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My Shanghai

By Graham Earnshaw

The first time I went to Shanghai was in 1979. Deng Xiaoping had just forced his way back to the top of the Chinese political tree and had begun the process of rolling back Cultural Revolution fanaticism and isolationism, which has by now resulted in China embracing fast food, ecstasy-fuelled raves and pierced tongues – you know, international culture.

But in 1979, China and Shanghai were another world. Shanghai was like a dead and haunted city. I hated it. It looked and felt – it was! – a city which had been frozen in mid-breath. All those buildings and streets had in 1949 been absolutely in tune with New York and London, then everything stopped, and the architecture began a long, slow and inglorious decline into neglect. From the window of my room in the Peace Hotel on the Bund, I could hear the honking of the occasional Shanghai sedan car. Outside the window, on a wall just down the street I could see a huge faded advertisement for Kelly & Walsh Booksellers. But Kelly & Walsh was gone. Not that that mattered in itself. But everything else of that age was gone with it.

The old Shanghai included much that was awful – the poverty, the injustice, the squalor, the corruption. But Shanghai then was simply a reflection of the world around it, and was in fact a haven to which the poor and the victims of injustice fled from levels of inhumanity greater than Shanghai was capable of inflicting.

At its heart, with the rickshaws and tiffin pealed off, what Shanghai represented back in those far-gone days was the hope for another China – a China of open trade and opportunity, of an end to feudalism and repression, of internationality and accountability. The tentative bourgeoisie of Shanghai in the 1930s represented another route for the country, a route that, socially speaking, Hong Kong and Taiwan eventually took in Shanghai’s place through those long, gloomy years, carrying the torch of middle-class-ness through to the point where it could be handed back to Shanghai — which happened in the 1990s.

Shanghai now has hope and energy once again. It is growing and changing, striving to reclaim the role it once had. The broken windows of 1979 have been fixed. Or torn down. But whatever – they are no longer left, neglected, to let in the drafts of winter. Once again, Aldous Huxley’s quote from the early 1920s describing the city of Shanghai, rings true: “Life itself. Nothing more intensely living can be imagined.”


Shanghai is an anomoly. The child of western imperialism and the youngest of China’s major cities, it is by far the biggest, the most lively, the most productive. Housing conditions can still be appallingly cramped, but the Shanghainese still enjoy the highest standard of living in China. The restaurants are excellent, the shops overflowing with consumer goods. Prices are generally higher than in other parts of China, but then so are the wages. It is the dream of tens of millions of people in China to be allowed to move to Shanghai to live and work.

I first came to live here in 1995, and moving here changed my life in many ways.

What I like about Shanghai more than anything else is that it is forgiving. It is welcoming, it gives you a chance to succeed and it allows you a second chance when you fail. To an extent that even Hong Kong does not, it allows the stranger to become a part of the drama, not just a bystander grafted unnaturally to the social machine.

That’s not to say it is the perfect place. Doing business in Shanghai is the most extraordinary mixture of Chinese greyness and western black-and-white. The contrasts which crowd in upon the eye at every turn – western/Chinese, old/new, retro/ultra-modern, urban/rural, capitalist/socialist – are much more than simply absorbing or distracting.

The whole soap opera of modern China is being played out there on the streets of Shanghai, with the pace of change so fast that you can SEE the actual process of change in mid-step every day. As opposed to other places, where change is so slow, you have to step back and think about a period of years to get a sense of the shift that has taken place.

Here in Shanghai, I readily admit to being addicted to watching the daily installments in this never-ending Chinese soap opera of change.


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