Shanghai: a photographic journey
Rather than jumping straight into academic matters, let me indulge a bit in one of my favorite pastimes. Almost every time I travel to Shanghai, I take pictures. I started from the first day I set foot in the city back in July 1982. Sometimes just a few, sometimes quite a few, depending on time and inspiration. It is a common trope to say that Shanghai has changed tremendously since the beginning of the Open door policy (in fact, mostly since the acclaimed ‘Southern Tour’ by Deng Xiaoping in 1993). I won’t argue with that. When I stay in Shanghai, I usually stick to areas I am familiar with, and ones where I feel more comfortable. Areas where I can walk and still feel I can breathe, lift my eyes and still see the sky (grey or blue, or whatever color, but sky). Areas where I do not feel dwarfed by the surrounding high-rises, skyscrapers, towers and other monumental buildings that are now the hall mark of Shanghai (and of most Chinese cities).
On this occasion, I stayed for three days in Pudong in the mandatory conference hotel. Five stars and nothing to complain about. Just the opposite in fact. It gave me the opportunity to check out the place, especially the area along the Huangpu River.
Believe it or not, I had not set foot in Pudong since I took the ferry across the Huangpu in 1982 to take pictures of the Bund buildings from across the river, except for a visit to the Pear of the Orient. I remember the dense flow of people and bicycles on their way to work in the nearby factories. Still have some images in my slides boxes. It was in fact quite a challenge to get near the river then since there were so many enclosed spaces around the factories. This time, the whole track from the hotel just next to the television tower (Pearl of the Orient) to the place where I had landed from the ferry was fully open.
I must admit I have a bias against Pudong that I see as Shanghai’s nemesis, or some sort of illegitimate child. I remember being skeptical about the whole plan of building “Manhattan on the Bund” when master plans were drawn in the mid-1990s. Reality proved me wrong. Pudong has turned into a gigantic multi-purpose “new area” (新區) many times the size of the original Shanghai downtown area. The factories along the river are gone. Malls, office buildings, and parks have taken over. It forms a maze of large avenues and towers stretching to the sky in an endless competition for new heights.
From my window, on the first evening, I was graced by the spectacle of the illuminated tower behind the junction of the Huangpu and Suzhou rivers, in an uninterrupted cycle of colors, words, and electric fireworks
It was like an invitation to go out and look for more. Since jet lag was kindly keeping me awake, I decided to take a walk outside the hotel and found a track that ran all along the Huangpu. It was night and mostly desert, but it felt very safe. Not least because I ran into watchman a few minutes later and must have been under the careful watch of the tens of CCTV cameras along the way. But Shanghai is safe anyway.
This initial nocturnal foray was well worth the effort. It took me back to where I had attempted to be to take pictures, but this time with a full view of the opposite site. Definitely a delight for the eye and for the amateur photographer. From the Garden Bridge (外白渡橋) to the fully transformed southern section of the former French Quai de France (十六鋪), it was a feast of lights and shadows on the river.
The Pudong side also caught my eye with its gigantic displays of advertisements on the facade of towers weighing upon me, calling for my attention, and lost in the morning haze.
Walking along the river made me realize that this side of the river had preserved a bit of the past, something that only historical paintings and photographs have retained: the beach. Do not imagine anything close to a nice summer resort. By beach, I mean the stretch of land that comes and go with the ebb and flow of the tide. The Huangpu River is a tidal river, with its water going up and down with the tide coming from the sea nearby. It is long forgotten and impossible to notice from the elevated and renovated Bund. But on the side of Pudong, one can see the beach that gave its name to the Bund, waitan in Chinese (外灘), at least the section of the beach north of the long-gone city wall. It is not only the view, but also the smell, the grass, the weeds, etc.
On the following morning, I headed off again to try to catch the beach in picture. I was not fully successful because it was… high tide, and unfortunately my occupation at the conference did not leave me time to go freely at a more appropriate time. Nevertheless, this second exploration took me first into a misty morning out of which buildings and ships seemed to appear out of nowhere.
After a while, the sun dissipated the mist — this week was remarkably cold and sunny, with a clear blue sky — and the Bund and riverbank emerged again in vivid colors. I missed the beach, but retrieved bits of it though the grass and reeves from which I took a few shots.
The morning walk almost reconciled myself with Pudong. At least, this area had preserved something that provides us with a glimpse of the past, a view of the Huangpu before it was domesticated and its banks turned into a Bund, making it easier for large ships to dock at the wharves. Ships are no longer part of the urban scene. Their sirens can still be heard as they coast along the river on their way up or down the river, but they no longer stop. The Bund has become a must-go-to attraction for tourists, although it has lost its appeal, at least in this oberver’s eyes. I will probably never fall for Pudong, but I surely recommend crossing the Huangpu and take a long walk along the bank on this side. It has been made very practical and comfortable for joggers and cyclists (each its lane). And just enjoy the view, night or day.
Safe journey !