Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shanghai Past and Present

Last night I went to the Bookworm to listen to well-known photojournalist Heung Shing Liu (HS Liu), who went to China in 1976 where his first assignment was to cover the death of Chairman Mao.

Liu had an interesting upbringing -- he was born in Hong Kong in 1951 to mainland Chinese parents, but after three years his parents had no faith in the education system there and took him back to China in Fujian Province.

He returned to Hong Kong for secondary school and later emigrated to the United States. He studied political science and journalism at New York City's Hunter College. It was in his last year there that he was introduced to photography in a course taught by Life photographer Gjon Mili.

After graduation he became Mili's apprentice and then joined Time where he went to China for five years, then later was based in Los Angeles, New Delhi, Seoul and Moscow.

These days Liu has become more of an editor than photographer.

Two years ago he came out with a large tome of photographs called China: Portrait of a Country. The book visually chronicles the People's Republic since 1949.

And then after the Olympics came and gone, Liu was asked by the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion organizers (actually the Shanghai State Assets Bureau) to produce a book for the Expo, called Shanghai: A History of Photographs.

He along with Karen Smith went through tons and tons of images, going through archives, libraries, company archives including Shanghai newspapers. Liu noted that most newspapers lost most of their old photos due to the Cultural Revolution except for the Jie Fang Daily, which was a Communist paper.

Travel was a big part of Liu's mission, as he even went to London, to the headquarters of Jardine Matheson and spotted the engraving capturing the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, which led to the opening of five treaty ports in China after the Opium War (Canton, now Guangzhou; Amoy, now Xiamen; Ningbo, Foochow, now Fuzhou, and Shanghai).

And that is how Liu and Smith decided to start their pictorial history of Shanghai, as the west played a big role in the development of the then walled city and small port. At the time there were only 60,000 people there, but as Shanghai grew, more people from outlying areas migrated to the city.

Smith also points out that if you research the history of Shanghai, a lot of it is in English and that it's usually the victors who write the history, thus perpetuating a lot of myths about Shanghai.

Opium trade was outlawed in 1917 so big trading companies like Jardine had to switch to cotton and silk. What was interesting is that Smith showed a picture of an early 20th century image of a silk factory that employed Chinese girls who weren't thrilled with their work. This was then contrasted with a photo of a factory girl of today who has the same disinterested look on her face.

Later Liu showed a picture of a Chinese model dressed in a Christian Dior white blouse and black skirt, looking confident, towering over ordinary people in frumpy clothing who cannot help but stare at her, like the face of the future.

Then in the next image shows the same model stuck in between a bed and a wall of stuff piled up, including luggage and boxes. This was the place she shared with her parents and there was hardly any room to move let alone sit.

When Liu first went to Shanghai in 1976, everything was shut down by 8pm. He remembers the taste of the water, how disgusting it was, and having to bathe in the same water that left a smell on your skin. But he also remembers finding a restaurant that made fantastic ox-tail soup, and having to bring Grand Marnier for souffles.

He observes that Beijing has the Chinese imperialist culture that dares to think big, as evident from much of the architecture. However, Shanghainese, for Liu, are maritime sailors who emigrated to different countries. They don't think big, but are very detail oriented.

Liu adds that for a long time, Shanghai was held back from developing, as Deng Xiaoping wanted to see how his experiment in Shenzhen was doing. It wasn't until the mid-1990s was Shanghai allowed to develop economically. And again it was held back until the successful execution of the Beijing Olympics before putting all-out efforts on the Shanghai Expo.

While some of these measures may have been politically motivated, it seems Shanghai can't be restrained much longer, a major municipality that calls its own shots and continues to have that interesting allure as the most westernized city in China.

Note: The first two photographs were taken by Liu.


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