One of the nice things about writing books is that you get sent lots of books. Given the sort of money most writers make the perks are important. This month Shanghaiist was extremely grateful to Guangxi Normal University Press for sending along a copy of a new book they’ve issued called Assignment Shanghai: Photographs on the Eve of Revolution. Guangxi Normal Press is a long way from Shanghai, but they’re carving out a nice niche in reissuing collections of photographs and artwork from the early years of the revolution (or just before) with a local interest.
Assignment Shanghai, which is the collected photographs of Time/Life Magazine snapper Jack Birns, captures a city in transition. All were taken in 1948 or early 1949 — just before the communist consolidation of power but after the wartime impoverishment of Shanghai; before the lights of Shanghai went out for thirty five years but after the brief hey-day of the late 1930s. In 1948 Shanghai was a city suffering austerity — a condition Shanghai and the Shanghainese are not naturally favourable towards — was impoverished and basically feeling its age like a cheap tart with too much make-up who knows her best days are behind her but hangs around hoping for a bit of passing trade all the same. After all — we all gotta eat.
The collection contains some nice street shots and captures the last days the old police uniforms were seen in public, as well as massed rickshaws and western advertising. Rather wonderfully, much of the advertising Birns captured around Shanghai was already a decade old — Lana Turner selling the Chinese Gibbs soap as she had done since the first bombs dropped in August 1937 — while newsstands were selling two year old copies of the New Yorker for those who needed a stimulating rather than up-to-the-minute read.
As ever, an inch or two behind the remaining bright lights, Shanghai’s underbelly was decidedly unpleasant. Impoverishment and the ravages of war and occupation meant Birns was able to capture no shortage of images of beggars and dead babies in the streets. Neither phenomenon was new to Shanghai but eight years of war hadn’t helped much. Perhaps for foreigners living in Shanghai now the most interesting photos are the nightlife snaps. Some of the nightlife photos have rarely been seen before — Shanghai’s notorious Blood Alley may have been down after the war but it wasn’t quite out. For those with longer memories of Shanghai’s more recent history, think Julu Lu bars in 1997 and Julu Lu now (the older bars that are not the syphilitic rash of fancy, overpriced restaurant nonsense seeping along the street currently and drawing the Hongqiao Express crew out at night). Blood Alley in 1948 was Julu Lu now on a wet Monday night — a sad shadow of its former self. Assignment Shanghai has several excellent photos of Blood Alley that — given the persistent penchant for young Americans to wear Chinos, polo shirts and silly baseball caps now as then — could have been taken last weekend rather than 55 years ago.
The collection ends with the inevitable. The Nationalists in disarray and departing while settling as many old scores as possible; the communists arriving in a city that lacked the energy to fight them; for the most part the people just keeping on moving, as China’s masses have done for centuries, hoping for something better up the road. The communist peasant army finally occupied the city and set about enjoying the novelties of riding in lifts and pondering the workings of flush toilets. One Shanghai ended and another began.
Assignment Shanghai: Photographs on the Eve of Revolution
Jack Birns (with a foreword in Chinese by Orville Schell)
Guangxi Normal University Press
Price: RMB 36
Available at most decent bookshops around town
At the University of California Press