Photo Essay: The Price of Modern Shanghai / by Heather

It's 2013 and the city of Shanghai is booming.


More than booming, it's exploding outwards, unfurling towards Chinese suburbs at breakneck speed, bearing the fruits of foreign commerce and influence. With new found capitalism and consumerism comes sprawling malls, towering apartment buildings, and luxury skyscrapers that pander to the emerging middle class, the highbrow elite, and the growing number of expats present in Shanghai. 

Twenty years ago, this famous skyline didn't even exist. Shanghai's history as an important port city is relatively brief, starting in 1842 and peaking in the 20s as a decedent sanctuary for whatever glamour and vices money could buy. This quickly shut down in the 40s as Communism took over the country, but today, the city is back with a vengeance. Unfortunately, this vengeance is being taken out on the small, authentic pockets of history that the city has left. With shrinking room to build upwards and outwards within Shanghai itself, the government encourages the demolition of some of the oldest neighborhoods to make way for more malls and skyscrapers.

I was lucky enough to be introduced to one of these neighborhoods, Xiaonanmen, through a modeling  job I was hired for. An expat swimwear designer had the great idea to contrast her creations against the crumbling facades of Xiaonanmen and so, with photographer and crew in tow, we spent a day shooting in this powerfully striking district.

We were very conscious of the fact that we might be bothering locals and stiffened up when one local woman came up and started yelling at us in Chinese. But one of our crew translated for us and it turned out that she couldn't care less that we were shooting in front of her house, but was actually pleading with us to talk to the government for her. They were going to tear down her house- a house that had likely been passed down through her family- and she would be turned out on the street. She hoped that because we were foreigners, they would listen to us.

It was devastating to understand first-hand how little the Chinese government cared about its own people in this situation. Whole communities who had shared this space for generations would be made homeless so cookie cutter apartment buildings could be hastily constructed in their place. Beautiful old lane houses, ornate with historical subtleties were being gutted and ripped part every day. It looked like a war zone, with rubble everywhere and people living in half-demolished buildings. I went back on my own and took pictures, not sure how much longer this slice of the 'real' Shanghai would survive.




This is the building that the woman asked us to help save. It's already half-empty and ruined, but still beautiful.


The future looms in on every side of  Xiaonanmen.


It really is astonishing how normal life carries on right next to such destruction simply because there is no other choice.

There is little action that can be taken to prevent the destruction of Xiaonanmen, so we can only hope that the government learns to value its own history before other neighborhoods go the same way.