Since the end of World War II, few cities in the world have changed as dynamically as Shanghai, as supertall skyscrapers have shot up to the sky, historical buildings have been bulldozed to the ground.
When Lyle Oberwise visited Shanghai, Pudong was nothing more than rice paddies and the Kuomintang flag still flew over the city. Oberwise served as a US Army photographer in the China, Burma and India theater during WWII. In November 1945, he captured photos of a city in transition, only two months after the Japanese occupation ended and less than five years before it came under Communist control.
Oberwise’s photographs were only recently uncovered. Shot in vivid color, a rarity at the time, they help to bring a younger Shanghai back to life, one that looks nearly unrecognizable from the city we live in today.
While many of the buildings that Oberwise photographed are now long gone, visitors to Shanghai will easily recognize the iconic Bund waterfront, including the Bund Custom House, shown at the top of this post. Traffic on Zhongshan Road appears to have improved little over the years.
But, at least boat traffic has got a bit less hectic.
While advertising has remained similarly pervasive.
Not far from bustling Nanjing Road, Oberwise found neighborhoods scarred by the only recently ended war, the first major battle of which was fought in Shanghai in 1937 with dogged Chinese resistance holding out for more than three months, much longer than Japanese invaders had expected, but at a heavy cost.
Eight years after Japanese troops occupied Shanghai, small sampans look out toward a fleet of US Navy ships in the Huangpu River.
After moving back in, the Kuomintang were at least quick to restore their mark to the city with the Republic of China flag flying overhead and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s image emblazoned on buildings.
If you’d like to see dozens more images shot by Oberwise in Shanghai in November 1945, click here for a piece about the photographs from the Milwaukee Independent. After returning from war, Oberwise used his photographic talents to document the city of Milwaukee until his death in 1993, taking tens of thousands of photographs, most of which were seen by no one but himself.
In 2003, the Milwaukee County Historical Society (MCHS) purchased Oberwise’s photo collection from a private collector. They now hope to make some of the images into a formal museum exhibit. With Taiwan’s Foxconn set to open up a plant in Milwaukee, Steve Schaffer, assistant archivist at MCHS, hopes that the photos Oberwise snapped while abroad will draw more addition to a local treasure.
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