`Phantom Shanghai’

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I went to a talk here in Shanghai yesterday by Greg Girard, a friend and photographer who is just out with a striking book of photos entitled “Phantom Shanghai.” The book, as Greg says, captures a moment in time, when a large chunk of `old’ Shanghai is getting torn down, replaced by new apartment buildings and skyscrapers. There are few photos of people in the book; it’s more about recording what some of these older buildings looked like, just before they ceased to exist. Indeed, some of the shots are of old houses standing alone amidst utter destruction, almost as if the city had been bombed and not merely come under the wrecking ball.
The book is not is a lament, though. A lot of westerners get all weepy about the rapid development here, and what’s lost in the process. In some cases—emphasis on some– this sentiment is appropriate– when people are literally forced out of places they would prefer to live (in one infamous case a couple of years ago, an elderly couple died in a fire when arsonists torched an old building in the center of town on behalf of a developer) ; or if real architectural gems are getting ripped down.
But a lot of stuff that gets torn down here is not old and notable, or even old and lovable; it’s just old —and not particularly livable. In Greg’s slideshow yesterday there was a striking shot of migrant workers sleeping out on the sidewalk during the broiling summers here. But it’s not just migrant workers who sleep out in the streets in the summer. We used to live on Fuzhing Zhong lu, in the heart of the former French concession, and next door to us was what was left of an old //nongtang//, a traditional Shanghai neighborhood. The residents there, too, tossed straw mats on the streets outside in the summer, because it’s just too damned hot inside. They were also cold during the winter and many didn’t have any running water. However much we outsiders may be struck by the “authenticity” of such neighborhoods, the fact is they are cramped, crowded, and not real pleasant to live in. As my wife put it during Greg’s talk yesterday, “a lot of these places are dumps, they SHOULD be torn down.” And residents are often more than happy to take some money from a real estate developer wanting to put up a high rise where a nongtang once stood, and move out to somewhere more livable.
One questioner pressed Greg during his presentation to answer whether he thought it was “good or bad” that development was happening at such warp speed here, with so many old buildings disappearing in the process. He had avoided this type of judgment during his talk, and wouldn’t bite when pushed. “It’s good AND bad,” he said. And that sounds about right to me; it’s simply not something that cuts cleanly one way or the other.
Anyway, for anyone who wants a historical record of what Shanghai— for better and for worse– looked like in this historic period of redevelopment, Phantom Shanghai is perfect.