Interview with Greg Girard

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: How do you see your Phantom Shanghai fitting in with—or perhaps challenging—the sketch I’ve offered in this issue of the city moving from one defined more by juxtapositions of cultures to one in which juxtapositions of eras is as important?1 I’ve left some important things out, of course, such as juxtapositions of classes, something that is related to both of the other sorts of juxtaposition.

Greg Girard: Shanghai’s past as a city run by Westerners continues to fascinate Westerners and others, and there is a sizable nostalgia industry devoted to that, part of which contributed to the attention Phantom Shanghai received, no doubt. Given the violence of the city’s history (and China’s), I wanted to make pictures that registered the past without romanticizing it. More than a juxtaposition of eras, I was trying to show something more like a superimposition of them. I first visited Shanghai in 1983, when the city’s surface hadn’t changed much from the 1949 version of itself. By the time I moved to Shanghai, in 1998, the surface change, and more, was already well underway: the result of a Beijing directive to “catch up” in the early nineties. But it was still possible to walk many of the streets, as Ballard must have done on his first and last return to Shanghai in 1991, and see them little changed apart from the street names. I realized early on that if I was going to make a record that revealed anything of that moment—this transition from paralysis (no urban development for profit for forty years) to unhinged “catching up” (overlapping demolition and construction all over the city)—in addition to the exteriors I would have to photograph the interiors of these period buildings that defined Shanghai. Because that’s where the evidence of upheaval resided: car garages turned into living quarters, single-family homes accommodating multiple families, apartment hallways turned into communal kitchens, closets turned into bedrooms, shared bathrooms, etc. Apart from a privileged elite, this was the Shanghai that most of Shanghai grew up in. And as people talked about preserving buildings, I felt that most didn’t really understand what it was like to actually live in them. At the same time, this compromised and difficult way of life was indeed disappearing as living standards and expectations were rising. So, in 2001, after a year or so of photographing exteriors, I started concentrating on trying to get into people’s homes, to show what that was like.

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About Greg Girard

is a Canadian photographer who has spent much of his career in Asia, recording the physical and social transformations in some of its largest cities. His first book, City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City (Watermark, 1993), co-authored with Ian Lambot, documents the final years of the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. His second book, Phantom Shanghai (Magenta, 2007), examines the homes, buildings, streets, and neighborhoods unlikely to survive Shanghai’s vision of its own future. More recent titles include Hanoi Calling (Magenta, 2010) and In the Near Distance (Kominek, 2010), a collection of early work made on both sides of the Pacific.

About Jeffrey Wasserstrom

is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and editor of the Journal of Asian Studies. He lived in Shanghai for a year in the 1980s and has written two books focusing on the city: Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai (Stanford, 1991) and Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (Routledge, 2009). His most recent book is China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2nd ed., Oxford, 2013). In addition to his academic publications, he regularly contributes commentaries and reviews to newspapers, magazines, blogs, and journals of opinion.