A Resonant Boom

How Shanghai’s citizens view their city’s seemingly unending growth.

Two people look out at a room-sized model in the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum shows what central Shanghai will look like in 2020.

Wang Gangfeng is a happy man. He tells me as much one afternoon in Shanghai. The photographer sits in his studio in the city’s west end. The studio occupies an upperfloor corner that in its day may have housed a dozen families in the forced intimacy for which China, and especially Shanghai, remains notorious. Now Wang, a boyish fifty-year-old attired in all black, including leather pants and boots, has the space to himself. Appropriately, he is equally the self-styled “first freelance photographer in China” and proprietor of the “Gang of One,” a business name drawn from a pun on the infamous Gang of Four clique that terrorized China in the 1970s.

His walls are as crowded as any city block. Though Wang earns his living doing commercial work, his art lies in portrait photography that shirks neither Shanghai grit nor rural backwardness. Images include elderly ladies in alleyways and bicyclists pushing impossible loads. His lens is intimate, and with even the most impersonal shots, including a well-known photo of a solitary biker parting a sea of fellow travellers heading in the opposite direction, the eye is drawn to the often serene expressions worn by those going about their arduous business.

It is a pleasure to meet Wang Gangfeng again after many years. I am back in Shanghai to talk to locals about the transformation of their city into a twenty-first-century colossus and—in the views of certain critics—an emblem of urban living at its most sterile and inhuman. Wang’s thinking, like his photography, reflects a sensibility particular to some Chinese; it is characterized by an elasticity of thought which seeks to reconcile the grand with the intimate, public necessity with private destiny. Such thinking may be how individuals here negotiate powerful impulses within the culture, especially tendencies toward the gargantuan. It may also be how they survive these impulses, and find a kind of beauty and selfesteem in the landscape they inhabit.

Wang, who returned to China from a self-imposed exile in Canada in 1995, says of the new Shanghai, “I am very happy to witness this period of history.” He likens it to nothing less monumental than the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the gold rush in America. But Wang’s observations about the upheaval, which has seen the city expand horizontally and vertically beyond even the most fevered of central-committee imaginings—as well as across the Huangpu River in the form of Pudong, a mirror of Shanghai that literally did not exist two decades ago—aren’t those of an urban planner, aloof from the consequences of his grand schemes.

In the 1990s, Wang’s parents were among the hundreds of thousands of Shanghainese displaced by the levelling of entire neighbourhoods for redevelopment as high-rise and commercial zones, or else to allow for the expressways that now lattice the city. His family wound up content with their replacement dwelling in an outlying suburb, but only after much anxiety, financial and otherwise. The photographer is a defender of the few remaining shikumen, the traditional red-brick neighbourhoods whose destruction has become almost a visual cliché for heedless progress. (Of the ten Shanghai photos in the book China, by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, for instance, no fewer than seven feature destroyed or partially destroyed housing units.) Wang now gives walking tours of the shikumen where he was raised, mostly for curious foreigners.

His own apartment, where he lives with his wife and young son, is in a new building, however, and he is stoic about local ambivalence toward these reminders of pre-transformed Shanghai. “My neighbours and friends don’t see anything special in the old houses,” he says. “Either they want modern apartments or else they are tired of history.” What about the cultural loss once the final shikumen is bulldozed? “We are going to lose the character of these neighbourhoods,” Wang answers. “But that’s the only thing we are losing. And we are gaining much more.”

The gain, simply, is dignified living conditions: indoor plumbing, individual kitchens, and privacy from neighbours. “It’s a completely different world now,” Wang says of Shanghai in 2006. Soaring prosperity—the city has a per-capita income nearly five times the national average—is, in turn, forging more-empowered homeowners, an evolution that has already begun to slow the runaway train of development. For Wang Gangfeng, this easing up is likewise part of the grand scheme. “Shanghai has been a construction site for many years,” he says, his thinking once more stretching out. “But now it is almost finished.” He even provides a date: the World’s Fair in 2010. “The city will be completed by then,” he adds with a smile.

The ongoing project that is Shanghai leaves many observers uneasy, especially westerners. Asian cities, from Bangkok to Manila to Saigon, share caffeinated lifestyles and organizational impulses with their Chinese counterparts, and have the same urgent needs as rapidly urbanizing populations. Visitors from the West, whose own cities seem church-hushed by comparison, are more awed and, often enough, disconcerted by such places. They also tend to be judgmental, summoning visions of the future cityscapes that await us all, dystopias of disorder and environmental meltdown evidenced by flickering neon and smoke rising from grates. A generation ago it was the Tokyo of William Gibson’s Neuromancer that induced these anxieties. Today it appears to be Shanghai.

Scale is what unsettles the most. The city is impossible to absorb in a single visual sweep. It seems, moreover, twice as distended as in 2001, the time of my last visit, and about twice that again from when I first negotiated an endless terrain of construction cranes and building sites back in 1997. (A preliminary experience, in 1989, belonged to another era, when Shanghai, still being punished by the central government for its pre-communist decadence and Cultural Revolution fanaticism, wore the rags and coal grime of a Dickens urchin, its beleaguered residents squeezed into a space designed for a third their number.) Every few years, a major new skyline sprouts from the marshy Yangtze basin. Over there is New York, replicated in central Pudong. Further down is Toronto, stretched along the river south of the inner core. The entirety of Montreal is visible from the front steps of the Shanghai Museum, facing north. Turn south and Vancouver suddenly materializes. West of People’s Square one sees all of Chicago, with Milwaukee thrown in for good measure. On rare haze-free days, visible to the west, south, and north are further office towers and high-rises—the assembled city vistas of, say, Texas.

Edward Burtynsky’s images trail me around this megalopolis. Once viewed, his extraordinary panoramas of Shanghai, often taken from on high and favouring the raw evidence of urban renewal, are difficult to erase from memory. Shanghai, which he has described as “capitalism on steroids,” comes across as monstrous, a chimera out of control. It has no shape, except for its bloated size, and seems without character. Most tellingly, the ten Shanghai pictures in China are devoid of people, aside from a few tiny figures scurrying among the rubble. A city of twenty million and counting, and scarcely anyone is around. Burtynsky’s subject, of course, is not the citizens of Shanghai. His interest lies in physical settings. He takes photographs of how human endeavours and actions have transformed—and generally devastated—nature, and his starting point for China is how the country is “the most recent participant to be seduced by Western ideals—the hollow promise of fulfillment and happiness through material gain.” A passionate environmentalist, Burtynsky won’t be dissuaded by arguments for exceptional Chinese circumstances. “I no longer see my world as delineated by countries, with borders, or language, but as 6.5 billion humans living off a precariously balanced, finite planet,” he writes.

Exhibitions of Burtynsky’s China photographs, most notably his images of the Three Gorges Dam and various labour-intensive industries, where uniformed workers are shown headbowed and anonymous, draw near-chorus-like public and media responses in the West. We find his China cold and foreboding, “an Orwellian universe of strictly regulated collective effort that is unimaginable, and—to my mind at least—it’s scary,” as one Canadian newspaper critic expressed it.

I put the Burtynsky vision of Shanghai to Edward Denison and Ren Guangyu. We are in a bar on the seventh floor of a 1920s building along the Bund, the historic downtown once considered the paradigm of Westernized Asian architecture. Denison and Ren are coauthors of Building Shanghai: The Story of China’s Gateway, a strident reading of the city’s past, present, and future. An English expatriot, Denison is a heritage consultant and photographer; Ren is an architect, born and raised in Shanghai but educated in China and Australia. A married couple, they are biracial and bicultural and their first child has just been born. ” The Buck Rogers scenario goes back to the early twentieth century,” Denison explains. “Shanghainese have always had to live in the shadows of their skyscrapers.” In the late 1920s alone, he adds, some 12,000 buildings were torn down and replaced by taller and more formidable structures. “There was talk then about how Shanghai was being destroyed.”

Though the authors are critical of the disappearance of public spaces, of the formidable and often alienating architecture, and of the sheer scale of the current transformation, change, massive and mostly callous, has forever been the fuel for Shanghai’s engine, and citizens have had no choice but to adapt. An acceptance of change, along with a capacity to thrive under it, may even define their notoriously vigorous character. “It’s the same now as it was a hundred years ago. Poor people are always coming in from the countryside to earn a living. They open small shops or sell their vegetables on street corners. That’s not going to change,” says Ren with a nod to the rough resiliency of the people. Westerners, Denison remarks, are nostalgic for those colonial buildings and dismayed at the “sci-fi” city of today. But Shanghai has never been the sum of its vaulting architectural ambitions. It is the sum of its streets and of the lives lived there. “Streets too crowded,” Ren Guangyu says, listing the century-old complaints, “can’t walk on the pavement—too many people, too little space!” She and Denison recently bought an apartment in a downtown neighbourhood.

That evening, I page through Building Shanghai in my room at the Metropole Hotel, a gloomy, Gotham-like edifice, built in 1930, that might well have engendered a few brooding visitor prophesies in its day. The 1930s, however, were late to the whither- Shanghai business. In 1866, a certain PG Laurie declared this about the future: “Shanghai is undoubtedly a great ruin. Like many young and rising aspirants it has been carried away by the magnificence of its prospects.” In 1901, the American writer and photographer James Ricalton experienced the coming apocalypse first-hand: the old town, he said, “is traversed by lanes or streets that might better be termed fetid tunnels . . . . Odours are suffocating and the eyes can find nothing attractive or beautiful to rest upon: squalor, indigence, misery, slush, stench, depravity, dilapidation, and decay prevail everywhere.” Further along, a 1916 travelogue by Mary Ninde Gamewell foresaw doom for impudent Shanghai: “Changes are going on continually all over the city,” she wrote. “Day by day old buildings are disappearing and modern ones rising in their place. It is to be feared that many of the ancient landmarks will soon be gone.”

Clearly, I am wrong to lay only globalized twenty-first-century Western anxieties at the foot of Shanghai. Viewed from on high, and likely in passing, this has always been a scary, upsetting city.

One enters Southern Beauty, a restaurant in the former French Concession, through a watery dream. Slanted walls of running water bracket an elevated path along a corridor. A mirror door at the end slides open when approached. Inside the dining room, I am shown to a table next to a floor-to-ceiling glass window looking onto the street. My lunch companion, a vivacious twenty-nine-year-old lawyer named Feng Zhen, is already seated. She is tiny and tidy and wears a cream-coloured business suit and a warm smile. After shaking hands we exchange business cards, Feng’s emerging from a slim leather case. A waiter pours tea, and we sit for a minute, admiring the surroundings.

My opening comment describes the serenity not so much of the restaurant, which weds Eastern service to Western prices, as the sidewalk beyond the window. Previous strolls through the narrow laneways involved negotiating—to paraphrase Ren Guangyu—too little space with too many locals in too great a hurry. Today, at least, the streets of Shanghai are easy, and even pleasing, to walk.

“Shanghai is more livable now than it was ten years ago,” Feng says. “It is also more likeable.” A native of Zhangzhou in Fujian province, she views the city with both the elasticity of Wang Gangfeng and the skepticism of a provincial raised on tales of the chaotic metropolis and its all-elbows citizenry. But she, too, remarks on the dwindling sidewalk scrums and pitched battles to board public buses: “No question, the quality of life has improved. It isn’t only on the material side either. Shanghai is cleaner. People are more polite.”

Like everyone else I speak with, Feng Zhen acknowledges the harshness of how the improvements have been achieved, especially the destruction of traditional dwellings and the relocation of their residents. But she also insists that “the government now has better skills at building a city.” A better-designed city, in turn, makes everyone calmer. “If the rules are reasonable, people will follow them,” she explains. Prosperity, too, is serving to improve Shanghai, and the incessant bulging of the municipal seams with newcomers is fine by her. “It is part of the dynamism,” she says.

When it comes to living in Shanghai, enormousness is simply not an issue. “It has always been too big,” Feng says, echoing Ren. Though her husband is currently in Xinshi, where he owns a business, she has no problem envisioning raising a family here. She hopes to buy an apartment on her salary as a lawyer for an international firm. A globalized person herself—she recently completed a law degree in the United States—Feng Zhen is considering sending her own children to a Shanghai school where both Mandarin and English are taught.

On the third floor of the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum is the now-famous scale model of the urban area as it should look by 2020—a full decade after the World’s Fair. As outsized and surreal as the city itself, the model is popular with locals, who encircle the waist-high exhibit on elevated walkways, seeking out their present or perhaps future living quarters, often exclaiming in delight when they locate a facsimile of their apartment. The model has proven such a hit that a smaller version—a model of the model of the evolving reality outside the front doors—has been constructed in the lobby below.

While meta-fictionist Italo Calvino would have enjoyed the museum, its natural literary analogue may be Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The model allows Shanghainese to strut like the giant Gulliver among Lilliputians for a few moments, before stepping back into the land of the Brobdingnags, where they are once more tiny and helpless. Unless, that is, those people don’t consider themselves as being either one size or the other. In Gulliver’s Travels, whose subtitle “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World” was understood by eighteenth-century readers to refer to the Far East, Brobdingnags appear grotesque for the simple reason that their huge dimensions magnify what are otherwise ordinary human flaws. “Nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison,” Swift writes of this perceptual irony.

Many Chinese may well feel dwarfed by their mammoth nation, including its still-massive inequalities and the use of coercion and control to keep its citizens in step. Many will certainly share Burtynsky’s concern about how the development of China—a pattern of growth that will see as many as 400 million additional people pour into cities in the next couple of decades, all seeking better lives—will impact their environment, and the planet as a whole. But a country that built the Great Wall and the Grand Canal probably isn’t going to find the Three Gorges Dam, or the transformation of Shanghai, particularly daunting or strange. Citizens accustomed to social engineering on a scale at once mythic and commensurate with real needs may accept and even take pride in developments that outsiders view as distressing. What is missing in Burtynsky’s China are its people; what defines Wang Gangfeng’s photos are the individuals he sees everywhere. What defines Burtynsky’s Shanghai, in turn, is destruction and sterility, nearly the opposite impression Feng Zhen gives of the town where she happily works and eats and lives, at street level.

After decades of ideologically imposed sublimation, Chinese like Wang and Feng are asserting the re-emergence of the private self. To be sure, such privacy must still be reconciled with the non-self of collective and generally colossal endeavour, once the exclusive state-approved narrative of socialist China. But even under this sometimes-oppressive umbrella, the prevailing view is to feel good about how well some things are going. Taking the next step, toward finding aspects of all this somehow beautiful—the sprawl, the enterprise, even the spasms of heedless progress and degradation—is not such a leap.

At a show of Edward Burtynsky’s China photos in Toronto last year, guests were invited to record their thoughts in a notebook. Most praised the work and shared its presumed critique of the subject, using words like “disturbing” and “chilling.” But one entry was written in Pinyin, a Westernized form of Mandarin, by someone who signed a Chinese name. “Such beautiful pictures!” the visitor proclaimed. That particular guest wasn’t looking at different photos. He or she may just have seen things differently.

Charles Foran
Charles Foran teaches the contemporary Irish novel at the University of Toronto. His new book, Planet Lolita, comes out in May.