The Photography of Howard French
Essay: Disappearing Shanghai Back

The photographer is an inescapable romantic, a connoisseur of mortality; someone who hopes or dreams that he can stave off oblivion by trapping light through the judicious use of a dark chamber, access to which is controlled by something whose Chinese name I adore — the kuai men, the fast gate — or shutter.

It's fleeting moments we're after, and when one stops to think about it, what else is our world constructed of?

I came to this appreciation of things right here in Shanghai, where I moved nearly four years ago. The discovery was gradual, the product of short walks, and then longer walks, and finally walks that one wished wouldn't end, but alas always did, with the failure of the light at day's end.

What I discovered here was a secret world, accessible through discreet little alleys and back streets that look deceptively drab at first glance. You set out down these paths, though, and on lucky days what opens up for you is a world of magical illusions; places that appear and reappear, on subsequent visits, as if they had been served up from another age, suspended in amber, frozen and preserved for all time.

But of course it is not frozen, much less preserved. It is a world that is fast disappearing, a place of unavoidably brief and tragic loves. No sooner than you think you've learned and memorized every single face, and worked out every nook and cranny, these places are steamrolled, demolished — gone and lost forever. And in Shanghai, the process of which I speak is happening like a train of cascading dominoes — hence the title of this modest attempt at a tribute, Disappearing Shanghai.

The rhythms of life in the little worlds I've documented here, the songbirds and the crickets lovingly raised in their cages, the street markets and the foods, with their smells and colors that change so suddenly and so crisply according to the season, the eternal tending of laundry from long bamboo poles, the wildly screeching bicycle brakes, the lusty throat clearing, the world weary lounging about on beach chairs and in pajamas, the very appearance of the people's faces, weathered by a century of immense and often brutal change, like the old man in the faded Mao suit I saw on a street corner this afternoon looking for the life of him like an apparition lost amid the onrush of the new — It is all on its way out. It is all being swept away.

I sometimes feel it is wrong to mourn this fact, for after all, what is history? What are cities — that most fantastic achievement of mankind — if not engines of ceaseless change? Another Shanghai is rising up fast and one day it will disappear too, won't it? Not, of course, before throwing up its own portraitists, its own poets, its own bards.

Yes, I know all this in a bookish sense. But I can also look around me, and my eyes tell me it is not true. There is no way the world in creation will have anything like the texture of the one it is replacing. Go ahead, call me a sentimentalist, but I know what the camera knows, and more.

The old Shanghai, the disappearing one that seems so scarcely cherished by its own nostalgia-free denizens, is the product of a wave of globalization that preceded the word. It is a world of taxi dancers and sing-song girls, of pedicabs and "coolies," of financiers and speculators of every stripe, from every shore. Of big capital and cheap labor. Of gangs and guns runners and drugs; a place of intrigue of every kind.

Most of all, though, it was a world of industry and of big time shipping that drew people here by the millions with the hope, if not exactly the promise of their first salaried job.

That is the kind of enterprise and bustle that created the neighborhoods that populate my images, and now they are making way for something new and altogether different.

The loss is incalculable, and yet it cannot be avoided. Pause, please. Take stock. Breathe it in. It won't be here for long, and you will never see it again.


Shanghai, June 2007. Copyright Howard W. French.

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Copyright 2011 Howard W. French