs on his website. The photo gallery, entitled “Disappearing Shanghai Part Two: The Landscape Within,” is accompanied by an essay written by French.  Below, an excerpt from “The Landscape Within” and a sample of French’s photography to whet your appetite:

As many times as I have tread those asphalt streets, my mission this summer was altogether different from my photographic explorations of the past. It was inspired, in part, by a suggestion from a friend, the photographer Danny Lyon, that sounded innocent-enough but hit me with the force of an explosion.

Danny had been very generous in his comments about my street work, but something was nagging him. “Howard, I want to know more about the lives of these people. Where do they live? I want to see them at home.”

In the course of four years of street photography, I had been in the homes of some of the people I have photographed, but it had never occurred to me to make those cramped, often ill-lit spaces the focus of any extended work, especially not given my rapture over the streets.

Inspired by Danny’s insight, though, I revisited my old haunts nearly ever day for two and a half months, forcing myself at first to resist the familiar seductions of the street to go a step beyond into the truly private worlds of hundreds of ordinary people.

French photo 1

Thither and Yon

French photo 2


French photo 3


French also wrote about his experiences working on this project in a “Letter From China” published last month in the New York Times. Readers of China in 2008 will find an extended essay on “Disappearing Shanghai” and more of French’s photos there as well.

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By Anna Greenspan

The future is by definition modern – Carol Willis

Modern means Shanghai – then and now – Ben Wood

At the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park, where lower Manhattan meets the water’s edge, Shanghai is currently on display.  Though the museum only occupies a small space, the design by architectural firm SOM gives the illusion of height, and the show is packed with content (including maps, floor-to-ceiling photographs, architectural models, video, and a 20-minute floating streetscape by Shanghai-based photographer Jakob Montrasio).

For those who can’t make the trip to New York, much of this material is now available online at the museum’s superb website. In the coming months, this should be supplemented by recordings of a fall lecture series on the Shanghai skyline, which features architectural talks from many of the most notable firms working in the city (Portman, Gensler, SOM, KPF etc).

The exhibit is designed as an introduction to the urban landscape of contemporary Shanghai. Yet, there is much of interest here even for those deeply familiar with the city.

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Tael Lights CoverClocking in at only 99 pages, Shanghai: High Lights Low Lights Tael Lights is an excellent appetizer for those of us who generally dine on heavier reading fare. The authors, Maurine Karns and Pat Patterson, make their purpose known early in the book: in the preface, titled “an explanation but not an apology,” Karns and Patterson state that they have written Tael Lights “with the hope of enjoying ourselves, of making a little money, and of not committing ourselves to anything for which we might be sorry” (xx). They proceed to describe, with delightful if decidedly un-PC irreverence, the Shanghai they saw before them when writing the book in 1936.

Tael Lights has recently been reprinted by Earnshaw Books, and is once again available to readers looking to supplement their stodgy Shanghai guidebooks with a more tongue-in-cheek introduction to the city. Karns and Patterson have produced a brief, idiosyncratic work — one which does not attempt to detail the entire history of Shanghai or present a comprehensive survey of the city’s hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites, but rather gives the reader a vivid impression of the Shanghai experience. Tael Lights is “Just a sort of a composite of what Shanghai looks like, and feels like and smells like after, say, the third whisky-soda, when, as Shakespeare or somebody said, the senses are sharpest” (xx).*

The absolute necessity of experiencing Shanghai, rather than gazing at it through the viewfinder of a camera, is a recurring theme in Tael Lights. Karns and Patterson urge their readers to forgo visits to the staid Longhua Pagoda and Willow Pattern Tea House, instead suggesting a trip to the Great World Amusement Park, Shanghai’s Coney Island, for tourists seeking a real taste of metropolitan life. The book lists and reviews the hotspots of Shanghai’s nightlife, devoting an entire chapter to “the fleshpots” and assuring readers that “A trip to the Venus [Cafe] is worth the sleep lost and is part of anyone’s education” (57). The writers, intoxicated by both the “Whangpoo whiskey” and the city surrounding them, express this joie de vivre in every page of their book. “The color and tang and spice of China is not in it’s temples nor in it’s lotus strewn gardens but in its crowded streets” (42), they remind their audience.

I was continually mindful of its original publication date, only a year before the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, effectively bringing to an end the treaty-port society described by Karns and Patterson. Like the television drama Mad Men, currently set in the early months of 1963, Tael Lights celebrates an apparently untroubled world that is in fact not quite so footloose and fancy-free, and which will soon be turned upside-down. While Karns and Patterson mention the presence of the Japanese military in Shanghai, they make light of the Japanese fondness for “playing soldiers” (7) and state that tensions between the countries stem from “the Japanese yen for the Chinese tael” (25).

Their Shanghai is on the cusp of disappearing, yet what is most remarkable about the guidebook Karns and Patterson have written is the sense of familiarity I felt when reading some parts of it. Tael Lights evokes the relentless energy of Shanghai, the cacophony of its streets, and the many indescribable qualities which make it “the most unique city in the world” (2). Although several other elements of the book are entirely divorced from my own Shanghai experiences (the final chapter is entitled “There Are Also Some Chinese in Shanghai,” for example), Karns and Patterson have nevertheless captured a certain slice of the urban landscape that remains recognizable seven decades later. In his forward to the new edition, Michael Schoenhals writes that Tael Lights “retroactively foreshadows like no other work the globalized Shanghai of the 21st century” (xiii). Simultaneously exotic and familiar, the Shanghai depicted in these 99 pages is most definitely “a grand place to live, to work and to enjoy life” (98-99).

*The Earnshaw Books edition of Tael Lights maintains all original spelling and grammatical errors, and quotes here are reproduced without alteration.

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