If you had to choose a single image to encapsulate Shanghai, there’s a high probability you’d choose ‘that’ skyline; the cluster of attention-seeking Lujiazui skyscrapers on the Pudong side of the Huangpu river. You would choose it because it contains some of the most distinctive and iconic buildings in the city – and possibly in the world; those affectionately known as the ‘bottle-opener’ (Shanghai World Financial Centre), the ‘ice-breaker’ (Jin Mao Tower), the ‘screwdriver’ (Shanghai Tower) and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (erm… that’s it’s real name).
There are a couple of points I’d like to note about ‘that’ skyline…
Firstly, many of the buildings in that infamous image are actually incredibly new. The Pearl Tower was completed in 1994 (the same year that my younger sister was born) and the two tallest – Shanghai Tower @2,073ft and SWFC @1,614ft – were both completed in the last 20 years. There will still be plenty of people in Shanghai who will be able to say – ideally in a Lancashire accent – “When I were a lad, all that there were nowt but fields”. But seriously, Google ‘shanghai skyline 1990’ and compare it to the photo above – it really is an shocking confirmation of Shanghai’s modernity.
Second point to note is that the picture above is taken from the Bund – a dignified row of European-style commercial waterfront buildings dating from the turn of the 20th Century – an emblem of an earlier era of prosperity for Shanghai when it was booming as a trade port.
The Bund is a tourist-magnet and I’d guess that it’s because, for a city of this size, there isn’t exactly an extensive array of historical sites of interest. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to occupy a history buff, but it’s largely ‘modern history’ set within the past 200 years. For example, the Old Town area around Yuyuan Gardens, the classical dwellings that make up places like Xintiandi, and the various buildings that housed early communist party luminaries. My point being, Shanghai today is decidedly modern, and you have to work a little bit to get your history fix.
This week however we didn’t have to, as an opportunity to attend an author’s evening fell into our laps…
At the event we met Betty Barr and her husband George Wang. They were there to tell us about a book which they have recently published – Ruth’s Record – which contains the full text of a diary which her mother, Ruth, kept between 1941 to 1945, while she and her family were interned in ‘Lungwa’, the Japanese internment camp in Shanghai.
I had started to build a picture of 1940’s Shanghai during my recent city walk around the Hongkou district (i wrote about it here), which focused on the experience of Jewish immigrants during the Japanese occupation. Given this, it was particularly special to hear first-hand from Betty about life as a resident in pre-war Shanghai – for example how their lives revolved around the arrival and departures of great American cruise liners which brought letters, food, movies etc. for the local expat community. I honestly don’t know how I would have coped moving out to China if I wasn’t able to video-call my family, use translation apps and enjoy a relatively unbroken flow of imported Italian wine (!), which made Betty’s parents’ decision to live here all the more impressive. It was truly fascinating to hear about the transition from life as a normal resident in the Shanghai International Settlement to that of an ‘enemy alien’.
Betty explained how her mother had written daily during their time at the camp and remarkably managed to keep her diary hidden from even her family; Betty only came to know about the diary upon her mother’s passing away in 1990.
The book is brought to life by photographs passed to Betty by a friend, and drawings by Deirdre Fee, an Irish friend of Ruth Barr’s who was also interned at Lungwa. Meanwhile, the event last week was brought to life by Bettys husband George Wang, who was brilliantly bright and funny!
Although the story is articulated during the Second World War – during which there was considerable damage done to China and Shanghai – their account was quite unique given that it wasn’t a violent wartime story, but one that described day to day experiences (such as how mealtimes were organised, how people kept busy, the daily work rotas etc.). It gave us an authentic and insightful window into a Shanghai that is both recent (literally in living memory) but also almost completely hidden behind the new shining city with its thousands upon thousands of glass-facade buildings and millions upon millions of residents.
It was lovely to hear some familiar references – they went to school near where we live in the Former French Concession – and they mentioned several local buildings that today are just one of many residential units.
Like true Shanghainese both Betty and George were game for a selfie with my friend Usha and I after the presentation, and they also signed a copy of my book (Matt pointed out the next day that it was funny that he wasn’t mentioned in the dedication given that he had paid for the book… oops!)
I’ve started reading the book and am enjoying it thoroughly already; thanks to Betty for sharing her mother’s story with us.