“First thing tomorrow our great adventure begins with a flight to Shanghai for a few days, then Turkey for a week to settle jet lag and see some long desired destinations before flying into London…take care friends, be kind, be positive, be brave and I will see you in cyberspace every now and then….”Status Update, Facebook 12/09/12
Hemmed in by a farting businessman and an Australian Dragon boat squad, muscular women clustered around their prettier team mates, blocking the aisles, chattering with excitement, desire palpable in the cabin, it was a long ten hours. We slid into Shanghai on a sluice of rain. Passport control and Customs welcomed us with yellow, plastic smiley-flowers on every counter. Our luggage arrives in minutes and we walk out into the huge bright Arrival concourse of Shanghai Pudong International, which seems quiet after the plane ride.
A man brandishing an A4 sheet with my name on it greets us with “Ni hao, Hello” and leads us to a car, a people-mover with Snoopy covers on the seats. The drive is smooth into the unknown megacity, as I gape at snaking freeways, underpassing, overpassing and circling. We whoosh through the wet night, glad that we are not navigating the fast train into Shanghai and worse, finding our way with our luggage to our hotel in such a bogglingly huge city. No amount of staring at maps makes any of it legible. I look out of the window, eager to see and learn. I am in Asia for the first time and soon we will step out of the car and into China, a culture that had a hand in shaping my thinking about art, politics and society. A Dynastic Kingdom that became a Peoples Republic, self sufficient, isolated from all but a few. China is changing again, becoming a culture of economic Imperialism, having more effect on the lives of people all over the world once more. Is there anyone out there who does not have something in their home that is Made in China? Soon I will experience life as it is lived on the ground in The Peoples Republic.
Rows of apartment towers, the interiors florescent lit and empty looking, line the route, interspersed with low slung factories which sprawl into the grey night. Shanghai blinks in the rain spattered windows, awash with chased lights making coloured plaids, arcs and sheets of rainbow in the wet night sky. We reach what I think is the highest bridge ever, but is in fact the top level of a series of sky roads that snake into Central Shanghai and Pudong beyond. Our driver points at the forest of buildings, hundreds of stories high, says “TV Tower”. I nod like a fool.
TV Tower. Pudong. © Tracy Dunn 2012
As we sweep down into the city, the architecture scales down and I focus on what is familiar, the red brick of Colonial Germany among the tower blocks, and nestling Art Deco jewels among the shining palaces of commerce. I know this feeling. I am becoming the watcher, seeking the messages that will unlock the unfamiliar place I am inhabiting, if only for a few days. It is a heightened state, quite different to the sedentary tone of my life at home, a febrile fizz in my veins as my eyes and nose scan new landscape. Perhaps it is my fear of flying, those bone-crackingly tense moments of take off, turbulence and landing that attend my plane journeys, and the fizz is relief at cheating death again. Orwell’s “here and now, boys”.
Night Deco. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
On The Boards. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Not as easy as it looks. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
At The Elegance Hotel, resplendent in chandeliers and black, patent-leather furniture (looking like silver-studded plastic) we wait to be located in the booking system. It takes over an hour. There is a password we do not have, thanks to an inexperienced travel service back home. Crystals tinkle against the black glass pillars of the reception area as young, multilingual women chirrup sweetly, trying to find us on the computer. They let me use a truly challenging toilet in the basement through the fire door, a janitorial facility the staff use, decorated only with sorry buckets, mops and unpainted walls in stark contrast to Tinkletown beyond, and thankfully our booking is found shortly after. We are shown to our room by the very large Peter, carrying my twenty kilo suitcase with ease, and speaking excellent welcoming English. I am bone tired, and my ankles are puffy from the plane trip, so I save my questions for another time. I want tea, to sleep flat on a bed and for tomorrow to be a good day, but M is keen for a short walk. It is early still I realise and the rain has stopped, so I change into sandals and we walk to the Bund on the Huangpo River three blocks away.
Elegance Hotel Lobby. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
The word bund comes from Persia originally, then via Hindi-Urdu and means an embankment. This place was named ‘The Bund’ after bunds along the Tigris by the Sassoon Family who hailed from in Baghdad and relocated their business to Shanghai in the 19th century. They built the famous Peace Hotel, an Art Deco masterpiece I am looking forward to seeing. In English, “Bund” rhymes with “fund” Wikipedia tells me, but I cannot help using “Boont”, a more Germanic version – no suitable rhyming word to provide.
Outside the Waldorf Astoria a block away from our hotel, a tiny mother with infant daughter rushes at us, herding us off the pavement in her fervour, shaking an empty MacDonald’s cup at our chins and grinning maniacally. She must be begging for change we realise, but we are unable to provide even a coin as we have not changed money. The street is car free at that point, so gesticulating ‘nothing’ and ‘sorry’ we step past them, only to be corralled again by a tiny grandmother, the back-up. She too is armed with a plastic cup, shaking it at us furiously, insisting we give something. Into the gutter we go again, signalling empty pockets, though perhaps less sorry this time. Both grandmother and mother look disbelieving, while the infant daughter sleeps silently on.
Full photographic service offered at the photo booths on the Bund. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Modern, healthy locals of all ages gather to admire the waterfront cityscape of Pudong over the river. We are glad to be among them after a harrowing hobble across the multi-laned road that separates the buildings from the Embankment proper. They promenade and have their photos taken at the railing and processed at booths that dot the wide promenade that offer a choice of framing options. The slow stroll is good for my cramped body, but I realise I must get my feet up on a pillow, and my mind isn’t really processing anything, I feel a bit like camera running on remote control, so am glad when M leads me back to the hotel. I fall asleep reading China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, the tale of a young woman who finds herself, like Alice, no longer in London but in Un Lun Dun, a mirror version of her home. I say un-lun-dun-Bund in my head to try and replace the Boont pronunciation, but Boont sticks and I have puzzled dreams, bridges and umbrellas and running. Lots of running.
Songbird world. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
I wake before dawn to the singing of caged songbirds, they must be on a balcony nearby but I cannot get the windows open wide enough to get a decent look. I see light on the way and the rain has cleared. The bird excitement sets me off and I consider leaving a note for M to say I have gone to watch the rest of the sunrise at the river, but my ankles are still puffy so I put them up again and return to Un Lun Dun. We set off after a cup of tea, first stop the nearby Westin Hotel where we hope to find an ATM to get some cash. It turns out the ATM is an exchange machine. We put in our Aussie dollars and it spits out RMB, The Peoples Money. Very neat. We get a coffee and look at our map and make a plan for the day. First a walk at the Bund to see it in the light find breakfast, then a visit to the French Concession Fu Xing Park and the Jade Temple.
This five star monster is patronised solely by the very affluent, Caucasians mostly. The coffee is okay, the staff speak English, the décor, five-star awful. On our way out, I stop to look at an extraordinarily huge and ugly flower arrangement and a polished bronze sculpture, an ice skating Sumo sized man with tiny feet who looks a lot like the South African renegade politician Julius Malema. I am amused at my brain making odd associations, triggering subliminal connections where no actual connection exists, at least as far as I know.
The ice skater bronze in the lobby of the Westin hotel. Artist Unknown. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
The Bund hums with genteel activity as the aging population of Shanghai take the morning air. Some on the promenade, some in Huangpu Park, and others at the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a memorial for the those who died “during the revolutionary struggle of Shanghai,” that looks like something the Gang of Four might have cooked up. Tai chi, bat and ball, arm calisthenics, and power-walking all goes on at pace outside the closed food franchises that border the Park, nestled below the promenade. People sit among their healthier compatriots meditatively smoking, watching the koi circling in ponds or the river rolling by. Senior citizens are everywhere, looking for the most part happy, friendly and busy, organized into groups who keep healthy together, although some do their exercise thing alone. They all wear tracksuits and trainers and T-shirts in bright colours, some with slogans in English that fascinate me. One says “There are NO eternal facts as THERE are no trusts 57.” Very cryptic, it keeps me going for hours, a good substitute for my regular morning crossword solving.
Frozen Heroes. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Leaving morning bat and ball. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
High over the river, I see two rows of kites, about twenty of them on each string, bucking and rolling in the silver sky above the leaden water. They look like dragons swaggering in the thermals, flying up, gliding down, writhing and pirouetting over the magnificent river, and the sleek buildings of Pudong gleam pink, blue and gold in the violet light of the morning.
Dragon and Castle. Shanghai. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Early morning Pudong. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
A street cleaner in fresh blue overalls lifts stuck gum and dropped food off the stones of promenade with a paint scraper as she brushes her way along. My stomach churns as I remember the abandon with which many people hawk and spit. Early this morning, as I lay listening to the songbirds, someone walked by our window making long preparation before committing to his spit. No self-consciousness in him about making those grinding noises, the concrete mixer grunts, before he got whatever it is that lurked down there up and out onto the nearest surface, usually the pavement. It is someone else’s job to clean up, every day, all day. The sound and what follows nauseates me so I avert my eyes and hurry away (being the type of person who does not look at the car crash as I drive by) but eventually I get used to it and giggle like a child at the awfulness of the lengthy preparations. I dub them The Phlegm Concerto.
Dragon Driver . ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Seeing a handsome silver haired man stands on the promenade with a large brass spindle in his hands (he is flying one of the Dragon Kites) I smile and nod, and he nods back. I indicate I would like to take a picture; he nods again, smiling as his kite spirals in the burnished light. After I take my shot, he beckons over and offers a turn with his brass spindle. Seems rude not to, so we swap, he takes my camera, I take his spindle. He shows, with gentle hands, nods and reassuring smiles how it works. Clockwise winds the white nylon, like so much dental floss, and up goes the serpent, sinuous, climbing. Let the string out and it straightens into a line, or arc, falling like an exhaled breath. The firm tug of the dragon at the end of the line is satisfying and soothing, the brass wheel in my hands warm and glinting gold in this silvered world. I laugh, delighted, and the man is pleased. He hands me back my camera, glad he has made a tourist happy. I wave as I walk away, and he nods to my effusive “xie-xie,” (thank you), my second Chinese word, after “ni hau”. My third is “cha” which I think means tea, although I must be saying it wrong because no one seems to know what I am saying when I go in search of teabags later. But that’s later.
Shanghai Street. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Commercemobile. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
We head toward East Nanjing Road, place of sure commerce and, with luck, breakfast because there is none to be had on The Bund. We try to understand the rules of the road on the way. There are excellent traffic lights, ones that count down the seconds in big, red numbers, letting you know how long you must wait before crossing, and then green numbers count down, presumably so the crosser can decide whether there is time to make it across the intersection before the seconds run out. Excellent we think. We can do this.
Problem is, none of the electric bicycles or scooters or tuk-tuks obey the traffic lights. They bear down fast on the hapless pedestrian, in virtual silence. Cars turning right and left also ignore pedestrian right of way. I step off the curbside and they all rush at me with alarming determination. Often I think I have made it safely to the other side only to find an ancillary, meter-wide lane (for bicycles?) on the far side of the road, obscured by the rest of the traffic. No rules of the road exist in this meter of hell and the two wheeled vehicles stream in endless determined rows. A dangerous Mexican standoff ensues. Either we brazen it out and go, and hope they brake/swerve before they hit us, or we stand there and wait like lost schoolchildren for someone bolder to lead the way and scamper to safety in their wake. I recommend the second option to the Shanghai novice. At one point, at a crossing without lights, we follow an ancient fellow with a walking frame. He steps out into four lanes of traffic, waves his arm imperiously at the cars that look like they aren’t going to stop, but do thank goodness, and shuffle behind eventually delivered safely to the other side without having to scamper. Without a reliable local to take the lead, we prefer to take our chances with the little green man, though I tell you it is no sure thing it will be easy. Mind you, we only see one bingle, between a woman on a pedal bike and a man in a tuk-tuk. She gave him What For, and he laughed, so she brushed her neat black pants off and drove away looking peeved. No real damage done, but I saw a lot of close calls.
The hard job. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Overhead waves of washing and noodles hang above the crowded streets, and everywhere is the unhappy-pigsty stench of the drains. It wafts up most strongly from the drain covers and when there are road works underway. It is a constant reminder that below your feet rushes the shit of millions, a sobering thought. More than the entire population of Australia live in this city and I feel a sensory overload often. A sip of water and a sit down always sees me right and so we make our way across the sprawl, populous, huge, and smelly, stopping often to sip and gawk.
Could be anywhere. E. Nanjing Rd Shanghai. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
East Nanjing Road, the main shopping road with its Apple store, Gap, Rolex, Zara and many other gleaming establishments of consumer capitalism is made into a pedestrian mall and although the cars bikes and scooters cross at intervals, pedestrians get right of way. The abundant advertising is European in style: gorgeous skinny blonde women, handsome black men and sometimes a Eurasian face, a hybrid heritage that has a cachet in fashion, even in China. Kate Moss is big and so is Cindy Crawford, they disport seductively in large black and white photographs regularly. We are targeted again by insistent beggars, only two of them in the many thousands of people, but they are persistent so we are glad we have some silver to drop in their empty cups. The locals seem to mostly ignore them, hence the beeline for tourists I suppose.
Locals ignore beggars. ©Tracy Dunn 2012.
Badly in need of breakfast, we look around and find we have a choice between Maccers, KFC and Pizza Hut. The sight of a fat tourist stuffing an unfortunate bit of fowl in her mouth gives me the impetus I need to walk further. A block later, down a side road and past a scooter rank, we see the Shanghai Snack and hurry in. We have the most delicious soup of noodles, pickled veggies and mushrooms, watching two women roll pork and vegetable dumplings with astonishing dexterity at a table nearby. Outside on the street, a man fries dumplings on coals with a fragrant sauce bubbling in a black pan alongside.
Dumplings, noodles and pickled veg. ©Tracy Dunn 2012.
Fortified, we enter Peoples Square with its modernist sculpture, a large well rendered work that invites the viewer in only to lead into a crescent corral that shouts go back, go sideways round, no route ahead to me, although no doubt if I read Chinese there would be an uplifting message as I was turned back. There is something written in gold is all I know. Through the adjoining park, we find comical kittens, mostly healthy, stalking each other in the undergrowth. Eventually we find an anodyne rendering of Engels and Marx to sit below before we making our way to the French Quarter. The trees are very nice, the paths clean, but there is no romance in the Peoples Park. Serenity abounds however and there is no doubt this big green lung keeps central Shanghai breathing easy. I would like to see bigger stands of trees and less impressive new Biennale buildings and monuments, in the interests of good air and romance, but the electrification of so many vehicles makes breathing relatively easy, here given the amount of traffic. The downside is they are silent and may run you over if you rely on your ears in traffic, which most of us do.
Ambush in Fu Xing Park. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Karl & Fred. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
I think about the dearth of graffiti and indie music posters or unofficial street stuff to provide a window how people live and what they like, those layers of meaning and message that form a narrative for the visitor in Berlin, Barcelona, London or Paris. Here there are official signs and sculptures galore, informational installations and advertisements, great swathes of group activity but nothing impromptu. I photograph some ad stickers and a single scrawl hastily painted by brush on the underside of an architrave, to remind myself that this was the first thing resembling a tag I had seen. The graffiti is not noteworthy, but the existence of it and casual advertising, even in such a hidden position, is.
Shanghai Graffiti ©Tracy Dunn 2012.
French Concession Corner. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Vendormobile. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
At lunch time we have a restorative coffee and focaccia at the French Quarter watching with amusement a group of three men who seem to have spread themselves along a table that could seat ten, laptops and backpacks claiming the empty spaces around them. One dozes and two fiddle with mobile phones. A group of a four men and one woman troop in and join them after a while and I guess they are a Japanese film crew on an advertising recce. I can’t speak Japanese, but I have worked with enough Japanese crews to know what it sounds like. We watch them anxiously flick between POV’s; the face of the woman and rooftops behind her, then the reverse, the back of her head and more roofs. We chuckle and assign roles to the recce crew, guessing who is the Director, who the producer, assigning roles to all seven of them. It is reassuring to see our own profession at work here in the very strange streets of Shanghai, a diversion while we gather our energy, drained mainly by being so utterly surrounded by so many unfamiliar people.
©Tracy Dunn 2012.
Blue bike baby. ©Tracy Dunn 2012.
Inside the gate of Fu Xing Park, we walk past a child playing on his toy bike. He cries when I take his photograph, but his father is pleased. Another not very remarkable park I think, until we stumble across something makes the day an extraordinary one. A man is writing what looks like a poem with a huge, white calligraphy brush, glossy handled and plump with water, on the stones of the pathway that leads to the Rose Garden. The hot air is redolent with ancient varieties of rose, some that I recognise from my grandmother’s garden, hardly ever seen in the bright hybridised scentless stock available today. These roses smell like my childhood in the heat of a Highveld garden in Southern Africa. The curlicue of close-cropped hedging is very Asian however, exquisitely rendered and maintained.
The Calligrapher writes incomprehensible (to me) messages in water, black arabesques against the grey of the stones. A small boy steps gaily among the ideograms, barely missing them in a kind of mad hop scotch, laughing, daring his father to pull him out. The calligrapher is unfazed by the capering child. He goes about writing his poem as the last one, recently completed a few meters behind him, is dissolving into the hot air. It disappears as we watch. I long to know what the poems say, but am too shy, to admiring of the meditative message to ask what the literal one is. We turn to to leave and the calligrapher asks, in good English, “Where you from?” “Sydney” I answer. “Ah, Ustraya,” he smiles as I give heartfelt thanks in both languages. What a treasure is here in this Hokusaian life. It fills my mind as we walk away, turn and wave, see the Calligrapher watching us, at his feet, art rendered in water on hot stone, leaving no trace, no lasting proof of its, or his, existence. There is something ancient yet of the moment in his actions; it brings a great rush of emotion in me, part inspiration, part pathos, but mainly profound gratitude. Seeing this something to treasure for the rest of my life.
Scenting calligraphy in Peoples Square Park. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
About to leap. Fu Xing Park. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Water stone arabesque. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Farewell Fu Xing Park. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Our walk back takes us under and over the boggling freeway system, a five storey engineered marvel, roads flying over and around one another strung on a decorative spindle of concrete with brass at its core, radiating out in modernist patterns. Even here, in the heart of the freeway, Shanghai has art. Huddled in the pedestrian thoroughfare, sandwiched about one storey up in the massive curves of concrete, women crouch in groups of three and four wearing masks, armed with counters that look like the change dispensers bus conductors used when I was growing up. The women push levers, peer at rolling numbers and make marks in their notebooks. They might be traffic counters. The reality hits home to me again, everybody has a job.
With art at the heart. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
We try to stick to the green areas that dot the city and the walk back to the Bund seems much shorter than the walk to Fu Xing Park. We see on the horizon the strange flying saucer top of the Radisson and at the other end of the Nanjing Road the lotus top of the Westin Hotel and Bund Centre as we zigzag our way toward it. Exhausted when we get back to the Elegance Hotel, still doing its best to look classy, we fall onto our vast firm bed to sleep the sleep of the virtuous, to rest for the nighttime excursion back to Nanjing road. M says we must go back tonight, to see the lights and the Friday night crowd. And while I know it is not to be missed, part of me cowers at the thought of sallying forth again… but my ankles have responded well to walking and aspirin. I fall asleep in moments.
Entry to Exhibition. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
We have noticed an exhibition called Vogue Through the Ages between our hotel and Nanjing Road. That evening as we walk past, we stop to watch the bright young crowd clustered around a set of small well-lit photographs in the intimate space. It looks like an opening, but then a man seated on a wooden chair outside the doorway, in full uniform, (a retired member of the Red Army or perhaps, or just senior and this is his job) invites us in to view the work. I understand as I walk through why I assumed it was an opening. The crowd of animated, beautifully dressed, young people study the pictures closely, discussing them, taking pictures on their mobile phones of the work and each other. This is what happens at openings in Sydney. This is not an opening I learn as I read the explanations in English, rather the tail end installation of a much bigger exhibition held earlier in the Shanghai Art Museum.The photographs are from the archives of two of Shanghai’s longest standing photographic studios, Renmin and Wangkai Studios. Most of the images are from the last century, dating from as early as 1927. I share the following from the official blurb, delighted as I am by the phrasing:
Shot in Situ. Image may be subject to copyright of Renmin or Wangkai Studio Shanghai. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
‘In the early 1920s, a Cantonese named Wang Chikai served his apprenticeship at a photo studio in Shanghai. He was so quick-witted that he mastered special skills in photo taking and developing. In 1923, Wang Chikai founded Wangkai Photo Studio on Nanjing Road. In 1927, the trials for the Far Eastern Championship Games were held in Shanghai. Wangkai Photo Studio sent its best photographers for the event. They took a lot of wonderful snapshots with high-grade fast lens. These photos were developed that very night and provided to local newspapers. The studio did not charge high for the pictures on one condition that each photo should be marked “shot by Shanghai Wangkai Photo Studio” at the foot. Wangkai Photo Studio took every business, big or small, with meticulous care. Wedding pictures, in particular, represented the studio’s features. Wang Chikai thought that wedding pictures had a bearing on the newly-weds’ whole life, so they should not be taken carelessly. He used to publicly claim that the wedding pictures he took would never fade.
Shot in situ. Image may be subject to copyright of Renmin or Wankai Studio Shanghai. ©Tracy Dunn 2012.
‘Old portrait photos freeze moments in Chinese history and frame personal aspirations. When Zhang Xiaogang’s surrealist “Family Portrait” series began to fetch astronomical auction prices worldwide in the mid-1990s, this real-life, old-fashioned photography style was already fading, tucked away in family albums. These old family pictures, whether painted by Zhang or photographed in studios, stir deep nostalgia for the old days. According to Susan Sontag (1933-2004), a well-known American author and literary theorist, “photography means to put oneself in a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore, like power”.
Shot in situ. Image may be subject to copyright of Renmin or Wankai Studio Shanghai. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
“Studio photography in China in the past was akin to small theater, where ordinary people try to surpass their mediocre life,” says Xiao Xiaolan, the symposium organizer and curator of the forthcoming exhibition.
Studio photography was imported into China after the mid-19th century and reached maturity in large cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, capital city of southern China’s Guangdong Province, in the 1920s or 1930s. At that time, young photographers were all overseas Chinese who returned with a passion for photography. They often employed Hollywood shooting and lighting techniques. The year 1949 was a turning point in the history of studio photography in China. “Before 1949, only celebrities, the rich or politicians would frequent photography studios,” says Xiao. “However, in a new political environment, more ordinary people and those at the lower level of society flooded into studios, including workers, peasants and soldiers.”
Shot in situ. Image may be subject to copyright of Renmin or Wankai Studio Shanghai. © Tracy Dunn 2012
“The world in focus after 1949 was different, there were fewer movie stars, fewer Westerners, fewer suits and ties. Instead there were more ordinary people and more common clothes,” recalls Gu Yunxing, a retired photographer from Renmin (People’s) Photography Studio.
Gu and other photographers of that generation used photography to express what was called the “revolutionary potential of the mainstream” during the 1950s and 1960s. In those photos the faces were flushed with enthusiasm and inspiration, burning bright red with passion and hard work; the eyes were pure and shining, always wide open, looking toward a noble goal. And there were big beaming smiles. They represented optimism, power and progress. It was a bit like Socialist Realism.
“The aesthetic taste of the photographer during the shooting process partly mirrored the emotion and core of society, while at the same time the portrait photo was unable to move away from the political shadow during that period,” says Li Gongming, dean of the art department at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. “The vicissitudes that each family experienced before or after 1949 were unthinkable,” Li adds. “Yet what these pictures reflected was another spiritual world, as if everything was pleasant, unconstrained and ideal.”
Shot in Situ. May be subject to copyright of Renmin and Wankai Studios Shanghai. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
According to organizer Xiao, there were two types of old portrait photographers. One type had a poor family background and learned photography to make a living. Many learned as apprentices. The second type came from well-to-do families and were passionate about the new art and science of photography. Many were both studio owners and photographers. After 1949, studio photographers were not considered artists.
“Believe it or not, they were considered service people,” Xiao says. “The photography studios, together with restaurants and hotels, were all listed as food and service companies, which sounds a bit ridiculous.”
“There were two types of photo business at the time, standard photography and artistic photo,” recalls Zhu Tianmin, another retired portrait photographer. “I used to take more effort in shooting a so-called ‘artistic photo,’ thinking about the lighting, costumes and posture.”
The aesthetic taste of the photographers represented the taste of the bourgeois class during the 1970s. Unlike the “revolutionary portraiture” of the 1950s and 1960s, a dreamy, idealized and romanticized aura was sought by people in the 1970s.
“Photographers at that time seemed to be more keen on the light and shadow of the picture itself, and every small detail of hairstyle, costumes and even facial movements,” says Wu Zhaohua, a retired photographer.
“Everyone in focus was filled with happiness and warmth, fulfilling the life they might not attain in reality.”
Qin Xiaoyu, a retired teacher in her 60s, was one of those who had her idealized picture taken.
“When I look back at such pictures, I have complicated feelings,” she says. “It looks like me, yet not the real me. I remember trying to pretend I was another girl.” The photographer asked her to hold a violin, a symbol of taste and sophistication, though Qin had no idea how to play it. “There was a kind of obscure feeling in the photo, hope and a romantic touch in an unreal world.”
Shot in Situ. May be subject to copyright of Renmin and Wankai Studios. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
However, in the 1990s, studio photography largely passed from the scene with the arrival of wedding photography, digital photography, documentary photography and conceptual photography. “Today one has more choices in shooting what kind of pictures he or she wants,” Xiao says. “But these old photos focusing on a person, a couple or a family freeze the characteristics and emotions of a bygone era. I always remember the small photo studio from my childhood, since it recorded my growth in images since I was an infant,” he concludes.’
The photographs are fabulous, particularly the early ones. The later often ersatz versions of 20th Century western glamour, brides in white meringue dresses, grooms in coloured shirts, big hair, but the faces are always fascinating, as is that of the old smiling soldier who sits at the entrance, inviting us to return.
Shot in Situ. Image may be subject to copyright of either Renmin or Wangkai Studio Shanghai. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Shot in Situ. Image may be subject to copyright of either Renmin or Wangkai Studio Shanghai. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
In East Nanjing road, the light levels are extravagant enough to challenge Las Vegas. Neon galore, hawkers selling light-emitting roller blades that clip to the heels of trainers, shuttlecocks that sing in the sky, blinking vivid blues and greens. Onto small boards placed at our feet so we must stop and watch, jelly Pokémons are flung and splatter, smeared like dropped eggs. Then jelly splat miraculously gathers itself up and returns to Pokémon form, eyeballs ears and nose just where they should be, wobbling gently. I laugh uncomfortably. It is an anxiety inducing message. Insistent youths try to sell us the roller wheels for our heels no matter how many times we decline. “200 Yuan, 100 Yuan, 50 Yuan.” Eventually one shouts “C’mon man 5 euro!” M is politely resistant while other men sidle up to me saying, “Watch your bag.” I think they are being civic-minded telling me to beware of pick-pockets and bag snatchers and clutch my bag firmly on my shoulder, but after four of these encounters I get the idea, they want to sell me a watch, or bag. I relax and shake my head instead of saying “Xie-xie.
A measured Waltz. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Friday night line dancing East Nanjing Road Shanghai. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Old School Anthem. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Rock n Roll but don’t smile. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
The Kewpie Mayonnaise trolley cart plies up and down for those too tired, lazy, or frightened of being mown down by scooters to walk, playing a Chinesified synthesized version of ‘I’m a little teapot, short and stout’ with maddening monotony. It is insane and hilarious. I can’t help singing the nursery rhyme out loud, knowing no-one but M can hear me because the noise levels are through the roof, and also because most of the people of Shanghai barely register tourists, especially a middle-aged woman tunelessly singing songs from the nursery. There is no danger for the traveler, only indifference.
Kewpie Mayonnaise (shot by day). ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Watch your bag? ©Tracy Dunn 2012
We asked our hotel to recommend somewhere to get Beijing Duck and they have provided the name of a restaurant in Chinese on a slip of paper. I hardly eat it at home because of cholesterol issues, but feel I must a least make a comparative tasting as who knows if I will ever return to China? We carry our piece of paper and stare earnestly at the mosaic of ideograms on the street but fail to find a match. Ne or two friendly people come up and see if they can help us, but no one can, and so we are consigned to our tourist bubble again and up, up, up we walk until we are getting fractious, a mix of sensory overload, culture shock and hunger.
Searching for Beijing Duck. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
We move on from the bright lights and scour the side streets for a restaurant that serves Beijing Duck and eventually find one, although it is not the one on our paper, but at this point we hardly care. The taste test verdict? Not as good as BBQ King in Sydney, but very welcome nonetheless.
Beijing Duck Shanghai style. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
We make our way back to the river, satiated with duck, beer, dumplings and rice, past the stage now being dismantled, the rigging packed, the PA loaded. Record time for a stage set and wrap. The line dancers dance on in the mall, the waltzers have become tangoers. Suddenly at our feet, a miniature Yorkshire terrier, beribboned and brushed, is driving a chunky, plastic, convertible toy SUV. The crowds cluster round amazed at the sight, and the dog looks around obligingly, patiently standing with hind legs on seat, front paws on the wheel as photo opportunities are taken. Then with no effort or evidence of who is driving the car in the press of people, she rolls on sedately, looking right and left, Dog Queen of East Nanjing, who would wave if she could.
Greeting the masses. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Look both sides and smile. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Moving on. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
The Bund is crammed with so many people that the police are out in force to make sure the traffic obeys the signals and pedestrians get to the promenade safely. We stare at TV Tower and the skyscrapers of Pudong, looking like an advert for the 80’s version of the city of the future, watch a fairy lit ferry sparkling as it makes it’s way slowly down the river and shoot a few pictures. Then back to the relative quiet of the hotel, thankful it is set back a block or two from waterfront. I fall into a dreamless sleep until dawn, when the songbirds begin their chorus, a dream song of susurration and mating, or foraging on the wing, from the sunny bars of their tiny bamboo cages.
Boat on the Bund. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
We decide to visit the designated New Art and graffiti district M50. Besides the man who writes the poetry in water in the peoples park, the only other public message maker we have encountered is a disabled man on West Nanjing who writes whatever it is he writes lying flat on his stomach in perfect white chalk on black stone as the millions of pedestrians stream around him. He pulls himself along with his forearms, to begin afresh further along, his begging bowl empty, his efforts soon disappearing under the soles of the passing shoppers. These ephemeral writers indicate that someone here is aware of the dearth of message making on the streets, and that the few message makers of Shanghai are only using non-permanent mediums to say their bit. I wish again I could magically read the language of this city. Perhaps this is why I like graffiti, the semiotics of picture making help me understand how someone who may speak another language feels. The water artist and the chalk artist must remain but tracks of beautiful marks in my memory.
Chalk messages. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Chalk Graffiti. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
The only graffiti found outside M50. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
I am fascinated to see how the hothouse containment of dissident art and vandalism fit into the frame of The Peoples Republic. We take a cab that hurtles at great speed across the inner city to funky M50 that looks as if it could be in London or Berlin. It’s demarcated by vigorous graffiti, nodding madly to Manga, Babylon Academy and Banksy.
M50 Medley. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Up close and around the corner. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Beyond the decorated concrete wall that separates this area from the world beyond, stand serried rows of apartment blocks, scores of storeys high, containing the lives of the millions who live in Shanghai. They range like concrete teeth far into the horizon, fluttering pennants of pegged washing hanging in empty windows, flagging an existence unimaginable to the wide-horizoned, tall grass consciousness I carry in my bundu heart.
This is Reality. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
In the first gallery we walk into, called MArt Centre we are greeted by the lovely Fay. She invites us to check out and photograph if we want a one-man show by Pan Xiao Rong called appropriately The Rule of the Game. Droll title. All of his work is on paper, fine ruled scalpel cuts into thick board, the surface of the grid lifted, removed or scraped back, some coloured with a black bleed of ink while others rely simply on the fawn inside of white board to produce a white on white effect. They are very skillful, nervously relevant, like an artist from a William Gibson novel shut in some world of gridlines, receiving universal messages of sub-surface impulses. Fay explains he is young, younger than her she says, and she can’t be more than about 28 years old, but already he has established himself in his strange assured way.
The Rule of the Game. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Artist:Pan Xiao Rong. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Intersection.Artist:Pan Xiao Rong. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Uplift. Artist:Pan Xiao Rong. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
This is the best work we see in the district, although a few other places impress for architectural reasons, and there is some very interesting ink on rice paper paintings by an artist I was not permitted to photograph, so the name eludes me. I like his gentle digging at the culture of Mao and the revolution, am fascinated by the political criticism apparent in the work. A particular favourite is a pair of paintings of two military officials, both male, both squinting, grinning idiotically as they waltz together in a tender embrace in their exquisitely rendered government issued sandshoes and drab Mao suits. I’ve tried track his name down since, gone to the promised website listed on the business card I have, but the page will not open beyond the first page for me. I now regret the oversight of not making a note the old fashioned way.
M50. New is old. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
The liberalization of China is very apparent in Shanghai. Have I mentioned yet that most signage appears in English as well as Chinese? Perhaps this is not so surprising. Reading up on it, I learn Shanghai is the education centre of the new China with the most tertiary institutions and the highest literacy levels. It was colonized by the French and the Germans, the Japanese and home to émigré Russian Jews who were responsible for building some of the more spectacular examples of Art Deco that glow like jewels in the overblown cityscape. There are Soviet Neo-Classical monoliths, high-rises and nineteenth century shops side by side. Shanghai was also home to the radical splinter group led by Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow, and her Gang of Four.
Parked Ambition. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Spirit Mind. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
The city brings to mind the Sprawl of William Gibson’s Burning Chrome, a cyber city deluxe, people scavenging a living in its dark underbelly, with messages streaming into the consciousness at so many levels, not least in the strange “English” slogans on the T-shirts, like the one I mentioned on the first day. I look out for them, perhaps because I have no graffiti to decode and have alerted M to the phenomenon. He thinks at first I am making t up, but then he spots some and we takes note of some of the strangest messages.
“STOP she asked stoically”
“Weeny Sunny the decadent Dandy”
“Big Up Serious Massive”
“Thug for Life”
“Daddy Oh Daddy Spirit Mind”
“Sometimes the night seems more alive and highly coloured”
“Life is complicated and rewarding 157,”
and our favourite,
“Impossible is Nothing.”
I learn much later this last phrase has roots beyond the absurdity of a transposed truism. It is the title of an exhibition by Xu Zhen in 2008, another of the artists we will see at the Shanghai Art Museum tomorrow. I find it fascinating that the most memorable installation of Impossible is Nothing is a recreation of the Pulitzer Prize winning picture by the late Kevin Carter of Bang Bang Club fame, the Somali child being stalked by a vulture. My mind spools endlessly on the six degrees of separation in our global consciousness as I look at pictures of people clustered around watching the sculpted child sitting in the dirt, no vulture in the room. It feels as though Xu Zhen is telling us that we are both the photographer and also the vulture. The South African, the Somali and the Shangainese are making a threesome in my imagination, focused on an image from 1993, commemorated on a T-shirt while shopping in East Nanjing Road in 2012, catching the eye and imagination of a random traveller. Layers of connectivity stream through the cacophony of Shanghai life.
In the neighbourhood of The Jade Temple. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
At the feet of the Jade Lion. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Our route back takes us past the Jade Temple. I thought I wanted to see it until I had to run the dingy gauntlet of desperate cripples, crawling on hardened stumps on the pavements, up on the steps of the Temple itself, begging. They are also in the gutters outside the tawdry temple shops with massive jade Lions and Buddhas on sale for many tens of thousands of dollars, begging with dusty crooked hands. The sight of this misery forces me on; I do not want to enter the Temple, rich and ancient, beyond the sea of misery on the steps.
Pavement Still Life. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
We walk through parks and small green spaces where we can, through streets of industry and residence to Nanjing Road East. Small vignettes, heartbreakingly eloquent show me how people get by. A pair of old fashioned wooden washboards stacked at a street tap, a crammed kitchen, a veritable forest of old pots and gas rings, warm, black and dripping, a beautiful young woman, dressed in the softest pink chiffon lying back on a pedicurists chair, her eyes surgically enhanced to remove the epithantic fold, her soft face painted perfectly. She watches M and I watch her as she sums up his availability, notice that she does not see me and M strides on unaware of any of it.
Lifestyle. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Street Kitchen Shanghai. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
When we get to Nanjing Road, it is packed with the never-ending shoppers, parading, queuing for moon cakes, the press boggling, all the way to the Bunt. The river is very lovely at sunset, busy, but not too extreme. I see a bride and groom posing on the pavement and stop to watch as they are alone, that is, no bridal party in attendance. He carries her train as they walk along the pavement, smiling. He adjusts her skirt when they stop at a nearby side street and I see a make up artist and photographer, and realise it is a photo shoot.
Helpful Groom. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Sandshoe Bride, Shanghai. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
I shoot you, you shoot me. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
At the river man poses in the backside of a large bronze bull, fiery in the late light. A cavalcade of sights appears in my lens, the only way I can assimilate what I see in the density of he crowd. I am exhausted and jumpy with overload. We eat that night at nearby Grandmothers, favoured by locals and tourists alike, a hearty cheapish meal of old favourites, drink beer. The soft night eases the jangle of the day, my frenzied imagination tucks itself away and I happily fall into bed to sleep until the caged birds call their brazen hope to the rising sun.
Photo opportunity. The Bund. Tracy Dunn 2012
After checking out of the hotel and storing our bags, we walk to the Shanghai Art Museum, situated in what was once the Shanghai Race Club. The exhibition is called Omen 2012: New Chinese Art. This most extraordinary show is on for only ten days, from the 15th-25th September. There are wonderful paintings in the first room, both figurative and abstract, and glossy modern sculpture, seductive and sensual.
Omen: Portentous. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
In the second gallery, is Zhang Huan’s ‘Hero No. 2’, a sculpture of a giant Golem creature made not from mud but of whole animal pelts. It sits like an infant on the floor; embryonic heads emerge from its massive leg and shoulder, face featureless and dumb looking. It towers over us, a monster in the large room, hairy skin gleaming black, red and white under soft gallery lighting. Looking closely, I wonder what beast the strange hoofs come from? Not a cloven hoof. Made up of the giant toenail sized hoofs of very small donkeys? The work is extraordinary. I stand close and catch a faint scent of tanned cowhide and breathe deeply. It is a consoling smell from my childhood holidays spent on my grandmothers farm in Chegutu Zimbabwe, a mixed crop farm with a small beef herd.
In all His Glory. Hero No 2. Artist: Zhang Huan. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Emerging Hero. Detail. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Hero No 2 detail. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
A pretty, young gallery attendant in Armani-esque black suit and crucially good haircut, sidles up to me, smiles, then wrinkles his nose, shakes his head, pinches his nostrils, indicating he hates the smell, that faint memory sense barely registering in my nose. Alternatively, he may be saying he hates the sculpture? I pantomime sniffing ‘Hero No. 2’ and give him the thumbs up, to explain in sign language that I like the smell. The attendant looks seriously creeped out and quickly walks away, shaking his head.
Museum Cool. Artist: 郭伟 ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Empires Borders 11. Artist: Chen Chieh-jen.
Further into the gallery I find a film called Empires Borders II playing in a darkened room. It starts with a wide shot of a fire in an arched concrete hearth in what looks like an empty factory or barracks. On the floor are bits of cloth, like winding sheets and scraps of paper, fluttering gently as though a slow breeze blows through. Soft as moving air, the camera wafts closer to the furnace, and as the fire gets closer, I see paper burning and curling, dissolving in flames. Black and white photographs of another time in history dissolve out of the flames, many young hopeful faces that fade again into the fire now filling the flickering screen. The images seep loss and grief into my aching heart, fill my mind with the experience of being a witness to horror. I weep silently in the dark as I watch the blurred and beautiful faces of a generation fade in and out, consigned to the fires of revisionism by a cruel history.
After two cycles of the footage, I walk into an adjoining room where the second part is spooling. It is a related but more linear narrative, black and white as well, made up of propaganda footage from the inception of Taiwan: JFK waving, Bob Hope laughing, backed by US Generals, watching drum majorettes and dancing girls, concerts and jeeps, rows of US troops marching through the island, and massed in the streets of Taipei. From these newsreel images, the narrative cuts to a youngish man carrying an old one on his back, again in the derelict factory. He climbs the stairs endlessly between whole floors of people, standing, bereft and broken, holding long numbers written on torn cardboard against their chests. I am grateful for the darkness hiding my wet cheeks, and this film is easier to understand, not the deadly assault on the heart that the first one was. I learn something about Taiwan and the forgotten past from it, about it’s relationship with America and China and what happened when Taiwan separated from the mainland. It is a powerful document and could be part of Mainland China’s history as much as Taiwan’s, and indeed is as it is included here, the worlds gateway to Mainland China.
Reading the catalogue in the bookstore I learn the first film is about the Chen Chien-jen’s father’s generation and in the reorientation programme he and others attended in order to be good citizens of Taiwan at the height of the Cold War, a cauterization to make the amputation from mainland China possible. I regret not buying that catalogue, but (the wonders of Google) I track the information down. There is a real need for cultural access via the web in China, because of the difficulty in accessing translations of existing records is stupendous, nearly as hard as learning to speak Shangainese. Note to self: Take notes next time.
Chen Chieh-jen:JEN: MEDITATIONS AT THE MARGINS
TEXT: DU QINGCHUN / TRANSLATION: MATT SCHRADER
“ The set of Empire’s Borders II reconstructs the space of the Western Enterprises building. This reconstruction takes place inside of an old factory. It is not, however, a complete reconstruction. It is the reconstruction of the ruins of a Western factory inside the ruins of another old factory. The concept of “ruins” in Empire’s Borders II is two-sided. Among the ruins, Chen Chieh-Jen constructs, on the one hand, the ruins of a Cold War-era political and military base, while on the other the work preserves, as an economic record, industrial relics. In carrying out this preservation, Chen does not stop at a simple nostalgic viewing of discarded machinery. On the contrary, he adds another dimension to his work by layering a previously lost political and military history atop the vestiges of raw material. Truth be told, Taiwan’s current post-authoritarian economic rise is built on dualities like these.
In Empire’s Borders II, ruins, spirits, and the testimony to vanished histories form a recollection of a Cold War-era forward operating base. Here, the memories of particular histories become a meditation on those who came before, a meditation that gives voice to those things the generation prior did not have words to say. Chen Chieh-Jen succeeds completely in transforming individual histories into a larger historical discussion. The work’s final pairing of individual characters, a fugitive man and his fleeting thoughts of a female prisoner, orients, once and for all, man in his grievances with history. Though caught under the crushing wheels of history, man is still both its driver and object. While Empire’s Border’s I is the story of a group of women, Empire’s Borders II strikes me as the work of a son recounting the history of his father’s generation. The images become a sort of spiritual skin, and the work they make up becomes a face that the artist presents to the world.”
It is a brave work, and cinematically brilliant. No moving image artwork in any gallery has affected me more than this one. Truth be told I generally hate Time Based Art, or as I like to call it, Bad Video Art, but this film teaches me that there is power in the medium, rare as good examples are. Moreover, I am reminded of the first time I saw the animations of William Kentridge at the Market Theatre Gallery Precinct in Johannesburg in the late 1980’s as I watch the roomful of images provided by Qiu Anxiong.
Portrait Sequence Animation. Artist Qiu Anxiong. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
As huge and impressive as this exhibition is it will be overwhelmed and forgotten in the excitement of the soon to be launched Shanghai Biennale. Ten days of official dissidence, then wrapped up and moved away, much like the stage of the Friday night rock dancing performance. This exhibition holds treasures of contemporary art, far better from the facile assemblages that have become so common in the west. They ring with a fizzing energy, clarity of meaning that the jaded palate of the West seems incapable of summoning up.
At the Lily Pond. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
The Peoples Park is wonderful on this crowded Sunday. There are elegantly composed painted ladies, out of time – from the 1950’s perhaps, seated at the edge of the lily ponds, as chaotic, branded 21st Century Shanghai throngs past performing the orchestral Phlegm Concerto in C Major.
Lovers tiff. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
There is a vote of some sort going on, clustered citizens in avid debate, with sideshows rides and activities for the children, food stalls and young lovers curled together in the gentle shade of the gardens. Or arguing publicly on East Nanjing road, dressed to the nines, carrying Vuitton, or practicing the art of mobile air conditioning, not a custom seen anywhere else I have ever visited.
Shanghai Aircon. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Wrung out and stretched in comprehension we are ready to leave. Shanghai delivers amusements galore to its visitors and it’s population, levels of care and facilities that would be the envy of just about any city. The hope is abundantly bright and young here on the Bund. Nevertheless, there is a feeling below the well-scrubbed pavements, beyond the grim dancing matrons and the happy girl children, abundant now. It thrums in my ears, like that distressed pig smell that sours the air, it also causes my pulse to race. There are too many people here, it is all too much, and the best organization in the world cannot adequately cope with the waste of so many millions of people squeezed into one old place.
Goodbye Pretty Bund. ©Tracy Dunn 2012
Shanghai for all its gloss is an ancient jewel. I fear one day the dark waters below will rise up and engulf it’s ankles, expose the glossy modernism of Pudong and show this city to be a grand old tart, scattered with exquisite jewels, skirts soiled with it’s own waste.