Roving thoughts and provocations

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Shanghai: The Vigor in the Decay

Howard French

This is a story that sounds familiar, that we think we know or can imagine: old houses torn down for luxury malls, ordinary people poorly compensated, an intimate way of life replaced by highways and high-rises.

All of this is happening in Shanghai—and dozens of cities across China and around the world—but it’s not how Howard French and Qiu Xiaolong tell it in their unusual new book of photographs, poems, and essays, Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life. We get no clichéd pictures of a beggar in front of a Louis Vuitton mural, no workers looking uncomprehendingly at a Bentley pulling into a five-star whatever. Instead we are thrust deeply into ordinary people’s lives, into their tiny living rooms with moldy walls and faded curtains. We see them living out on streets of cracked sidewalks and crumbling facades. We watch them sitting and waiting in poses of leisure. The transience and decay tells us that all this is vanishing.

Howard French

French is a former New York Times correspondent in Shanghai and now a freelance writer and journalism professor. For this project, he joins forces with Qiu, a Shanghainese who lives in the United States and writes English-language crime stories about the exploits of the upright Shanghai cop inspector Chen Cao. Qiu adds poems next to some of the pictures, musing about the characters and what they’re doing. Interspersed are a couple of tiny vignettes about inspector Chen as part of the pictures or encountering this book.

The pictures are mostly portraits of people, some staring at the photographer, others caught in the middle of a laugh or conversation. One shows a woman selling paper money, which mourners burn at graves on certain holidays. The blurred stacks of otherworldly bills rise out in front of her like Shanghai’s new luxury towers, while she glances up, her face uncertain of where she is.

Howard French

In Qiu’s words, she is

perhaps richer than numerous bankers
in the world, and all in cash,
for the underworld, shadows
and memories lurking around.

In another we are thrust into an elderly woman’s living room, where she sits motionless and expressionless next to a window, a giant character for “happiness” hanging from the ceiling.

Howard French

Slowly we realize what really dominates the room; off to her right is a mourning picture of a younger man, probably her husband, and under it a small altar in his honor

with pots, bottles, medicines, ashtrays
(so he will never go hungry,
thirsty, nicotine-craving, or sick),
and an old-fashioned clock ticking
still like his heartbeat…

All the photos are black and white, emphasizing the grainy but sharp life of Shanghai’s backstreets. In one photo a young boy is sitting on a curb, looking like an old man, every flake of the rotting façade behind him in focus.

Howard French

One doesn’t have to be a romantic to wonder where he is now—to which remote suburb have he and his family been banished?

French also takes us to a room shared by several migrant women caught laughing over a joke or a lover. In the accompanying text, Qiu imagines that inspector Chen has just interviewed them about the murder of one of their friends. The little story reminds us that many of the people left living in the old city are not Shanghainese but poor migrants willing to put up with the cramped conditions. And yet they also remind us of the city’s vigor: the women laugh; they are here to make money and participate in the boom and their aspirations are captured in the fake wedding picture hanging on the wall above them.

Howard French

The lack of obvious markers of change—the wrecking balls, the towers marching forward and the construction sites gobbling up the old city—makes the people timeless: the urban poor in all of our cities, waiting for whatever comes next.


Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life, photographs by Howard W. French and poems by Qiu Xiaolong, is published by Homa & Sekey Books.

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