THE CITY OF SHANGHAI has one of the most complex and colourful histories of any in the hemisphere. From a simple 16th century walled town, its tactical location and value as a trading portal ensured that it would be the focus for Western expansion plans into China proper. By the 19th century and the Opium Wars, various nationalities and internal factions fought for control over the province, which became subject to much interference from various foreign powers, notably the British and Japanese.
Shanghai has always been a beacon for refugees. A host of White Russians fled the 1917 Revolution to take up residence and become prominent in the administration; and during World War II, many Jews escaped the Nazis to take shelter there. Shanghai in the 1930s was world famous for its uninhibited night clubs and hedonistic lifestyles. Unsurprisingly, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966) paid particular attention to the Shanghainese, traditionally regarded with a mixture of distrust and envy by the Chinese as a whole. They purposefully crushed the international spirit of the city and caused a mass exodus of foreign business interests to nearby Hong Kong. Shanghai was subsequently punished for its counter-revolutionary reputation by central government with punitive taxation, which lasted right up to the economic reforms of 1991.
Within the last decade, Shanghai has become almost unrecognisable and has exploded in a maelstrom of redevelopment and modernisation. This means building - and the higher the better. The city is an architectural wonder of glass, neon, colour and skyscrapers - with international business taking advantage of its now official role as gateway to the vast interior of China itself.
But what of the heritage of Shanghai amidst all this manic drive to modernity? The city has become a beacon for impoverished Chinese migrants who are putting severe pressures on the local infrastructure and blamed for rising crime rates and litter. The poor of the city - and there are plenty - have retreated to the crumbling Shikumen residences that still remain, bunched together in rapidly diminishing locales and separated by narrow alleyways.
These Shikumen are a uniquely Shanghainese element. They bare a faint resemblance to Western terrace or town houses and usually feature a tall brick wall at the front of each, with a strong door (shikumen: stone storage door). Developed at the turn of the century, a blend of Chinese architecture and Western influences, by World War II 80% of locals lived in these heavily sub-divided houses, each partition being rented to multiple occupants. Often jerry built, they were mostly little more than slums with a pretence of a grandiose past and the multi-purpose additions and lean-to’s, constructed ad-hoc by the various tenants, have done nothing to dispel this shanty town appearance. But beneath these tatty additions and peeling paint, there is usually some hint of the splendour of their original state. However, these communities are in very central locations and are therefore obstructing the all-powerful developers.
The Canadian photographer, Greg Girard, has spent his life in Asia and now lives in Shanghai. Since 1998 he has documented the destruction of the traditional city, once ‘preserved’ by accident, but now part of a deliberate policy to remove substandard housing, eye-sores, slum dwellers - and with it - some essence of ‘old’ Shanghai. Unusually, the city is short on actual antiquities and very few medieval monuments exist. The unique character of the shikumen is, therefore, one of the few historical remnants left to be preserved. Some hope. As Girard’s brilliant, manipulated colour studies demonstrate, any freeholder who resists the tsunami of demolition is left alone in a sea of rubble and waste until they acquiesce. Along with the houses go shops and all manner of small traders. To witness their fate they only need to look upwards - the skyline is dominated by high-rise towers, with a predilection for ‘flying saucer’ architectural design at penthouse level. Within another decade, the subjects and characters of Greg Girard’s affectionate study will be gone - trampled beneath China’s newly awakened desire for profit, international commerce, and the political influence on the world stage it generates.
With a foreword by novelist William Gibson and introduction by critic and filmaker, Leo Rubenstein, Canadian publisher Magenta have produced an outstanding book worthy of the artist, resplendent with over 130 full colour plates and an illustrated index at the back. A collection of silent, poignant images that speak volumes.