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Shangha Memoir

Lerra Ye, Lann Yang 2017-01-30 17:04

Walking Through the Alleys

For Shanghai-borns, the name of Shanghai means home, while for the "New Shanghainese", Shanghai means a land of opptunities. How does Shanghai seem to someone who is new in town? The short film Shanghai Forever may give you a small hint. 

Opening on an astonishing bird’s eye view shot over the city that can almost rival those in blockbusters, the lens pulls you into one of the skyscrapers like a thunder bolt and throw you into a high-speed landing elevator ride that gets your heart racing. Ding. Welcome to the ground floor: this is the real Shanghai.

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Within a short span of 3 minutes and 44 seconds, you'll be shuttling between busy main streets and sumptuous buildings. You'll witness the grand universal expo of archi - tecture and the massive transportation network of Shanghai and catch a glimpse of the bustling city's nightlife and latest fashions of the young. Amongst all the scenes, there is an almost nostalgic ambience that can only be found through old narrow alleys and into everyday family life. 

The familiar fragrance of sautéed dishes in the old shikumen, the sound of children practicing guzheng, their serious faces as they do their homework, and scenes of the old playing Chinese chess or mahjong. These together comprise a Shanghai that contrasts with the razor sharp modernity as seen in the city's official image promotion film Shanghai, City of Innovation.

Yet to our biggest surprise, such a human centric film that resonates so strongly with the common folk of Shanghai is not the work of a native director, but an Indian-Canadian urbanologist, JT Singh. 

In 2013, when Singh first came to Shanghai to study Chinese at JiaoTong University, he began to explore Shanghai with his cameraman friend, Rob Whitworth, out of his distinct curiosity in urban existence. They launched the video This is Shanghai two months later into the course. Unexpectedly, the video became so popular both nationwide and worldwide that Singh had to drop out of the Chinese program to deal with all the press and inquiries the video generated.


Shanghai Forever is the third short film JT Singh has made of Shanghai. This time he no longer sticks to the large scale glittery urban fabric for that the civic ambition of thriving and expanding is not the only thing he wants to depict. " Finally I wanted to capture some of the softer elements, such as the people, inner alley ways, local charm, and mostly focus within the shikumen neighbourhoods," he explains. "There's a certain romance about it, especially the simpler ways of living. The human element of the city is truly the most powerful and unique factor that I tried to capture."

To reveal a true living status of the Shanghainese, he and his team spent two weeks straight to visit spots to draw such a large amount of primary video. 

Just as he did in Walk in Shanghai, the way Singh observes a city is quite simple but bold - keep walking. But in Shanghai, a city with a CBD covering 660km², this obstinate walking spirit seems insane, but Singh insists on doing so. "When I walk through a city, I think about the complex layers of economics, culture, politics, history, urban development that make up the city and even how emerging technology will impact the city's future." His special urban pedestrianism opens up a mind of solving major urban challenges.

"Only through walking with the understanding that cities are complex and evolving organisms, can you understand how the people living in cities think, act, feel and live - which is extremely beneficial for solving all kinds of big problems to improve city life." He explains. 

As Singh led his team through the inner alleys recording the human vibrancy in Shanghai for the film, the deeper he dug into the city, the stronger his emotional connection with it grew. He refers to the old lovely lady laughing in the film as his 'Shanghai grandma'. They met through shooting and spoke for nearly an hour merely by body language. What surprised Singh was that Shanghai grandma told him to go back and visit her again as he was leaving - but in almost perfect English.


For Singh, it's not just the architectural aesthetic being the biggest charm that old Shanghai shikumen remains so far, but the intimate and supporting relations in the neighbourhoods and a simpler yet joyful life. 

As for those hectic routine-driven urbanites, those memories of the old-fashioned way of living might seem to be gradually drifting away through the years, but these are exactly Singh has been trying to bring back to their sight, for the fire in this city is lit by such mundane yet beautiful moments. 

At the end of the day, humanity comes first, and on this, nationality differs not.


About JT Singh

Media artist and urban futurist. With representative works of Enter Pyongyang, Shanghai Forever, JT Singh is also the co-founder of platform City of Humans for consulting on urban sustainable development and raising solutions.

Hearts of Craftsmen

On a rainy morning, I arrived at my appointment at Zhou Zhuguang’s HANART Qipao Couture Workshop. It was hard to imagine such a seemingly humble workshop hides such a spacious room inside. Half of the wall in the corridor was covered with old photos dated with the year and months of “the Republic of China” at the right corner. Turn to the left and you see a tea lounge where various qipao were listed, rendering a distinctive brilliance. Zhou carefully removed one piece of the qipao and placed it in front of me. With a closer look, I saw those crossed stitches lying in or - der and the embroidery carried out with such intricacy and complexity, far beyond an ordinary qipao. "This piece of qipao was created under the guidance of master Zhu Hongsheng, who has been working on qipaos for more than 80 years, and his craft skills distinguish himself in careful observation." Zhou continued with a smile, "now his eyes are still keen, and occasionally he does some ‘measuring scales’ as well”. Then he gently touched the silks and satins, as if the golden tailed phoenix would be scared away with rough handling. "How did you know about Zhu Hongsheng?" I asked. It seemed the scene flashed to his mind suddenly. After a while, he gen-tly hung up the qipao and slowly told with longing eyes a story that spanned almost a century.


Craftsman Spirits

Zhou Zhuguang was born into a tailoring family. Before meeting Master Zhu, Zhou’s family had always been the biggest exporter of qipao garments in Shanghai with a thriving business. In 1998, Zhou accidentally met eighty-year-old Zhu Hongsheng, and Zhu frankly told Zhou: "If you want to work in the qipao industry, you should target haute couture." The master's words struck Zhou at once. Zhou quickly established HANART Haute Couture qipao Workshop, recruiting many elites and retained inherent Chinese techniques under the guidance of Master Zhu, which was highly acclaimed the world over. At the same time, Zhou promoted the international spread of Chinese qipao by initiating the "Shanghai Haute Couture Qipao" project of Shanghai Fashion Accessories Society, which left a profound influence. Zhou’s idea came from the words of his mentor . “The old man said the inheritance of national techniques shouldn’t fade out with the old generation. He experienced a time full of ups and downs, so he realized what was lacking in our age; the craftsman spirit.” Zhou recounted, lost in thought.


Later on, Master Zhu won Lifetime Achievement Award awarded by the Shanghai International Fashion Federation last year. For him, the prize came a bit late, but better late than never. 

The master tailor, who was born in 1918, has written his legendary life of qipao career from his apprentice period in Zhu Shunxing tailor’s on the Avenue Road (now Beijing Road) at the age of 16. In that turbulent era, the acquisition of a technique was essential to make a living, and therefore he forged an indissoluble bound with qipao for nearly a century.

Spirit in the Works

During his apprentice period, the young Zhu Hongsheng was always running errands. After his temper was dulled, he began to practice basic techniques like guest reception, tailoring, style design, style selection, sample testing, and the whole process of sewing. Making qipao has its own particularity with a stubborn craftsman spirit inside. The skills required take time and accumulation, definitely not a career for the impatient. During his fight against the tedious process repeated day by day, Zhu spent more time and effort on becoming familiar with craft skills, even making a small plate button took three hours. As he worked, Zhu didn’t even notice the sweat streaming down his face. All the hard work stemmed from the words by his master: the works is themselves, and it is a shame to hand poor works to customers.


Years of practice honed exquisite craftsmanship. After the apprentice period, at only 22 years of age, Zhu Hongsheng made a hollow lace qipao for a famous movie star at that time, Hu Die. The elegant details and exquisite style made him an overnight sensation. At that time, he did not expect this qipao would be on display in New York more than half a century later, exhibiting the beauty of Chinese traditions to the world.

From the end of the 1920s to the 1950s, this is the golden age of Shanghai, and also the golden age of Zhu Hongsheng. The tailor shop was crowded full of guests. Regardless of the surrounding hustle and bustle, Zhu was calm inside. He immersed himself in every stage of the production process, with everything hands-on, so making a piece of embroidered qipao took several months. Perhaps it seemed stubborn and slow, but it hid a kind of adherence and pursuit of perfection of craft skills. It may not be taken for granted, but it must be so.


After 1949, Shanghai’s golden age came to an end for a while. However, Zhu did not leave qipao industry, although the scope of qipao began to shrink with the end of the Republic of China. On the contrary, fine craft skills and meticulous attitude consolidated his personal brand, even some overseas guests sought to acquire a piece of customized qipao made by Zhu.

Zhou Zhuguang said: "For Zhu Hongsheng, it is a real pleasure to do one thing you really like for a lifetime." Time flies, Zhu turned 60 when most of his peers retired and went back to Zhejiang, but Zhu still agreed to return to the original state institution as a consultant. The 98-yearold man’s qipao life has crossed nearly a century, he not only witnessed the golden age of qipao in 1930s and 1940s, but also witnessed the whole evolution of qipao production in the over eighty years period. For him, the most important thing is still “we should retain the most precious beauty of the nation and be proud of it, then pass qipao techniques down regardless of uncertainty in different ages."


▲About Zhou Zhuguang

Born in 1963, Zhou Zhuguang has worked as design and art director of HANART since 1995, leading the company's design team to develop "drama robe drawing skills". As the fourth generation of the intangible cultural heritage, he successfully declared Shanghai intangible cultural heritage project approved by the government in 2014 .

▲About Zhu Hongsheng

Born in 1918, known as "the last tailor in Shanghai" and "a legend of Shanghai in a century". "Master Zhu" was awarded the Shanghai Qipao Cultural Celebrities and Lifetime Achievement Award by the Shanghai International Fashion Federation.

Rhapsody of the City

This year, radio program “Listen to Wang Weiming talking about Shanghai” has been played more than 450,000 times since it aired on Himalaya FM in May 2016. Although some people has bought the book, they may not read it at all. But if they listen to the radio, they will take in stories of old Shanghai in the 15 minutes or so of the show. In this way, the stories may creep into their mind, and strike some chord in their heart. Whether the effect is what the famous writer Wang Weiming had expected, the answer is not for sure, but the end result was more than he expected.


Behind the prosperity of Shanghai, how did time boost such magnificence? When listening to those formal historical narrative words, how many stories are hidden behind? What happened to those great buildings in Shanghai before, what is going on now, and how will the future be like? Wang Weiming has been a man of action for decades, searching for these answers. To be more poetic and specific, he is a "city hunter " for the reason of "all my articles are not done in the study, they are products of movement instead", which distinguishes him from many other writers in Shanghai. He is everything but allusive. He rushes to the scene, takes close observation and questions the fact. Such perseverance for decades makes up the fabric of the man. It’s amazing to witness Wang’s enthusiasm to discover Shanghai and narrate the stories by discovering buildings and even constructing buildings. That’s exactly the reason why his words resonates with all from the young to the old, old people acquire sympathy and friendliness between lines while young people obtain a sense of belonging from stories of oldday Shanghai as well as courage to move forward. Words shape the writer. As Chen Baoping wrote in the preface to Generation of Hudec Architecture by Wang Weiming, whether in his fictions or non-fictions, "his words involve indignant cries, but less melancholy and sentimentality". If you understand it in the modern sense, Wang ‘s Shanghai stories are full of positive energy, “healing”, and even warm-blooded.

My Shanghai Architecture Narration

Contributing Author: Wang Weiming

Back in the distant summer evenings of 1966 in Shanghai, I often walked along the five-metre wide main lane of Ruihua Court after dinner to the lane entrance in the north, where lies Middle Fuxing Road surrounded by plane trees. I used to look around aimlessly and the slogan on the red brick wall of shikumen impressed me: A man should be ambitious to conquer the world.

But who is "the man"? Which "world" exactly? I always wondered.


Then, I walked down South Huangpi Road, Madang Road, Danshui Road, right past the Great Wall Cinema, All Saints Church, Garden Apartment, and Chongqing Apartments on Chongqing Road. After that, I would always stand by the gate of Fuxing Park, leaning against a plane tree, standing on my toes to lookout across the street, where high walls covered with pebbles stood and the garden villa rose behind. 

Yes, the garden villa, which was way different from where I was living.

As a child, I lived in red-brick Ruihua Court. Even the western toilets there seemed more “high-class” than other places in Shanghai, but still, it was nothing in comparison with those fancy garden villas. 


I was 11 years old that year. And thanks to my "mentor" You Dabao who also lived in the shikumen, I was able to come across A Long Day in A Short Lifetime by Albert Malz and also the work from the father of modern literature, Dostoyevsky. However, it wasn't his Crime And Punishment, but Idiot - a work that shocked me greatly in my childhood, and led the way to my later career. In those days, I repeatedly looked at the garden villas with chimneys across the street. And I couldn’t help imagining - will there be large iron bathtubs? Or fireplaces with smoke billowing in winter?


On those sunny mornings, I would open the back windows of the fourth floor of the house, looking forward to red sloping roofs beside muttering doves. In the "deep horizon" far away, stood a tall building above all the others. It was in deep gray color under the blue sky of 1970 Shanghai - of which others enviously: “24 floors”!

My neighbor, Liu Dacai, was respected by all in Lane One at Ruihua Court because of his job in that building. He would sometimes talk about the “24 floors” at the entrance of Lane One, and I still remember these anecdotes although I was far behind the crowd - French guests of whom the adults could stand naked in front of their parents, while African guests would call the waiter for a Watson fan to cool themselves all night long. These anecdotes that occurred in the “24 floors” were testimony of “the most high-class life” in Shanghai that only real bosses or "playboys" could afford.

When I was alone, staring at the “24 floors”, Liu’s words often came to me and strengthened my fantasy. I even dream of a "playboy", someone like my "mentor" You Dabao from Ruihua Court, charmingly moving around with his slim pants in the dance hall.


All thoses characters who lived in Shanghai really carved out a "multidimensional world" in my mind. And when I started my writing career in the 1980s, I began to investigate those childhood imaginings.

The Ruihua Court, which accompanied me from birth to my forties, is exactly the third generation of shikumen architecture; the Middle Fuxing Road, which I used to walk along when I was little, was called Route Lafayette in old Shanghai; the Huangpi Road, Madang Road, Danshui Road and Chongqing Road, were once called Rue Amiral Bayle, Rue Brenier de Montmorand, Rue Chapsal and Avenue Dubail, all of which were named in the Westward Movement in Shanghai French Concession in 1914; Fuxing Park was that French Park; the garden villas I used to overlook over was the north block of the Sinan Mansions.

The so-called "24 floors" is the well-known Park Hotel Shanghai, whose designer is the legendary designer Ladislav Hudec. The former lieutenant of Austro Hungarian Empire came to Shanghai in the autumn of 1918, and, unbelievably, built an 83.7-metre high building in 1934 - its height dominated the East for half a century. The weight of steel involved in the construction reached 1200 tons, which also shocked the Shanghai Municipal Committee.

People have always been asking me like "why are you so concerned about architecture in Shanghai for such a long time? " And "why are your articles and narratives so attached to architecture in Shanghai? "


Perhaps it is those memories of my childhood and youth that attract me so much and subtly rooted in my heart, which later on evolved into wonders of the others and myself. And somehow, those wonders turn eternal - when did Shanghai shikumen originate? How did those garden villas gets made? And how much desires, ambitions and dreams were put on this city, a city that came from a small fishing town to now the world's so called "the seventh metropolis"? Also, who has left their names in the history of Shanghai, or whose name has been washed away along with those once glory buildings which yet got torn down?

I feel lucky to narrate the construction process of Shanghai since its founding in 1843, which gave me the honor to dialogue with time and touch upon the heel of history. Time is so unkind as the history is so harsh that many lives, outstanding or trivial, has been erased in the time wheel, while only those buildings survived and seem to be immortal. At least, it has a longer lifetime than us, poor but arrogant human beings.

▲About  Wang Weiming

Born in Shanghai in 1955, Wang Weiming has published a number of books. His works The City of Desires, The Dawn of Suzhou Creek, The City of Games and Passions in Shanghai have been popular among readers, thus he was crowned the title "City Hunter”.

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