The Roving Exhibit: Travelling and An Ode to the City

Roving Exhibit Dongjiadu

Carrying my photo boards, I trudged across the barren land of a long-demolished Dongjiadu (董家渡)on my way to Wangjiamatou Lu (王家码头路).

Amongst rubble and weeds, I didn’t feel myself in metropolitan Shanghai. I felt like a travelling merchant making a long journey through empty fields, never knowing who I might meet, friend or foe?

I came across a few migrant workers who were making their way to lunch. Their curiousity made me stop and I unfolded my wares to begin a short show-and-tell. It started to drizzle and suddenly, the boards felt more handy as shelter than art.

Yet, I had a thought, to photograph the boards against the very background I had shot a year before. No one entertained me, except for this kind gentleman. Thumbs up to you, sir.

As a segway, the grim weather yesterday kept me indoors meeting a deadline for a book chapter on street photography in Shanghai. Often, musings like these turn into an inevitable ode to Shanghai for all its quirks and craziness.

It reminded me of the short essay I wrote for a Taiwan travel magazine last year. It was translated into Chinese, so I thought I’d share it here in both languages for your reading pleasure.

The only thing I would point out is that we all grow in our perspectives, and I’ve done a bit of growing this past year where the city is concerned.

“The way I see Shanghai” by Sue Anne Tay

 I have always lived in cities.

Before coming to Shanghai, I studied and worked in Los Angeles, Washington DC, New York, London, Hong Kong and Moscow and travelled to fulfill an enduring wanderlust. Growing up in Singapore, there was nothing more exhilarating and natural than to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a city.

After almost 9 years in the US, I felt I needed to return and rediscover the Asia I left. I always wanted to work in Mainland China, which for a Singaporean Chinese, I knew would be both familiar yet foreign. Fate was such that I landed in Shanghai. And after 2 over years here, I realized, I didn’t pick Shanghai, it chose me.

The city has a raw energy that could rival the frenzy of New York and had a wild optimism about it that could only exist in an emerging country. There were so many opportunities and risks to be taken – the sky was the limit.

Sometimes, when you look behind those tired faces of people bicycling on the streets, riding on buses and subways, it was the look of determination to not just make it in life, but to make it in Shanghai. Life can, no, life must, get better.

Yet in that process of hurtling itself toward a modern utopia, Shanghai for all its rich history, was shedding many aspects of the city that did not comply with that vision. This was evident in the way the city was demolishing old houses and buildings and replacing them with gleaming skyscrapers. The 2010 Shanghai Expo was just one of the key drivers, speeding things along.

I wanted to know how the city’s urbanization was affecting ordinary people. How different was it from Singapore or the other cities that I had previously lived in?

I began photographing old neighborhoods around Shanghai, especially life in the longtangs, where there were many beautiful Shanghai-styled shikumen built as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries. I found myself engaged in endless conversations with people, young and old, Shanghainese and newcomers from poorer regions, each with a different story to tell.

It takes a bit of time to penetrate the curiosity, sometimes hostility but after a few probing questions, they opened up. An old Shanghainese man who grew up in Hongkou told me about Indian Sikhs who used to live in the area before 1949. A construction worker from Zhejiang told me proudly of his daughter who was the first in his family to enter university.

I photographed, over months, the demolition of entire longtangs in Hongkou and Old Town. One by one, families, after negotiating their compensations from governments, left and entire communities scattered to the winds to live out the next stage of their Shanghai dream. A remaining few fought developers and government authorities, demanding better compensation and their rights as city dwellers.

Nevertheless, most Shanghainese accept that this is modernization, and for some, an upgrade to better living conditions. But for others, it was bidding goodbye to family homes that that the next generation would have no idea existed, and exiled to the suburbs.

Change, especially in Shanghai is an unstoppable behemoth. Its residents hold the city’s success with much pride. Yet, I find myself fighting time and the wrecking ball to capture certain aspects of the city, doomed to be wiped from the city’s memory. But the stories remain, those colorful and wonderful stories. These, nobody can erase.

To be continued …

这是我眼里的上海 (作者:郑素韵  )

一直以来,我都生活在城市里。

来到上海前,我的求学与工作足迹遍及洛杉矶、华盛顿、纽约、伦敦、香港、莫斯科,过着长期飘泊的旅人生涯,我在新加坡成长,站在熙攘的城市中心,对我而言是再自然不过的事情。
在美国待了9年,我想我需要回到亚洲,重新发掘这块我离开的土地。一直想在中国大陆工作,我知道身为新加坡华人的我,这里将显得既熟悉又陌生。因缘际会下,我来到上海。过了2年多我才了解,不是我选择上海,而是上海选择了我。
这座城市流窜着足以与纽约迷乱匹敌的原始活力,以及一种仅存在于新兴国家的乐观与希望。这里有太多的机会,也有太多的冒险,而限制远在天边。

有时,当你看见隐藏在上海人疲惫面容底下的秘密。这些人骑着单车,搭乘公交或地铁,眼神总流露出一股决心,坚定地说着:不只是要在生活里成功,更要在上海成功。生活可以……不!生活一定得更好!

然而在转化成一座现代桃花源的同时,上海的丰富历史痕迹随之褪去,许多古老建筑因为跟不上时代的脚步而被拆除,取而代之的是华丽的摩天大楼,2010上海世博只是加速这一切进展罢了。

我想知道这个城市的进化对市井小民有何影响?这跟新加坡或是我之前居住过的其他城市有什么不同?于是开始用照片记录上海的旧社区,尤其是弄堂里的生活,那些17跟18世纪留下的上海风格石库门。我开始不断跟当地人对话,不论是年轻人或长者,本地人或是来自贫苦地区的外地人,都有自己的故事。

我花了一些时间来寻找答案,透过几个试探性问题,让受访者卸下心防。一位在虹口区长大的老人说了些1949年前住在那里的印度锡克人故事;而一个来自浙江的建筑工人骄傲地告诉我,他的女儿是家族里第一个进大学的。

几个月里,我拍下了虹口区跟老城厢弄堂的拆除作业。一个个家庭,经过与政府谈判补助方案后离开,老社区的一切随风而逝,新阶段的上海梦在此诞生。不愿搬迁的居民,则持续向开发商及政府抗争,要求更好的补偿方案。

无论如何,大部分上海市民接受了这个进化的过程。对某些人来说,这是一个提高生活品质的进程,但对其他人而言,是对着不存在于下一代记忆里的家产道别,然后放逐到城郊。

改变,尤其在上海,是一头无人能阻止的巨兽。上海人是如此骄傲地拥护着城市的成功,我却发现自己正在跟时间与落锤破碎机赛跑,唯有如此才能捕捉到那些就要从城市的记忆里被抹去的景观。但故事会留下,那些色彩鲜明的美好故事,没有人能涂销。

 

待续…

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2 Comments

  • Reply March 7, 2011

    charlie

    I’ve read your blog and admired your photos for the best part of 2 years now – ever since I returned to England after working in Shanghai. I’ve always loved the site and the wonderful photography you produce but, for some reason, have never commented. The above article really struck a note though and really made me miss “my second, spiritual, home”. Thank you for your continued excellent work.
    Charlie

    • Reply March 8, 2011

      Sue Anne

      Hi Charlie, it’s nice to hear from you on the blog. It warms my heart that my work has triggered nostalgia for Shanghai. Thanks for reading, and visit Shanghai soon!

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