Treaty of Nanking

Dwelling on the past

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am

'One might compare [Greg Girard's photographs] to ... images of Pripyat and Chernobyl, except that what Girard reveals is so much more possibly the fate of so many places, hence so much more terrible.' Author William Gibson

From the forward to Phantom Shanghai

An initial flick through photographer Greg Girard's new book, Phantom Shanghai, is similar to perusing an estate agent's catalogue for nail houses (those lone symbols of defiance against property developers that regularly grace the pages of newspapers). Surrounded by rubble, half demolished, forlorn and shattered, the city's early-20th-century mansions and walk-ups cling to their foundations as gleaming skyscrapers creep ever closer.

View the 222-paged hardback gallery again and the 130 colour photographs reveal the hypertension between China's centrally planned modernisation drive and its complex past. Girard's documentary is a stunning exploitation of urban light, both natural and artificial, playing on the remaining shadows of Shanghai's fast disappearing alleyways and streets - those once-vital communal organs that, in their brick and mortar death rattle, create a haunting beauty and abjectness.

'Amputees say even when they have had a leg or arm amputated, they can still feel the limb. Shanghai is like that.

It's new all over. But there's a phantom oldness - its past - which you can sense but cannot see, only glimpse in these few remaining old districts,' says the 51-year-old Canadian, who moved to Shanghai in 1998 after having lived for more than a decade in Hong Kong.

The accomplished documentary photographer, whose first book, City of Darkness, detailed the end of the Kowloon Walled City, has returned to a familiar theme: the wrecking ball's target.

Armed with a medium-format camera and transparency film - 'the only digital process was the scanning of images for the book', he says - Girard wanted to find out what it was like to live in the once-proud homes owned by middle-class merchants that were subdivided for communal living following the communist victory of 1949.

'It was common in the early 20th century for wealthy but cautious businessmen to build their house not on main boulevards but concealed behind walls and down alleys, where a stranger was unlikely to wander unnoticed,' explains Girard.

A prime example, photographed for his book, is the Yan family house, a three-storey, 40-roomed mansion with twin roof-top pagodas, built by a Shanghai opium trader and movie producer named Yan Chuntang. Meant for Yan and his four wives, the rooms were partitioned after 1949 and scores of newly emancipated peasants moved in.

'When I was introduced to it in 2001, the house was home to 50 separate households - 152 people all living in a shared state of spectacular disrepair,' says Girard.

Forever damp with spit and urine, the malodorous green and grey alleyways, flanked by the walled courtyards of mansions and more modest walk-ups, soon fell into ruin as the Cultural Revolution tightened its grip. But the laundries, mahjong parlours, noodle stalls and other small essential enterprises filled the passageways with gossip and clutter amid the otherwise solemn and severe silence of a society living in confusion and fear. Few of the arteries remain, but those that do 'represent that strange time in between the decadent Shanghai of the first half of the 20th century and the new modern city of the 21st'.

Girard also pokes his lens into the bedrooms, hallways, kitchens and bathrooms of the residents who hang on for better compensation claims and the keys to modern apartments in the suburbs - capturing the living conditions of an age before Ikea, microwave ovens and whirring high-speed lifts. Using mainly natural light, he fuses the fizzing 30-watt bulbs of the old buildings with the glare radiating from the modern shrines to commerce that rise skywards in the background.

Girard has an eye for the doomed and his unique documentation of a rapidly vanishing old Shanghai offers a warning to Hong Kong, he says. 'Hong Kong is becoming more like other cloned Chinese cities. Once these buildings and way of life are gone, so is the past.'

The Hong Kong launch of Phantom Shanghai will take place at Kee Club on Saturday at 6pm. The book is available from for HK$413.