Book review: Disappearing Shanghai by Howard W. French and Qiu Xiaolong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 January, 2015, 11:08am

Disappearing Shanghai

by Howard W. French and Qiu Xiaolong

Homa & Sekey Books

Vivian Chen

Even for a Shanghai native like me, the side of the city depicted in Howard W. French's photography is unfamiliar. Dotted by construction sites everywhere, Shanghai is not the same place I remembered growing up. The images document the lifestyle, architecture and neighbourhoods, which were gradually fading away from my childhood memory.

Most impressive about the images in this black-and-white photobook are the subjects - the average Shanghainese - and how they opened up to a foreigner lensman.

They welcomed him and his camera into their everyday lives, neither flattered nor intimidated by the photographer's presence.

Old fellas are pictured in their boxers and pyjamas playing chess in the street; barefoot couples fetch a plate to eat in front of the television at home; an adolescent kitchen boy takes his cigarette break - many of the subjects aren't even looking into the camera. It's as if French was their neighbourhood photographer or he wasn't even there. The settings of each image are magnificent without much staging - the plastic lid to cover leftover food, the seafood basins in the front of hole-in-the-wall eateries, the hand-painted billboards and the well-worn pyjamas - all part of the disappearing long tang (neighbourhood) culture.

The photos were taken from 2003 to 2008.

The neighbourhoods are probably part of those which existed from before 1949 and which are making way for further urbanisation.

French's subjects are probably among those moving into the newly built apartments on the outskirts of the city and no longer acquainted with their neighbours.

From 1990 to 2003, more than one million residents were moved from their downtown homes because of urban redevelopment.

As French says in the preface: "Just because it will all be gone soon is no reason for us to forget." In a near future, we'll probably be counting on just photography to tell the stories of how the old days were. French's images portray a facet of Shanghai's community that's disappearing.

The Shanghai-born-and-bred Qiu Xiaolong, an award-winning author, provides narrative poetry as extended captions for some of the images.

It's an interesting collaboration as the world penned by Qiu in his popular "Inspector Chen" novels clashes with the world captured in French's viewfinder.

Qiu's knowledge combines with French's foreign eye in the book to present something that few other foreign photographers would have known to look for.