China - Shanghai

It didn’t take us long to fall in love with shanghai. The taxi ride from the airport to our hotel was more than enough as we were lucky and our friends booked us a lovely hotel in the French concession,  one of the lovliest parts of town.

Shanghai is a strange creature in histories of cities, and has so many layers, historical, architectonic, cultural and social that it is like a beautiful onion of a city, a megalopolis of memories.

When we got out of the hotel and started marching down the street, like I always do in a new place, trying to get lost as soon as possible, as it is by far the most effective way to know a city, I found out that I have arrived to the right place. A city that I can explore by foot is the best gift for a photographer.

China likes to build big, and with so many people it has too, but even in the megaloplanning of the city they have still managed to retain the atmosphere of a walking city, a place where the pedestrian is still higher on the food chain than the motorist, and I can see in my head images of these streets hustling with people hundreds of years ago, strolling under those old trees giving shade and color, all those beautiful iron gates of the private residence.

As is usually the case with uber modern cities, especially in places where the progress was recent and swept over the country like a tidal wave, most of the past gets trampled on, becomes a collateral damage.

 

 
 

Shanghai is not free of this plague, and you can see the ugliness of progress here and there, but all in all they have managed to keep one thing intact, the spirit of the city, the story of the city.

Whenever I talked to people from Beijing about Shanghai they always made a face.  Shanghai is china's bohemian city, where the party is more important than the party. (excuse the obvious pun…) where living good is more important than working hard, where fashion is king no matter who is the chairman.

And this is why I love shanghai. It's a party city. Not that I am a party person myself, as I am too old and lazy to actually party, but knowing it is there is very comforting, and it is there in shanghai.

 
 
 
 
 

 I have to admit I was a bit disappointed as in my mind shanghai  is still a verb, as in being "shanghaied", and the real glorious days of shanghai are rarely documented in the honor they deserve.
The opium dens, the brothels, the hats and long silk scarves on necks of mafia fashion nightlife baron, you know, the good old days.

Today there is very little left of this era, and what you get is your basic division between ancient Chinese and modern day Chinese, with a dash of classic architecture, a reminder of passion and parties and a scent of something that is still there, a kind of creative fun energy that can be felt all around. Still buzzing, still alive, always alive.

One of the best aspects of shanghai is that it is a haven for artists, with gallery areas that can keep you busy for a nice day out, without being to presumptuous or overbearing, and most important without taking themselves too seriously , like their Beijing counterparts do. It is art for art sake, for decoration, for joy, for documentation, for a message, it is commercial viable and vibrant art, and it is refreshingly good.

My visit to shanghai was for an opening of a solo exhibition I did there, and I had the opportunity to meet a lot of the gallery owners and local artists, and I have to say I was impressed. It was not the level that was exceptional but the fact that it was a place where things are done, where exhibitions open and flourish, where an artist can find a stage, big or small, central or peripheral, but there was always room for art. Always.

And then there is the food. As I said, shanghai is a city that is based of living good, and food is one of the basic components of a good life. Every km I had to run in the months after our visit there to burn all those dinners there was worth it.

The amount of excellent restaurants is mind boggeling, competing with every major European capital, and for a couple of semi-vegeterians like us it was a double treat, as the Chinese do know their vegetarian food, and in shanghai it has an extra flair that elevates it to international level cuisine, no matter if it is just tofu in the end.

 
 

Back in my old country we used to sit in café's a lot, spending hours with a book or magazine, drinking coffee, chatting  and looking at people going by. For me, that is a major part of urban living, of street life, and I was extremely pleased to see it in shanghai,  finding small café's and tea houses where you can pass the day in a semi-european idle mood.
What I love most about shanghai is that it is a strange concoction of china, Europe, hong-kong and a pinch of pure futuristic science fiction, and in some magical way they managed to mix it all up into something that works, that has a life of its own.

And  what life it is, what energy you see on the streets in every step you take.  One of my greatest joys is shooting street life, as it is, as I find it, and shanghai was a constant delightful carpet of faces, of people, of culture, of stories, so many stories in every face, in every group of people sitting playing cards or dominos, in every kitchen worker smile as he takes a cigarette break outside the shop, every bicycle passing buy, every food stall, every soldier.

I don’t have many predictions about the future, but it seems to me shanghai is on the right track. They got it right. The new , the old, the traditional, the fun. It is indeed a megalopolis of Chinese proportion and a city to respect. Much respect indeed. I am already waiting for our next trip there…

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
                     
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