T+A, TIME +ARCHITECTURE 7, July 2010
Dreams in Reality
Educated at Edinburgh and Princeton, Alan Balfour is Professor of Architecture and Dean of the College of Architecture at Georgia Tech. He was formerly chairman of the Architectural Association in London, and the year 2000 recipient of the Topaz Medal, the highest recognition given in North America to an educator in architecture. His books include Rockefeller Center: Architecture as Theater (1978), Berlin: The Politics of Order: 1737-1989 (1990): three books in a world cities series; Berlin (1995) New York (2001) and Shanghai (2002), and in 2005 Creating a Scottish Parliament . The recently completed Solomon’s Temple will be published shortly.
In the fall of 1993, I walked through the lanes of the village of Pudong. All round the edges, bulldozers were systematically tearing down the mud and brick walls of the densely packed old buildings. Apart from an orderly little school and the Oriental Pearl Tower looming overhead, this had all the appearances of a rural village, with a way of life that had remained constant for centuries. It was a way of life separated by a broad river from Shanghai and its strange foreign realities. Now the river is bridged and all trace of old Pudong has gone, transformed into a world financial center, housed in some of the world’s tallest buildings—all in sixteen years. Very few care or retain any memory of what was there—it was a place without dreams.
That same fall I wandered around Shanghai, both old and new. I wanted to feel and glimpse its many lives. Though the walls had long since gone, much of the character of the old city remained, with its winding streets lined with shop-houses. There was one crowded lane of noodle stalls; unforgettable steam and energy. One odd memory has stayed with me—though time may have distorted it—on the streets between old Shanghai and the international districts there was a flourish of public wall paintings. They were painted on the gable ends of the li long, at the entrances to local commercial streets, even on the district police station, were many variations, some crude some fanciful, of the same image—a view from a distance of a city of skyscrapers. More exactly, it was Manhattan. These were either spontaneous expressions of desire or carefully cultivated propaganda by the authorities, preparing the people for a spectacular transformation promised by Deng Xiaoping. (In one passageway close to the Bund there was also a large wall painting of the romantic encounter between Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh in Gone with the Wind what must have been a leftover from Steven Spielberg’s movie Empire of the Sun.) I often reexamine this memory. It may be my illusion, but the obvious conclusion is that these dream images were offered as the grandest product of the ‘Four Modernizations.’ I have no doubt it was landscape of shared desire. And after sixteen years it is dream landscape that has been realized beyond all expectations. And many must now be asking, as they began to see again and appreciate all the wayward fantasies of the foreigners, is that all there is? Yet the past, in this city of so many dreams, persists in disturbing the present.
I have returned to the city almost yearly since my first visit in 1994. I am thrilled by what has been achieved—in every way this is a richer, healthier, stronger society. Yet I am poignantly aware of what has been lost—above all, I have sensed the transforming of the strange dreams and fantasies that foreigners projected onto the city decade after decade. From 1845 till 1940 a new Shanghai city rose on land in which all evidence of the past had been erased. And on this carte blanche foreigners projected their dreams for new realities, wholly unconstrained by history, giving the city’s multiple stages and play a profound and continually disturbed character.
A few of these dreams in reality have dominated and persist in confronting the present.
The first reality was to recreate London and it was the dream of my kinsman Captain, later Sir George Balfour, who arrived in Shanghai from Hong Kong as British consul with the task of developing in Shanghai a treaty port. He insisted on establishing his office at the heart of the 800- year-old city, renting a vast mansion (over 50 rooms it was said) close to the Duguan Customs House whose great red tower dominated the river’s edge. This gave him immediate physical and sensory experience of Shanghai life. Once he had the full measure of the character of this intense and well-worn city it was clear that an effective treaty port would only emerge by obtaining enough land along the river frontage that could allow the development of an independent foreign settlement. In preparing to take office in Shanghai, Balfour is recorded as saying all barbaric power must succumb to our higher civilization.
He was an effective negotiator, but not only could he invoke the power of the British Navy that had bombarded Shanghai the previous year, his authority carried with it a memory of the extensive atrocities that British troops had perpetrated though China. These, in their way and in their random viciousness, were similar to those surrounding the Japanese atrocities in Nanjing. Unforgivable, yet Balfour was treated with great civility by the people of the city. It is of interest to note that he made his needs known to the city’s senior administrator, the taotai, who treated the request at first exactly as if Britain was just another region of China seeking space to provide its community with appropriate meeting halls, temples and mortuaries, a Huiguan. He must have very quickly made it clear that this was wholly inadequate. He was then offered in the words of the administrator, “a piece of wasteland,” to the north of the city. But this surely was political sophistry for what Balfour was being offered was all the land and Huangpu river frontage from just east of the walled city to the Suzhou Creek—a spread of land much larger than the total area of the old city. The “wasteland” contained a mixture of small farms, craft workshops, silk weavers, cotton furnishers and dyers, wood carvers and candle makers, and, most significantly, the Huigua’s of the Fujian and Ningbo merchants. All this, in time, would be removed.
Balfour is remembered as a man of vision. Imagine him standing with his staff just east of the walls of the old city, standing on the muddy towpath that ran along the river north and east, trying stay out of way of the animal and human labor dragging the barges down river. He would look north and find nothing of interest, then he would carefully scan the river bank and see clearly, not the drudgery and grime, but a river bank crowded with the great ships, the merchantmen, and the gunboats, that were the critical agents in carrying the wealth of the British Empire. And he would glimpse through the wall of sails, and in his mind’s eye he would see the city of London, see it clearly recreated here on the north bank of the Huangpu.
Most important to Balfour was to gain agreement that foreign shipping would have anchorage along the full river frontage of the land assigned. And it was settled that all river frontage would belong to the treaty port. This would become a great harbor where, in Balfour’s own words, our navy can float and by our ships our power can be seen and if necessary, promptly felt. Our policy is the thorough command of this great river. There we can enforce on the Chinese Government those fair and moderate conditions which we may only make to quiet in our commercial relations. The great river, of course, is the Yangtze, whose estuary is twelve miles east of the Huangpu.
With both dreams of London and agreements in place, Balfour prepared the master plan for the new city—a plan that would establish streets, quays, and river frontage within the agreed boundaries. It was very simple, an imperfect grid neither straight nor parallel, with each of the major sections varying in width. This was not the result of artistic license but derived from the continual struggle to reconcile the new plan to the previous uses and paths in the area and to come to agreement with a patchwork of Chinese owners, all with differing demands and all resentful of the foreign presence. From the river’s edge, three roughly parallel major streets were laid out, running westward, and cut by two transverse streets that formed six, roughly similar rectangles of developable land. The plan in many ways is similar to streets of London—from the Tower to Blackfriars Bridge. All major streets led to the waterfront, along which the great trading houses gradually established their operations and eventually built their palaces. And this slowly evolved into a wall of imperial and mercantile facades that were all formed with London in mind. And against all reason it has survived intact and is now being restored—such is the power of dreams.
At the Races
Balfour’s plan also included space for the European church and cemetery. But by far the largest special area was reserved for the racetrack. Horse racing in the colonies was as much a reflection of a fatalistic view of life as it was about sport. The true character for the English Shanghighlander (as they called themselves) was not revealed in the imperial architecture, nor in the faithful activity in the Anglican Cathedral, but in the weekly performances at the racetrack, in the cultivation of winners and losers, and in the dreary socializing, lubricated with quantities of gin. This preoccupation was at first quite incomprehensible to the Chinese, who could not understand the wasting of time and resources on such a useless activity. However, as the racetrack evolved, it became a setting that combined the instability of the international population with the corruption of gangsters and warlords—a metaphor for a vacuous, synthetic culture. It is appropriate that the site for such escapist entertainment would later become the symbolic heart of the recovered city—People’s Square.
I have a dear friend who, both for scholarship and pleasure, has projected herself into all aspects of the city in the 1920s and 1930s. Only in reading the magazines, examining the fashions, cigarette packs, the advertising, the portrayal of women, the fashionable cafes and cinemas, can one fully sense the overwhelming desire for modern life. In the grand set pieces of modernity rose in splendid performances around the racetrack, reflecting the styles more of France than Germany, but mostly they were original to Shanghai. And much of this world remains intact, though hidden from view behind walls and in quiet courtyards; in the French concession, hidden apartment buildings, superb villas, curving balconies, sweeping stairs decorated with glorious yet curiously sad images in stained glass.
It was never meant to resemble Paris, though there are moments when it does remind. No, this is an urbane bourgeois France, revised for the tropics and for a smart, youthful stylish audience. And it was France—this broad strip of streets between the Chinese city and the territory established by Balfour—that chose to be independent of the international concession. And was it here, under French law, which encouraged sybaritic pleasures that Shanghai’s most erotic world emerged. The vast dislocation caused by the Russian Revolution brought thousands of once-affluent white Russians to the city. As H.J. Lethbridge has described it, they settled mostly in the French Concession, which was more residential than the International Settlement. In “Frenchtown” they established themselves as hostesses, cabaret artists, “taxi dancers,” and as courtesans. In racially conscious foreign Shanghai, they offended by consorting equally with Occidentals and Orientals.
Eighteen years after the Bolshevik Revolution there were an estimated 25,000 displaced Russians on the streets of Shanghai. Selling sex became a much more explicit and public process, elaborated and expanded by the Russians. Countless women, united only by their slit-sided qi pao, took their beauty onto the streets and into the fashionable restaurants and dancehalls. They filled the cafés and cheap hotels until they grew old or had made enough money to become someone else.
The favorite English guide to the city in 1934 states: All about Shanghai, is positively giddy with sexual promise: Dancing and Music. Shanghai flames with millions of flashing jewels at midnight. The centre of nightlife is a vast crucible of electric flame. The throb of the jungle tom-tom; the symphony of lust; the music of a hundred orchestras; the shuffling of feet; the swaying of bodies; the rhythm of abandon; the hot smoke of desire under the floodlights; it’s all fun; it’s life, joy, gin, and jazz. There’s nothing puritanical about Shanghai.
Even as China was falling apart, the escapist, over-stimulated dreams of the foreigners became more giddy, and the passion for the modern more intense. In the 1930s, during the years of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and the desperate struggles between the Nationalist and Communist factions, the city built numerous hotels, apartment buildings and movie houses, all grandly Art Deco. The movie houses, many concentrated on the east of the racetrack, were given a drama equal to their role as temples of desire. These were temples in which to worship at the altar of the new world, in which to experience the emotions, humor, and personalities that were shaping the future in the form of movie stars. And it was the movies and the automobile that made the United States so desirable. The view north of the Bund is still dominated by the once-named Broadway Apartment Building, a confident little skyscraper. Rumor has it that the top twelve floors were occupied by the American intelligence services as the Japanese prepared to invade China and initiate a process that would bring about the collapse of Western dreams for Shanghai.
Traces of these fantasies survive on the east of People’s Square and though they once seemed to me failed objects of desire, I was struck recently by how fresh they looked and not at all out of place in this new brash city.
The Great World
Nowhere in European Shanghai was the strangeness of the city’s imagination more palpable than in the ‘Great World.’ Recently restored yet now empty and forlorn, in its heyday it offered five floors of the wildest entertainment around an open-air stage, with sideshows, cinemas, acrobats, Chinese opera, children’s rides, sleazy bars, all housed in a cold, hard concrete fantasy on the busiest intersection in the city. It was visible from the racetrack in the 30’s, its wedding-cake steeple almost lost behind huge advertisements for movies and automobiles. A surviving photograph from shows that, with the exception of the words ‘Chrysler’ and ‘Goodrich,’ all the signs were in Chinese, though the entertainment was designed to appeal to all. This was a mysterious and complicated place for a Westerner, with too many dark rooms and too many unexplained activities, too many people watching and waiting.
When the criminal gangs linked to Chiang Kai-shek controlled all its wayward activity, the German film director wrote about it. One sentence gives you a sense of the piece: The fifth floor featured girls whose dresses were split to the armpits, a stuffed whale, story tellers, balloons, peep shows, masks, a mirror maze, two love-letter booths with scribes who guaranteed results, ‘rubber goods’ and a temple filled with ferocious gods and joss sticks.
However, according to the Communist Party-approved ‘Anecdotes of Old Shanghai’ (1985), the entertainments in the ‘Great World’ became much more menacing after the Japanese seized the city in 1937: When the Japanese aggressors occupied Shanghai, the ‘Rong’s Great World’ became a ‘special amusement’ centre where people were brain-washed with ideas of enslavement to benumb their will to fight for the nation. It continues: After the victory of the Anti-Japanese War, the US imperialists and the Kuomintang reactionaries used it as a propaganda instrument to whip up an anti-Communist and anti-popular campaign. American movies made in Hollywood on pornography and violence dominated the screen and obscene and superstitious operas flooded the stage. Pick-pockets, swindlers, prostitutes and rascals mixed with the audience with an axe to grind. Traitors and enemy agents of every hue were found spying for information or plotting against people’s lives among the artists, staff and audience of the Great World. The Great World was, in fact, a paradise for monsters and demons and a den for enemy agents and traitors camouflaged by beautiful music and graceful dancing. After Liberation the Great World returned to the embrace of the people. The People’s government took it over in 1954.
By the 1990s the Puritanism of the socialist revolution had eased and, though much diminished, the ‘Great World’ regained some of its old character, much to the satisfaction of the Shanghainese. By chance, several years ago, I visited it just before it closed its doors. It was March and there was no one about in the entrance except for two old women almost hidden behind their food stalls. The building felt deeply neglected yet the shows went on. The activity was still on five levels partly surrounding a great courtyard that had the largest stage. That night in the light rain, four young performers were working very hard outside in the courtyard, and I felt embarrassed being the only spectator. I climbed the open stair to the terrace. On the stage two young acrobats were rotating huge ceramic barrels with their feet. I could see that the rain had made the surface of the barrels wet and slippery, and I felt such guilt that all this dangerous effort was just for me. I knew they could see me so I edged my way inside, relieved to be free of this peculiar relationship. Immediately inside I was faced with a broad curtain pulled back across the entrance to a small theatre for Chinese opera. Many middle-aged women, sitting in pairs, were watching with sad smiles and nodding confirmation at each anguished cry in the tortuous romance—they knew every nuance. Down the hall more old women attended to a steaming food counter. At the end, double doors opened into a bar that reeked of cigarettes and had a soft orange glow with a cinematic mood of menace. On the next floor a large audience of older men was transfixed in the yellow light of a grainy movie. All entertainment was open to everyone so I sat and watched, and it took several minutes to realize that it promised to become slightly pornographic.
It was a place of astonishing ghosts and memories around which swirled eighty years of brutality, violence, and madness. Now, after several years of restoration, it sits empty. Like so many of the realities from the dreams of the years of the foreigners, though the plays are long forgotten, the stages refuse to give up the memory.
» back to top