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Friday, September 13, 2013

Shanghai in Next Wave—From Dragon to Heaven

by David Hsieh

Tai Wei Foo and Robert Lepage in The Blue Dragon. Photo: Louise Leblanc
Robert Lepage directs and acts in The Blue Dragon; his character Pierre is a Canadian expat living in present-day Shanghai. In The Edge of Heaven, Gary Lucas reinterprets Chinese pop songs created in 1930s Shanghai. Both shows filter this major Eastern metropolis through Western eyes—befitting, as the history of Shanghai is closely intertwined with the Western presence in China.

Situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River in the middle of China’s coastline, Shanghai’s strength lies in its ocean-facing harbor. But China didn’t have much use of it before the 18th century since the major north-south shipping route was the Great Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze rivers inland. And except for some isolated periods, China was not a sea-faring empire.

That changed in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanjing, after the British “fire-spewing ships” streamed up the Yangtze River and forced China to open five ports for trading, including Shanghai. Although not a sleepy fishing village like Hong Kong, which China ceded in the same treaty, Shanghai, by Chinese standards, was not a major city (its official status was a level below) nor a historical one. It had a population of about 200,000. The city wall, built 300 years earlier, measured only three miles in circumference. The landscape was as flat as a piece of cardboard and prone to flooding. But acting on the advice of William Jardine, a ship physician turned opium merchant turned parliament member, London decided this would be the base for its future operation in China. Modern Shanghai was born.

Gary Lucas, Sally Kwok, and Mo Hai Jing in The Edge of Heaven. Photo: Andrew Bull
By initial mutual agreement, “foreigners”—first British and French—were not to mingle with Chinese. Their “Settlements” or “Concessions” were outside the city wall. They seized on the mostly empty land (more like marshes) and built modern, colonial-style mansions. The influence is palpable today in the Bund, the chicest area, where celebrity chef like Jean-Georges  Vongerichten has two restaurants. But that segregation didn’t last long. The Taiping Rebellion, a quasi-Christian military band, ransacked the southern half of China in the middle of the 19th century and drove many Chinese to seek shelter in the Concessions, which enjoyed extraterritorial stability. From then on Shanghai firmly established itself as the magnet that drew people from everywhere: refugees, pirates (for which Shanghai is also a verb!), fortune-seekers, entrepreneurs, adventurers, people trying to escape what they left behind, and people wanting to reinvent themselves.

Tellingly, Shanghai was the center of the “Westernization” movement spearheaded by a few Mandarin officials at the end of the 19th century. By the eve of the republic revolution (1911), Shanghai had become China’s center of industry, commerce, and publishing with three million residents. Stunningly, 90% of those were not native born. HSBC was founded by Scottish bankers; David Sassoon was a Sephardic Jew escaping anti-Semitism in Baghdad. Later on there would be Chinese who “made it” in Shanghai. Charlie Soong, whose two daughters would marry Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, was from the southern Hainan Island. The future Madam Mao, Jiang Qing, was a young actress from the northern Shandong province.   

Typical are the original singers of the songs Gary Lucas covers in his show. Chow Hsuan came from a neighboring city while Bai Kwong was from Beijing. They not only established their names in Shanghai, but made it in the Western media—movies and pop songs that were influenced by Tin Pan Alley and big band jazz. The title song “The Edge of Heaven” was from a classic Chinese movie Street Angel (1937) in which Chow played a Beijing refugee earning a living by singing in the tea houses of Shanghai.

By then, Shanghai has earned its nickname “the Paris of the East” and even developed a distinct artistic identity called “Haipai” (Shanghai Style). Haipai grew out of Shanghai’s urban environment and its proximity to international cultures. Many of its leading advocates have studied abroad. It is less defined by where you are from than by whether you can sense the city’s pulse and adopt its beat.

Do Lepage and Lucas get it right? Hard to say. But sophisticated Shanghainese will not fault them for trying, for they are used to an outsider’s interpretation. And we New Yorkers (another immigrant bunch) can probably relate to their efforts to redefine themselves in a new city. 

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