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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Shanghai Style



If you've been to China, you probably notice how Shanghai people are universally disliked there.  Maybe it's the airs they put on, maybe it's the smugness you feel even before they open their mouths.  Things only get worse when they talk, which is usually loudly and insensitive.  But still, one cannot deny there is a certain style about these Shanghainese, a style other Chinese are begrudgingly copying.

As I am scanning some old family photographs for my sister, I realize that these very familiar pictures taken in Old Shanghai tell a lot more than just the stories of the lives of our parents, they take me to places I dare not think too much about. There are a couple of photo albums full of our parents in smart outfits looking quite Westernized, many more with similarly well dressed, well-to-do teenage friends.

After the Opium War with Britain, China was forced to open five ports for trade with the signing of Nanking Treaty in 1842.  In the lifetime of my parents, who had  gone through three of those five trade ports, from Ningbo to Shanghai, then to Hong Kong. When my parents were growing up in the 30s and the 40s, Shanghai as we know today was actually quite young.  At that time, Shanghai had just caught up with Hong Kong's slight head start and was in many ways more advanced and grandiose (much like today). For example, the Australian oversea Chinese department store Wing On in Shanghai was the size of Macy's, much larger than the original store in Hong Kong.

I was quite indifferent to these pictures when I was small because they were just ordinary family photos, then slowly I became proud of them because my friends seemed to be impressed by Parents' good looks. As an adult, I started to have many doubts, wasn't there a fucking war going on?  Pa was born in 1927 and Ma in 1928, how the hell did they managed to look so well-fed and well dressed during the 14 year Sino-Japanese War from 1931-1945?  All the heroic novels I read on the war just don't jive with these photographs. (In Chinese, the war is called 抗戰, Resistance War. Clearly, we were taking a beating.)

Before the war officially broke out in 1937, my paternal grandfather had already leased a place in the French Concession in Shanghai, hoping the turmoils would blow over quickly.  According to Pa, that wise decision rewarded our family nicely in the next decade, especially when the French Vichy Government became part of the Axis countries (Germany, Japan, Italy, etc.)

What the hell does it mean by hoping the unrest would settle down quickly? In 1937, Japan was confident that the entire China could be conquered in a matter of months, when the Battle of Shanghai began in August of '37 (more than 4 years before Pearl Harbor), China was fighting alone, in a war nobody would give it a chance to win, let alone quickly. The wise businessmen of Shanghai hoped that China would submit quickly so they could go back to business as usual.



Now that I am much older, do I feel embarrassed by my parents' petite bourgeoisie upbringing while brave warriors were dying because they didn't have enough to eat and had to fight with their bare hands?  In my generation, four out of five siblings were born and raised in Hong Kong, one of the five trade ports. To call them trade ports itself is an embarrassment, the only trade the British cared about was opium. We all grew up in a place where China was drugged and raped.  Did I feel like I was having involuntary sex growing up in Hong Kong? Probably not, I remember how we often marveled about why the former colonies, Hong Kong and Singapore under Great Britain, and Taiwan under Japan, were doing so much better than China itself.

Wing On in Shanghai, which I mentioned earlier, was a department store that sold almost all imported goods (other than Chinese foodstuff and silk), grew tremendously during the eight years of Japanese occupation, doubling in sales virtually every year while maintaining a patriotic reputation at the same time. Sadly, there's a conspiracy of silence about this period, not very citizen was a resistance fighter, there is little written how people prospered under those unusual circumstances.

After Japan was defeated in 1945, the central government and the old boy network was once again in control of Shanghai, and within a few years, hyperinflation hit China (highest paper money denomination was 180,000,000 yuan, and it was not worth the paper it's printed on). In no small part the collapse of the economy led to the the demise of the first Chinese republic in 1949.

Today, I walk on the Fifth Avenue of Shanghai, Nanking Road (a shameful name bestowed by the shameful British Empire to commemorate the Nanking Treaty)  I see almost no remnants of the Communist revolution, everyone seems eager to go back to the life my parents left in 1949.

This is the same Shanghai that was the epicenter of the Cultural Revolution, the term "petite bourgeoisie" 小資, used only derogatorily not so long ago is now complimentary, much like the "yuppie" label was used in the 90s.  Hong Kong and Shanghai are now huge cities, and the West has an opiate addiction...

Such irony is Shanghai, such irony is our family.

Shanghai girl today

++++ Update 9/25/2014:
I think most people are more interested in seeing Old Shanghai pictures than my babble.
Some of the following pictures were scanned recently with brief annotations.

The girl with handkerchief was our maternal grandmother, the other girl was her younger sister.  Around 1920, could be taken in Shanghai, Ningbo, or Qingdao (Shandong province). This is the oldest family picture known to me.

Grandma in her prime flanked by Ma and her brother. Maybe 20 year after the above picture was taken,  early 1940s in Shanghai

Earliest picture of Pa in Ningbo before the family moved to Shanghai.  Ma finds this picture most amusing, not only Pa seemed to be snotty, he was also raised in the rural part of Ningbo.

In Shanghai, Pa enrolled in Shanghai Municipal Council School for Chinese Boys 工部局華童學校. Pa was the boy at the lower right corner in shorts

Pa's nickname is "Yah Mieh", it could mean either "wild cat"野貓 or "savage"野蠻 in Ningbo dialect, but his uncle seemed to think it's just "young man" in pidgin English. Naturally, Pa prefers the "wild cat" name for his untamed spirit, he still reminisces about the corporal punishment administered by the British schoolmaster.

Ma as a baby. Grandma was standing and the lady holding Ma was allegedly an ex-prostitute. It was somewhat socially acceptable to marry women from brothels 堂子 (especially swanky ones, which were outrageously expensive. For example, businessmen would take turns treating each other at high-class brothels. Each time the cost could exceed the entire yearly household expenses for the rest of the family)  Socially acceptable didn't mean wholehearted acceptance either, one woman was known as "Slutty Ah Yu" 爛污阿玉 in Ma's family, I give her a lot of credit for not hanging herself.

Ma is about one year older than Anne Frank, but her life in occupied Shanghai was very sheltered, she often gets the timeline and facts wrong about WWII. She remembers the war time as her happiest years. 

Lots of good friends
Ma's favorite cousin 

Ma in a qipao like a pretty calendar girl

Ma thinks her friend 俞覺 was the prettiest, for some reason Pa didn't like her nor her sister complaining they were false proletarian revolutionaries because they used to powder their legs. 

Ma's family was getting a little well-off. I think this is my grandfather's 40th birthday. The children were dressed in Western suits and silk, looking a little, err, mais oui, nouveau riche. The young woman on the far left was a wet nurse (?) 
This picture was taken by C. H. Wong Studio 王開照相 which is generally considered the best in Old Shanghai, the lighting is very harsh in this picture though.

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