alternative modernity


The ruins of Shanghai come as a surprise in a city so defiantly modern. Demolished low-rise houses lie in downtown streets next to luxury condominiums with names such as ‘Rich Gate’, the wreckage reflected in the glass façades of tall office buildings. In Dongjiadu, Shanghai’s oldest quarter, bulldozers were expected within the fortnight, the old women squatting silently in the cramped alleys helpless before them.

But you can’t get too sentimental about Shanghai, a place built, like Bombay, in the 19th century on the back of the opium trade. An axis of gangsters, politicians and foreign businessmen ruled the city until the Communist takeover in 1949. Those decades of semi-colonial occupation, when Shanghai came to be known as the ‘Whore of Asia’, glow with old-fashioned glamour in Chinese cinema, in Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad, or Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon. But the corpses of thousands of the poor were collected every year from the pavements of the International Settlement.

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