A Rainy Day in Shanghai

During spring 2017, I spent three wonderful months in Shanghai on a research exchange with Fudan University, which consisted mainly of buying a load of books, reading and meeting people and, last but not least, of walking around the city, absorbing all sensory input to my heart’s content.

As literary researchers, we are in grave danger of becoming armchair Sinologists because our entire field of study is brought to us through text: We can access it anytime from anywhere. So once in a while it’s worth the effort to get out there and experience first hand the smell of steaming baozi, the call of street peddlers among honking cars, the vista of the Huangpujiang and the feel of heavy spring rain that we otherwise only read about.

As you can see from this short film, Shanghai’s cityscape is an endearing mix of new and old, Chinese and European, marked by ubiquitous construction sites as well as the more benign Chinese parasol trees (wutongshu 梧桐树). While aggressive urbanisation is rapidly changing, and to some extend deforming, the city every day, examples of old lilong (里弄) lanes and unique Shanghai style architecture still remain to rejoice in.

Without falling into the trap of Shanghai nostalgia, which tend to idealise 1930s Shanghai as a utopian metropolis characterised by the effortless blending of East and West (in reality, the few percent of the population who were Europeans and Americans lived isolated in their own enclaves, while the considerable number of people from other Asian countries, who called Shanghai their home, are largely ignored in this nostalgic narrative), I still attest that the material cityscape of Shanghai itself can be viewed as an utterly enjoyable living display of historical and contemporary cultural diversity, conflict and curiosity.

 

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)

Traveling to Hong Kong with imaginary tram

ding_ding_tram_on_hennessy_road_in_hong_kong“With a number of twists and turns, the tram skirts Victoria Park and the Tin Hau Temple (one of Hong Kong’s oldest) on its way to North Point, Quarry Bay, and Shau Kei Wan at the eastern tip of the island. The ride is convenient, if not comfortable, and the panorama of buildings and people moving by in slow motion gives one the feeling of travelling backward through time – a nostalgic antidote for the stomach-churning, competitive pace of Central Business District.”

This is how literary scholar Leo Ou-fan Lee describes a ride on the Hong Kong tram (established in 1904 nicknamed the Ding Ding 叮叮) in his highly enjoyable introduction to Hong Kong history, culture and literature City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong. The idea that the pace of transportation itself, rather than the appearance of the tram cars which have changed a lot over the past 100 years, induces a sense of, and longing for, the past is fascinating.

Reading about nostalgia in Shanghai, it seems to me that the past is often evoked by imagery (think of all the reprints of old photographs, picture postcards, commercial posters), sometimes by audio (1930s jazz) and less commonly but very potently by smell (imported perfumes, hair oil, coffee). But thinking about pace should prove very interesting indeed, though not a simple case of then=slow, now=fast I should imagine.

For me, planning my first ever visit to Hong Kong, Lee’s narrative tram ride is a much more effective point of entry into unknown territory than any map would be. It reminds me of Michel de Certeau’s distinction between the two dimensional, ‘readable’ city space seen from above and the city space you ‘enunce’ when you walk its streets (‘Walking in the City’ in The Practice of Everyday Life). Perhaps the tram ride is somewhere in between: From the second story of a tram, you see watch the streets unfold beneath and before you, slightly elevated from the hustle and jostle, yet unable to see the whole picture as your line of vision in tantalizingly blocked by buildings, street signs and fellow passengers.

lineup-650x400
Would you like another ride? Take a Hong Kong tram from 1970s or  2015. South China Morning Post has made a history of the Hong Kong tram, but here you have to imagine the pace from still photos. In Shanghai, trams were in service 1908-1970s, then, in 2010, the Zhangjian/Translohr monorail trams were introduced. Some of these videos are really home videos, which just goes to show that there are still a lot of tram enthusiasts (and nostalgics) out there. (Quite a few of the are here: www.hktramstation.com)

A little closer to (my) home, there were trams in Aarhus untill 1971 and in Copenhagen untill 1972 while Stockholm still has a few (lovely old footage complete with very nostalgic song hits).

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. .