Photo Journal: Rise of Shanghai’s Noon
New York always looks the same to me. There might be a new building here or a once-drug-addict-infested-area-turned-hipster-hotspot there but for the most part, the concrete jungle has not significantly changed over the past two, three, four (five?) decades. And that’s ok; over the years, the familiar scenery has brought both comfort and a sense of stability — especially in the electric city that never sleeps.
Shanghai, on the other hand, is one of those evolutionary cities whose landscape changes with the blink of an eye. During my trip to Shanghai last summer, the only recognizable landmark from 1999 was the Oriental Pearl Tower. An orphan as the city’s tallest structure from 1994-2007, today it sits comfortably against the backdrop of dozens (and multiplying) of highrise peers along the skyline.
Not unlike Tokyo, Shanghai still maintains its old world feel (circa mid-1800’s) and modern society. However unlike Tokyo, its “old world” architecture features many Western-style influences from the late 19th- and early 20th centuries among its more traditionally Chinese backdrop. The ornate art-deco buildings along the Bund, French Concessions, Shikumen townhouses reflect how the spheres of influences of Britain, the US, Russia, Japan, France, Germany, Belgium and Holland elevated Shanghai into becoming Asia’s largest and most modern city.
I cannot imagine the grandeur of Shanghai during the sophisticated height of its, albeit puppet and opium-drugged, reign during the roaring 20’s; though I imagine the scene to be a hypnotic mix of western vices with a fashionable eastern twist. Considered the Paris and New York of the East, a typical night would find you sipping a lipstick-rimmed smart cocktail with a lingering aura of cigar, sweets and sticky scents. My Shanghainese grandmother, whose English was impeccable, must have had some memorable and illustrious stories to share; though they never touched my ears.
My Shanghainese mother, on the other hand, was born right when the Chinese Communists shut its doors to foreign influence between 1949 and the mid-1970’s (and as a result was fluent in Russian instead.) Like other Bougies in China, her entire family was transported from their modern and forward-thinking lives into the backward rural fields of time. I also cannot imagine how much of an antithesis that must have been to Shanghai’s once-careless and carefree splendor.
Since the mid-70’s, Shanghai has rapidly regained its luster amongst the world’s most prosperous cities. Its quarter-century detour may have temporarily thrown the city off its tracks, but today the city still houses a mystical sense of heady sophistication, youthful disregard and ephemeral buzz. My last trip through the meandering streets, where an old society has found its new light, filled me with lingering laughter, flirtatious smirks and the hope of a bright and open future.
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