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Mina Choi Tenison

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Author, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010


Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s ambitious new work, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments presents a chronicle of Shanghai’s interactions with the outside world through a series of 25-year snapshots in time.

CIB caught up with the University of California-Irvine professor at the Shanghai Literary Festival last month to discover more about his methodology and hear his views on the past, present and future of China’s largest city.

When did you start researching the book?

I started about 10 years ago. I have been visiting Shanghai ever since 1986, but a lot of what I wrote in the beginning I had to throw away because Shanghai changes so quickly.

Did your views on Shanghai alter during this long process?

Initially, my viewpoint was that Shanghai’s claim to be China’s most cosmopolitan city and a major international hub that connected China to the rest of the world was overstated.

But after successive visits to Shanghai, I actually began to think the city was living up to its own exaggerated reputation. So I started to focus on how the re-globalization of Shanghai was different from its earlier globalization more than 100 years ago.

You use the concept of “global” Shanghai and apply it to the 1850s, when that concept did not exist. What was the exact language of globalization back then?

A global city begins to take on the characteristics of other global cities, such as New York, Tokyo or London, rather than other neighboring or local cities. In the 1850s, globalization would’ve been discussed as “the world being tightly connected.” It was also a time when people from different countries began to gather in one place, such as the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851. In one sense, that exhibition functioned like a modern department store – a place where people could see things from all over the world.

You talk a lot about the relationship between the city’s foreign and Chinese communities.

In the early days, “Shanghailanders” (foreign residents) spent a lot of time publicizing their city to people abroad. Many people felt Shanghai was their “Eastern home,” and that sentiment continues even now. I was struck by how many Shanghai expatriates now speak Chinese and had made Shanghai their home.

This also extends to the Chinese. Ever since movement into and out of the city was lifted, many migrant workers and immigrants now call Shanghai their second home.

Of course, there is also the local vs. foreign identity issue, which makes Shanghai very complicated. I’m from Los Angeles, which is a quintessential city of immigrants, so Shanghai, to me, seemed very similar in that it was the newcomers who started claiming a stake in the city and creating its identity. Shanghai is not just a city where East mixes with the West, but where East mixes with East.

What made you decide to approach Shanghai’s history in 25-year snapshots?

When people write about Shanghai, there’s been this tendency to divide it between the “old” Shanghai — before 1949 — and Shanghai post-1949. I didn’t want to go down that route. I also didn’t want it to be a comprehensive, encyclopedic chronicle. So I hit upon the idea of snapshots of Shanghai. This way, the story can unfold without forcing it into stereotypical narrative molds.

Was it hard to decide what to keep in and what to leave out?

Yes, and I cheated a little bit. I pick one aspect of each year to focus on, but I slip in other things.

For example, in 1925, the most important event was the May 30 movement, but there were so many other events. So I raised the question: who was the most famous French Concession resident to die that year (Sun Yat-Sen), and also focused on the founding of an important pop-culture publication, Liangyou Huabao and the emergence of the White Russian émigrés to give an overall sense of the fabric of Shanghai society.

Which time period was the most difficult to articulate?

Definitely 1975. I had wanted to focus on the internationalism of the city, but Shanghai [at that time] was cut off. So instead, I focused it in terms of the inkling of re-opening, such as the first foreign students arriving back in the city.

1950 was also interesting, because a lot of people don’t realize that many foreign residents were still in Shanghai in that period. There was the holdout of the ‘cosmopolitan nationalists,’ who were hoping that things would swing [back] in their direction. It didn’t happen, of course.

The year 2000 was the most fun for me, because then I could go into first-person and reflect on how the city had changed for me.

What do you think about the view that Shanghai is a female city?

I’ve been thinking about whether Shanghai is gendered. If you look at the imagery, the International Settlement was male, while the French Concession was female. Also, in the history of modern China, Shanghai was the place where female labor developed, in everything from textile workers to prostitution.

What, would you say, is the language of choice for “international” Shanghai?

I would say right now in the central business district, the lingua franca is English. Within the second ring road it would be putonghua, and once you go into the outskirts you get Shanghainese.

Is Shanghai an international city or a Chinese city?

I think it’s a refusal to choose between the two.

China International Business (CIB) - April 2009

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