Shanghai through the Looking Glass

“Paris of the East”

“The pearl of the Orient”

“A tacky version of Hong Kong”

For me, visiting Shanghai was like seeing a warped version of New York. The extensive nineteenth and twentieth century history of the city is hidden beneath a sprawl of skyscrapers and western style department stores, in the same way that the tops of the buildings remained obscured by cloud.



In a well-quoted description, F.Scott Fitzgerald famously described the atmosphere in late 1920s New York City as though “the tempo of the city had changed” and this was the voice-over which accompanied basically all TV adverts for the 2013 film ofThe Great Gatsby. In spite of this, it remains a great quote to consider alongside the fact that until the 1990s, most of the modern day skyscrapers that now characterise the Shanghai Bund, were not yet built. Far more so than Beijing, Shanghai is a city of wealth and conspicuous consumption. The ideals of the high life in Shanghai are so far removed from the reality (and perhaps the ideology too) of the majority of the population, living on the mainland, that it really does feel as though you’ve left China.  

The art in Shanghai is a microcosm of this mentality. East meets west as Art Deco is fused with Chinese ink drawings and brush paintings. Some of the widest boulevards, and East Nanjing Road in particular, might as well be Vienna, Paris, or Berlin.


The late 20th century saw Japanese influences incorporated into Chinese art, in the form of theukiyoe style of fantasy, dream-like paintings. My favourite example of this was a poster I saw in the Propaganda Art Centre, by Wang Shuhui. It was captioned [in translation] “Go all out and aim for the best. The Eastern leap forward worries the West”.


The poster museum was probably my favourite thing about Shanghai. It revealed to me a previously undiscovered side of the history that I thought I had covered in school. That China had produced posters in support of the 1960s Civil Rights movement in the U.S.A. That China had been opposed to the U.S invasion of Vietnam (seems quite obvious now I consider it), but more significantly, that artwork had been produced showing the U.S as a place of inequality for non-white citizens, and in particular, I recall one poster which showed protestors holding up signs in French and Arabic. The solidarity of protestors in China and the U.S (against white supremacy) and the reaction against western powers occupying Asian countries (Vietnam, Korea)was something that had never been drawn together thematically for me.

Another great thing about looking at 20th century Chinese artwork was that it reminded me of just how valuable my wenhua(“culture” – though an odd translation…) classes have been. Most of my classmates avoid these classes, as we don’t technically have an exam for it, and some of the other students on this British Council programme don’t have these classes offered at their universities. However, when we came across a postcard which showed a beautiful woman on the moon, accompanied by a rabbit, welcoming a group of toddlers to outer space, I understood the reference instantly. This wasn’t just about the 1970s/1980s “space race”. This was about Chinese mythology, and the hopes of a nation which dreamed of immortality on an individual and societal (collective) level. The poster was called “Ride the space shuttle to travel in the universe” (1979), by Zhang Ruiheng. The woman’s name is Chang’e (嫦娥) and she is the Lady in the Moon. A mortal woman whose obsession with her aging appearance led to her stealing the herb of immortality whilst her husband slept. She gained immortality, but the guilt of leaving her husband on earth, mortal and alone, meant that she considered herself unworthy of heaven, so she fled instead to the moon, where she remains cloistered forever, accompanied by an elf-like rabbit, whose job is to carve into the surface of the moon as it waxes and wanes. Her beauty and story are so legendary that she is still found in advertisements and beauty products to this day, and her presence on this space-age poster indicates that space travel was perceived as an elevation of Chinese society, a step closer to immortality for all concerned, and a chance to come back into contact with the stuff of legends. It was a look back at the past, a nod to what had been passed down, not just the catchy tag-line, the western phrase for this period in Chinese history – “The Great Leap Forward”. Of course, with no literary or historical context, then westerners looking at China are about as confused as my friends looking at a poster of a rabbit and a woman on the moon.  Analysts will struggle to see how much Chinese “innovation” is actually a reflection of what has gone before here; hence it does not resemble western models of progress or “innovation”, and so is often dismissed as being backward, or lacking in originality.


I’d just like to write a quick paragraph about my experience of watching the current film Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 2 orAlice Through the Looking Glass. I’m not massively into films, but this one struck some particular chords with me. If you haven’t seen the film and plan to, consider skipping the rest of this post, though I’m not going to give away any major spoilers!

The film begins, and one of the first scenes of proper dialogue consists of Alice bursting through the door of her family home. “You’ve been gone over a year, Alice”, her mother states disapprovingly. “Mum, China was amazing!” she responds, “Some of the people had never seen a woman with yellow hair before!”

Now if I wasn’t fully awake before the film began, I was instantly captivated. Here I was, the only westerner in the middle of a cinema screen in Ji’nan, and the fourth wall had suddenly broken. When Alice appears in a later scene, dressed in traditional clothes from the Qing dynasty, the entire screen gasped. Here was a western film, set in Victorian England, in which the concept of China was drawn in as an example of Oriental Exoticism. I’m not sure quite if people here realised that Alice’s costumes were designed to make her appear eccentric and out of place, whereas to a Chinese audience, these dresses resembled exactly the sort of timeless, classic beauty that the other onscreen characters were displaying. Actually, a couple of little things made me uncomfortable in my current context, especially the references of the British middle class that Alice might be “going native” after her time abroad in China. There has been more than one occasion here that I’ve realised that I’m one of the few foreign students who doesn’t mind constantly eating on the street and in Chinese canteens, or that I don’t mind dressing “more Chinese” (with skirts and shirts brought locally, not from international designer brands), or using the cheapest Chinese brands of shampoo and toothpaste from the local supermarket (if it works, it works). In addition, I’ve been trying to listen to the radio in Chinese, and read adverts out and about, as well as watching western films with Chinese subtitles/ voice dubbing. When I mentioned this to some people, they looked at me as though I had suggested something simultaneously revolutionary and slightly bizarre.

The film also reached me on a personal level because of its core themes. Yes, it’s Disney and so it’s basically the same storyline rehashed, but the end of a childhood fantasy, the choice between work and adventure, the attempt to return to the past, all resonated with me. The windowless corridors, smoky hallways and smoggy landscape of Victorian London reminded me of Jinan. The close of the film seems to be set in either Hong Kong or Shanghai, and I felt a firm connection to Alice’s character in that geographical place, as a character who is supposed to be a similar age to me, though separated by time. Maybe I’m not too old for the odd Disney film after all.



4 thoughts on “Shanghai through the Looking Glass

  1. Probably the best blog of yours I’ve ever read & that’s saying a lot. Breadth & depth – deserves a wider audience but thank you for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are a fantastic writer darling. You make everything you have seen come alive. Perhaps you will be a famous writer one day. This is the first time I have seen your blog so I have to catch up with the other places on there. I didn’t know that they had released a new Great Gatsby. I read the book years ago and the film I saw starred Robert Redford many years ago. I want Change’e’s herb of immortality too. Love and best wishes from Nanny & Grand-dad – we miss you. x x x x


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