Along the Huangpu River, a man-made tributary of the great Yangtze, lies the city of Shanghai. The largest and most populous urban area of all Chinese cities, Shanghai’s population exceeds 24 million. It was a formative cityscape in the understanding of population growth in Asia.
A fishing village in the 19th century, Shanghai became a popular trading location due to its favourable location on the banks of the Yellow Sea. The city developed into a commercial and financial hub in the 1930s, wielding international influence. This was ended after the Second Sino-Japanese War, when trading was limited to that with other socialist states.
In the late 20th century Shanghai began to awaken. Politician Deng Xiaoping oversaw the implementation of significant economic reforms; the rapid redevelopment of Shanghai was underway. A free trade zone, the stock exchange of Shanghai became the international centre of business and fiscal opportunity that exists to this day. The sprawl of the city can be rivalled by few others, as the neighbouring towns and villages of the Yangtze floodplain have been consumed over the past half century. The Pudong district was once rural. It is now home to over 6 million people and the skyscrapers that define the ‘showpiece’ of China. Efforts to curb population growth have been successful; the city’s growth will not surpass 25 million.
The demands of population growth are evident. Aerial images lay bare the human impact on the environment. The alluvial plain upon which the city lies has changed immensely. The topography of Shanghai, a pioneering landscape in the context of China, has had a profound impact on the identity of its inhabitants. Urban growth has consumed the aforementioned rural land. Farms have been bought by the municipality, as the fields yield to expansive building developments. In China, more than 200 million farmers and villagers have been reclassified as urban residents. Comparatively to other parts of the world, this form of urbanism is desirable. Farmers are often willing to give up their land for the right price. A gentrifying force, a long history of agriculture has been lost in the pursuit of urban development.
Economic policy that defined the previous decades, giving Shanghai status as a global power, offered freedom to many people. Globalisation transformed the fortunes of the city, establishing it as a metropolis to rival the economic centres of the west. Compared to other Chinese cities, the influence of the outside world is evident on the streets of Shanghai. There is an acknowledgement of environmental issues, though it is deemed a work in progress; compared to Beijing and other Chinese cities, air pollution is low. ‘Fast paced and pluralistic’, the city is heralded as tolerant, moulded upon western conurbations such as New York.
Shanghai’s embrace of modern values, those associated with urban landscapes, is explored in Of a Sleepless Town; a documentary short by filmmaker Jordan Hardy. Urban landscapes have a profound impact on those who dwell within its confines. From the perspective of three Shanghai creatives - Architect, Wuyahuang Li, photographer, Shuwei Liu, and electronic music producer, Han Han (Gooooose) - we can understand the power the city has in shaping the consciousness of its inhabitants. Shanghai is not dissimilar to other great cities, giving people space to perform, communicate and create free from restriction.
The bustle of life on the streets of Shanghai is captured with frenetic and disorienting camera work. An accompanying soundtrack by James Piper masterfully adds to this feeling. As the documentary scratches beneath the surface of the financial capital of Asia, it is clear that Shanghai has a calming and gentle side, laden with vibrant and diverse communities. The scenes captured in Part I of Of a Sleepless Town show the scale of Shanghai. We see the interaction between communities and their neighbourhoods; the scale of the city is evident throughout.
Each of the creative practitioners have found solace in the chaos and noise of Shanghai; as products of the metropolitan area, they have grown to appreciate its nuances. Each share their hopes for the future of the city; concern about a loss of culture pervades their thoughts.