Yu Jun and Chen Cun on Shanghai Memories and Illusions

While in Shanghai, I attended a very relaxed and intimate conversation between painter/author 郁俊 Yu Jun and author/photographer 陈村 Chen Cun, at the Old China Hand Style coffee-house 汉源汇 at 374 Shaanxi Road South.

Seated between Shanghai-born US-based writer 薛海翔 Xue Haixiang and a ceaselessly belching young man, I immediately felt the peculiar mix of aesthetic appreciation and laid back familiarity, which, according to Chen Cun, characterises Shanghai of recent years.

Displaying his passion for the city in both word and manner, Chen Cun remarked several times upon the liveliness and aesthetic lushness of Shanghai as well as its capacity for accommodating people from very different walks of life, not least a multitude of writers and artist. Apart from his short stories, Chen Cun is famous for being among the first in China to seriously promote online fiction (see Michel Hockx recent book Internet Literature in China for details), and under the name of 老鼠 (Mouse), Yu Jun is an active member of his literary online community Minority Vegetable Garden (小众菜园).

Quite a few questions from the audience centred on Yu Jun’s novel Red Light District (红灯区), about the hidden brothel quarters of Shanghai. Several local readers confessed their surprise at discovering that such areas existed within the boundaries of their own city. Others had, from the title, expected a novel about the Cultural Revolution (in China, yellow is the colour usually associated with sexual promiscuity, while red is the colour of luck and the Communist Party among other things, and red lamps especially are associated with the revolutionary opera Legend of the Red Lantern 红灯记).

(All photographs by Astrid Møller-Olsen, Shanghai 2017)

Straight Baby Talk: Children of Shanghai’s International Settlement

In the 1920s Shanghai was divided into three administrative zones: The International settlement 公共租界 around Suzhou creek and along the north bank of the Huangpu, the French Concession 法租界 inland from the South end of the Bund and the Chinese old walled city 老城厢 on the South West bank of Huangpu jiang.

1920px-shanghai_1935_s1_ams-wo

In the international settlement, three of the largest groups of foreign residents (along with the Portuguese and after 1922 the Russians) were the Japanese, the British and the American. The children of these families were sometimes thrown together, if not through the urbane internationalism of their parents (despite Shanghai’s cosmopolitan image, racial prejudice was still prevalent), then due simply to physical proximity.

41dgiq8docl-_sx343_bo1204203200_In the satirical tidbits of American journalist Elsie McCormick’s The Unexpurgated Diary of a Shanghai Baby from 1927, we see the ‘Paris of the Orient’ through the eyes of an American toddler. Most of the baby’s revealing observations satirize the foreign settlers’ ignorance of everything beyond their own small social sphere (including the everyday life of their own child). The baby itself has an even more limited social life: Apart from its amah, its only social intercourse is a distance aquantainship with a Japanese baby – perambulators that pass in the night… One might compare the baby’s mix of awe and resentment towards the ‘fresh Jap baby’ to the American attitude to the growing Japanese militarism of the time:

“May ninth

Went to Hongkew Park and saw fresh Jap baby wearing white apron on top of kimono and little flat red hat on head. Silly getup. Jap famility excited because baby could step alone. Awfully stuck on itself. Have decided not to throw wooden elephant, as didn’t know Jap baby could walk.” 61

In a much later novel by Japanese born British author Kazuo Ishiguro, we likewise view 1920s Shanghai through the eyes of two children of the international settlement. This time, the two neighbour kids, one British the other Japanese, are both equally cut off from the world outside the settlement:

“I for one was absolutely forbidden to enter the Chinese areas of the city, and as far as I know, Akira’s parents were no less strict on the matter. Out there, we were told, lay all matter of ghastly diseases, filth and evil men.” (When We Were Orphans, 2000: 54)

shanghai_municipality_flagSeen through the eyes of its (fictional) younger inhabitants, the international community of 1920s’ Shanghai reveals itself to be not so much decadent and cosmopolitan as suffering from ineffectual self isolation and quite a lot of prudish village atmosphere. If the settlement was itself a little ethnically confused (witness the municipal flag), the important part was that it was not Chinese. The arbitrariness and impotence of these lines drawn in the sand become humourously apparent when narrated from a child’s perspective. After reading quite a lot of literary descriptions of Shanghai as “the adventurers’ paradise” towards the undoing of all good men and women, it is quite liberating to see that image messed up a bit.2079718218_d736b7b10c_b

Finally, should you wish to discover the real Shanghai outside your own comfort zone, I recommend the strategy of this baby flâneur:

“April twentieth

Went out this morning with amah and wooden elephant. Elephant very nice to bite tooth on, but always falling out of perambulator into street. Amah kind about picking it up and giving it back to me. Know taste of every street in Shanghai.” 25

Dying in Shanghai

Both Mao Dun’s canonical Shanghai novel 子夜 from 1933, translated as Midnight by Hsu Meng-hsiung, and Chen Danyan’s 成为和平饭店 from 2012, translated by Liu Haiming as The Peace Hotel, begin with an old man dying.

img_25361In Midnight the head of the Wu family, a pious country gentleman, expires on his very first day in Shanghai from sheer shock of its depravity. The city itself seems to him monstrous, while at the same time curiously ephemeral, and intent upon wrecking moral havoc on all who enter: “Good heavens! the towering skyscrapers, their countless lighted windows gleaming like eyes of devils, seemed to be rushing down on him like an avalanche at one moment and vanishing the next.” (15)

waitan-40Signifying the quick demise of old traditions and values in the new world of the 1930s, with its unpredictable civil war and its extreme financial instability, the scene is set for a dramatization of a historical changes in China. The natural stage for such a scene is Shanghai, enabling professor Yu-ting, when a young lady asks him to describe contemporary society, to answer:

“It’s a tall order your question. But you can find the answer in the next room. There you have the successful financier and a captain of industry. That little drawing-room is Chinese society in miniature [中国社会的缩影].”
“But there is also a pious old man – a believer in the Book of Rewards and Punishments [太上感应篇].”
“Yes, but the old man is – he’s dying fast.” (29)

waitan-18The dead man in Chen Danyan’s story (though true to a certain type of character in recent Shanghai history, being a dispossessed factory owner with children educated abroad) is more important for the sense of emotional loss his death induces. The loss of one personal version of the past.

Though saturated with nostalgia, the novel acknowledges that the object of nostalgia is itself elusive and highly subjective. To the dead man and his mourning family, the Peace Hotel witnessed the transformation of their family fortunes as the place where capitalists were to hand over their ill-gotten gains during the five antis campaign in 1952. To other characters in the novel, it signifies the colonial splendor of the 1930s, the international ties of socialism in the 1970s or the first glimpses of the dawning Shanghai nostalgia craze of the 1990s.

Waitan (24).JPGChen Danyan’s somewhat eclectic “non-fiction novel” is a testament to the plurality of personal and emotional ties to the Shanghai of yore as well as to one of its most spectacular iconic spaces, the Peace Hotel: “Regret for it’s being ‘unlike how it was in the past’ welled up inside me, yet, interestingly; I found it hard to pin down the ‘past.’ The people I had interviewed and I myself couldn’t help talking about the hotel’s past, which often meant our respective first encounter with it.” (252)

Written 80 years apart, the two novels convey an image of Shanghai as a city of tremendous change tinted with loss. For those of you feeling nostalgic, Christian Henriot and co.’s amazing Virtual Shanghai project with photographs from the late 19th century till today is always worth a visit. .

Heritage and Memory in Copenhagen: 8th International ADI conference

What makes certain practices and sites cultural heritage? This week I took part in a very interesting panel on ‘Heritagizing Asia: The politics of time and space in Asian cities’, part of this year’s Asian Dynamics Initiative international conference in Copenhagen.

salamanca_-_patrimonio_de_la_humanidad_-_world_heritageVietnam scholar and Professor of anthropology, Oscar Salemink came up with the idea of using the verb form of the word heritage – heritagization as a process rather than something which is merely there to be recognised and preserved. As it came out in our discussions, heritagization seems to be quite a complex process of simultaneous construction and selective erasure, taking place from the present cultural political context, directed towards the past, for preservation into the future.

Several interesting and thought-provoking examples of ambiguous and problematic issues of heritage came out during the ten presentations. Anthropologists Bente Wolff and Caroline Lillelund, who talked about the local reactions to the restoration of Danish colonial buildings in India, touched upon an interesting if unintentional effect of heritage preservation: The preservation of the empty space surrounding a heritage building, which seemed to be even more treasured by the local populace. If certain practices can be recognized as intangible cultural heritage that needs to be preserved, can empty space as room for such practices also be included?

12304183263_c248552c90_bUrban geographer, Rishika Mukhopadhyay described how the idol makers of Kumartuli became the victims of their own heritagization, when their workshops were demolished in order to create a more suitable site for their heritage craft. Apart from the plight of the craftsmen now having lived in ‘temporary’ exile from their homes for more than six years, this understanding of heritage as something that can be contained and detached from its spatio-temporal context, acutely problematizes the distinction between material and intangible heritage.

Professor of Modern China Studies, Marina Svensson’s paper about the development of Nanluoguxiang 南锣鼓巷 and the creation as well as commercialization of heritage neighbourhoods in Beijing reminded us to transgress the visual bias and include more senses when engaging in cultural research.

taipei_101_from_afarMy own presentation dealt with the relation between memory and heritage. I read Zhu Tianxin’s 朱天心 novella ‘Old Capital’ 古都 from this perspective, discovering that in the instance of this fictional investigation of Taipei, the notion of heritage preservation detached from lived experience could be as problematic as heritage destruction. In this work, preservation as a nostalgic project that excludes complicated or painful memories risk removing urban heritage from the citizens, producing alienation rather than a sense of belonging.

Lena Scheen on Shanghai myths

The Bund, Shanghai, 1880

This August Assistant Professor Lena Scheen of NYU Shanghai visited Copenhagen to talk about Shanghai. One of her most interesting points were to do with the narratives involved in producing the image of Shanghai as a new and vibrant global city.

Scheen identified two myths concerning the origins of Shanghai city. One has it that Shanghai was nothing but a small fishing village until the British settled there 160 years ago. In reality Shanghai had been an important city for Chinese trade for centuries, but this narrative represents Shanghai as a young city, cosmopolitan from the very beginning.

Manhattan, New York, ca. 1931

The second myth has to do with the so-called ‘Pudong Miracle’. In 1993 Pudong became a special economic zone, and the radical transformation of its cityscape began. Scheen explained how highrise landscapes were originally the result of limited space for urban expansion on a horizontal level (such as on Manhattan Island in the 1920s), and only later became symbols of the global city. But in Shanghai it was the other way around.

Pudong, Shanghai, today

When the Pudong skyline was begun in the 1990s, 80% of the buildings were empty. The strategy was criticized for constructing a mere facade, for trying to build the shell of a global business metropolis and then hope vainly that the shell would fill out itself. The surprising thing is that it worked.

As with the fishing village myth, this narrative claims that Pudong was just empty countryside before the ‘miracle’. It ignores that at least 52.000 households were moved in order for the impressive new skyline to take form.

In her book Shanghai Literary Imaginings, Scheen traces both these myths through various works of fiction about Shanghai. Among other things, she finds that real memories of pre-1990s Pudong as a residential area, and myths of its ‘miracle’ creation can live happily – if contradictory – side by side in Shanghai people’s understanding of their city.

For more wondeful images and maps of old Shanghai visit Virtual Shanghai.

Revolutionary Squares: Yu Hua’s Tiananmen and Tahrir

yu huaReading Yu Hua‘s 余华 China in Ten Words 十个词汇里的中国 I was struck (as many others must have been before me) with his nostalgic description of Beijing in the spring of 1989, a few months before what has since been referred to as the ‘Tiananmen Incident’ 天安门事件 or ‘June Fourth Incident‘ 六四事件.

He writes: “It was a Beijing we are unlikely to see again. A common purpose and shared aspirations put a police-free city in perfect order. As you walked down the street you felt a warm, friendly atmosphere around you. You could take the subway or a bus for free, and everyone was smiling at one another, barriers down […] Beijing then was a city where, you could say, ‘all men are brothers.'” (Yu Hua: China in Ten words, translated by Allan H. Barr. New York, Pantheon Books: 2011. pp. 7)

This description immediately put me in mind of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the early spring of 2011. Many protesters and commentators of the time wrote of the same feeling of brotherhood, the same symbolic power of the place and in the same romanticized narrative style as Yu Hua in his relation of the protests leading up to the Tiananmen Incident.

Slavoj Žižek wrote: The most sublime moment occurred when Muslims and Coptic Christians engaged in common prayer on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, chanting ‘We are one!’ […] the protesters’ call to the army, and even the hated police, was not ‘Death to you!’, but ‘We are brothers! Join us!'” (Slavoj Žižek in The Guardian, Thursday 10 February 2011)

Though these two cases vary very much in outcome, the urban square as a site for democratic protest links them together.  The square as a physical place for gathering, as well as a symbolic space for the creation of a common narrative, is a powerful democratic tool. No wonder the Bahrain government saw fit to demolish the Pearl Square to prevent protesters from gathering there.

Again I become aware how deeply the reader is part of the inter-human contract that we name literature, and how one’s immediate social and historical context cannot fail to determine or at least flavour the reading of a given text. And again I am forced to admit that there is no such thing as a pure text, nor an original meaning to be conveyed. All the more reason to read good books over and over again!