“What” is Shanghai? Urban icons and visualization

Shanghai city maps, as for many cities, come as folding maps with an illustrated cover. This illustration is a visual representation of the city in a snapshot. It can be a building like the Eiffel Tower for Paris, a particular location like a riverfront (e.g. the Bund in Shanghai), a photograph or a drawing, etc.32 In the case of Shanghai after 1949, the official control over what is to be shown on maps makes it relevant to examine which elements were selected to represent the city visually. This study is based on a sample of 22 map covers from 1949 to 2009.

Up to 1950-1951, the presence of private publishers probably meant a certain diversity. Yet the two maps published in 1949 and 1950 both chose the Park Hotel as the emblematic figure for Shanghai. On the 1950 cover, it is a drawing with a view from the West that includes the Foreign YMCA. The 1949 cover offers a photographic view from the front, with a long banner celebrating the new regime hanging from the top. A crowd seems to be assembled at the foot of the building in the nearby racecourse. The Park Hotel was completed in 1934. It was the tallest building (83.8 m) in Shanghai in 1930s, which may explain its choice as an urban icon for Shanghai. Its highly recognizable shape could be turned into a proud symbol of Shanghai modernity.

Our next series, from 1956 to 1973, however, takes the Bund as the icon to represent Shanghai.33 It is somehow fascinating to see this row of obviously Western-style buildings along the riverfront – a definite legacy of Shanghai’s imperialist past – turned into the visual representation of socialist Shanghai. Of course, these buildings had been confiscated and invested by agencies of the new regime, including the People’s City Government, the City Party Committee or the Headquarters of the General Trade Union. Was it a way of mocking the past and asserting the regime’s confidant rule over defeated imperialists? The Bund was given a place of choice in visual representation that it failed to have in the Chinese city guides, both before and after 1949.34 In 1956, the long view of the Bund, from the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bang to Shanghai Mansions, conveys the sense of a busy riverfront, with rows of boats and ferries moored at the jetties. In 1963 and 1973, the dominant impression from the two views is one of a place for a leisurely stroll well in tune with the idealistic tone and images extolled in most Western city-guides in the Republican period.35 The perspective in the 1973 view is actually pretty much the same as a painting made in the mid-19th-century (1860), from the location of the future ‘Consular Row’ in Hongkou. One can notice the tremendous transformation of both the Bund and the Hongkou riverside.36

In the mid-1970s, the iconic representation of Shanghai took a new turn with the appearance of a new symbol of modernity, the Television Tower. It would appear systematically on the map covers until the end of the 1970s and well into the early 1980s. The Television Tower had the shape of an Eiffel Tower, a form of architecture common to several cities in Europe and Asia.37 The 210-meter new structure was completed on 25 September 1972 and became the tallest construction in the city, dwarfing the Park Hotel by 126 meters. It was a new element of pride not just in architectural terms. Shanghai Television was the first television station established outside of the capital. It broadcasted from 1958 in the former building of the Sincere Company on Nanjing xilu. With the new tower, the Shanghai TV Station shifted to color TV along.38

By the early 1980s, map covers no longer presented one single major urban icon. The 1982 edition constitutes an interesting mix of past and present. Shanghai Mansions, formerly known as Broadway Mansions, represents the past, with Garden Bridge at its foot providing metaphorically a ‘bridge’ to the present symbolized by the TV Tower and the new Shanghai Sports Hall built in 1975.39 Was there no longer a clear sense of what could best represent Shanghai? Were the city leaders trying to link up again Shanghai with its sensitive past? Only direct interviews with cover designers could shed some light on this issue. The covers of 1984-1985 that followed marked a return to the Bund, though from a somehow bizarre perspective. It is a view taken from the back of the Bund, a few blocks behind the Customs House, looking north over the Huangpu River. One might argue this is not the best perspective on the riverfront. It is a “roof view” with those of the Customs House, Peace Hotel, and Bank of China protruding above the neighboring undistinguished rooftops. By 1988-1989, cover designers had come back to a conventional bird’s eye view of the Bund.

The reforms of the 1990s, especially the major operations of urban renewal implemented with the blessing of Deng Xiaoping – most notably his support to the Pudong development scheme – marked a new shift in the graphic representation of the city. It was no longer about height, but about finally overcoming the massive barrier – the Huangpu River – that separated Shanghai from its new promised land (or in the new administrative parlance, Puxi from Pudong). Pending the materialization of this new Far East, Shanghai came to be symbolized by the structures than now linked the two parts of the city. Bridges, especially the Nanpu Bridge and its long swirling ramp, as can be seen on the 1993 map cover and elevated roadways figured prominently. The Nanpu Bridge, completed in November 1991, was propelled at once to the status of urban icon. It remained in the limelight for the next decade, most of the time alone (1996, 2002) and sometimes in association with other structures like the new opera (1999) or the Jinmao Tower (2006). Yet another building joined in the ‘competition’ for representing Shanghai: the Pearl of the Orient Television Tower. When it was about to be completed in 1995, a map cover issued in September displayed it as a monstrous spire rising from a sky-inflamed horizon, dwarfing the whole city viewed from the People’s Square. Two years later, a real picture showed it as the central piece in a night view of the illuminated Bund in the far background.

One must also admit that map covers became more varied, with the Bund cropping up again on some covers although the emphasis was more on roadways than on the buildings (2000). Some specialized maps offered less standardized covers, like a 1996 map of commerce (Shanghai shangye tu 上海商業圖) that very aptly adopted a view of the Department Store No. 1 (formerly the Sun Company Department Store) on Nanjing Road or a 1996 3D map of major buildings that chose to display the Customs House on its cover. Above all, covers also favored collage for a time. My sample also includes a 2001 map showing two newly erected structures, the City Hall on People’s Square and the Jinmao Tower (completed in 1998). In 2003, it was a mix of the Nanpu bridge, the Pear of the Orient, and the new Pudong Airport. Yet none of these two buildings managed to rise to the status of urban icons despite Jinmao Tower being the tallest building in the PRC from its completion to 2007.

What actually became the new urban icon of Shanghai from 2003 onward was the dream come true: the Pudong riverfront, the new 21th-century Bund of Shanghai. Maps of the 2003-2005 period all display views of the Lujiazui district with the domineering Oriental pearl Television and the Jinmao Towers as well as the spate of small skyscrapers around them (2003, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009). Map cover designers, no doubt under guidance from the higher authorities, have turned their back to “Shanghai” for good. Pudong has dethroned Puxi as the iconic symbolization of Shanghai. Allegorically, whereas looking at the Bund meant looking ‘West’, Shanghai is looking ‘East’ for its future. Yet the Pudong focus may change again as new visual opportunities arise or meet new circumstances like the 2010 World Exhibition, unless eventually publishers are given a free rein on map cover design. On this 2019 tourist map, the illuminated Bund (north/south view) is back again as Shanghai’s iconic representation..


You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search