Brian's Blogs

Travelling Through Shanghai's Time Tunnel

Unlike Beijing, Shanghai is not chock-a-block with museums. It probably has only about a tenth as many as the northern capital. But what it does have is certainly on a par…

One such museum which I would strongly recommend anyone to visit is the history museum on the lower ground floor of Shanghai’s iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower – you know the one… it looks like a rocket kitted out with pink balls!

Visiting the city during the Mid Autumn Festival, when the entire population of China appears to have nothing better to do than to wander aimlessly in front of me wherever I go, might not have been the best planned idea … but whereas said aimless wanderers all choose that same day to visit the TV Tower, your favourite blogger escapes the mad rush by heading downstairs while everyone else thinks of taking a lift to the top. Result? Massive crowds going up; empty aisles going down!

The museum’s focus is on the century it took for Shanghai to transform itself from the opening of the port in 1843 to when the communist nation was declared in 1949. Before the TV Tower was built, the Municipal History Museum had been opened in 1984 on the premises of the Shanghai Agriculture Exhibition, moving to a new location on the Hong Qiao Road in 1991 and thence 10 years later to Pudong’s take on one of Lady Penelope’s Thunderbirds.

Anyway, the blurb promises that “The consummate combination of multimedia technology and exquisite architecture models takes you travel in the time tunnel of Shanghai history.” So… let’s go on in and take a look …

The museum itself has a floor area of around 10,000 square metres. The over 30,000 items displayed are divided into five sections: "Trace back to HuaTing", "Style and Features in the Town", "Sketch of the Port-opening", "Foreign Settlement", and "Old footsteps in Shanghai”. The museum aims to try to reflect “the historical evolvement of the politics, economy, culture, society and people’s life in modern Shanghai”. And I have to say I think it does a pretty good job of that.

Now, friends of your favourite blogger know that I love old photographs; and in this museum there are plenty of opportunities for gawping at them. For instance, here is what the Bund looked like in 1893 – the 50th Jubilee of the founding of the settlement.

In 1901, Prince Zai Feng – who was the last Qing Dynasty ruler of China, (as Prince-Regent during the reign of his son the emperor Puyi) – went to Germany by way of Nanjing Road.

And 30 years after that, this is what Nanjing Road looked like in the 1930s

while this was the Fuzhou Road at the same time.

Once you are through these initial pictures (nicely given a sepia tint to make them look really old!) you find yourself in a room dedicated to transport.

Here’s an early trolley car model, representing the first trolley track route in Shanghai, which was officially opened for business on March 5th 1908. The first trolley line owned by the Chinese was put into operation five years later.

The well to do, of course, shunned trolley buses in favour of their sedan cars...

And as the century progressed, the better off stuck to their cars rather than hobnob with the low life. Here’s a Buick Sedan from the 1940s - a symbol of high end consumption in the metropolis.

I now realise that in following everyone else, I have skipped a room, and so find myself going back in time once more – this time to see a wedding sedan chair on show.

There are also horse drawn carts, more sedan chairs and even wheelbarrow chairs on display.

Soon I have found my way back to the proper route once more and climb the stairs into the second section - a maze of Old Shanghai scenes peopled with life-sized wax dummies. Here I can learn about country life as was, and city life as was, with dioramas of a tea-house, a cloth shop, a soy sauce & pickle shop, a bean curd stall, a salted aquatic products (ie seafood!) market in Xian Gua Lu, the dragon shaped wall in Yuyuan … the list just goes on and on, each with a highly detailed scene in low lighting…

Yes, there’s more… Chinese cotton production; wine shops; herb shops…

I turn a corner. Oh Yuk! How gross the Chinese are at times. Like most Chinese museums, the place is full of loos. But that would be far too civilised for some I dare say. It must be so disgusting to work as a cleaner here!

But wait … there’s more (no, not peeing brats… I mean the museum has loads more to see!)

The next hall is crammed full of scenes from Shanghai's foreign concession history during the late 1800s and early 1900s. A helpful sign tells us it represents “The Metropolis Infested with foreign Adventurers”, and then goes on to remind us that in 1840 the British launched the Opium War as a pretext to invade China.

Naughty Brits! There’s also an explanation of the “mixed court” – After Shanghai became a treaty port, the foreign powers seized part of the city’s administrative and judicial powers, representing an important symbol of Shanghai’s semi-colonial status.

Of course, one can’t forget the opium smoking houses, which could be found scattered along all the streets and lanes. Many solicited customers with girls (now, there’s a novel idea!) and they were called Flowery Smoking Houses. The numerous opium dens, we are told, were part of the gloomy side of old Shanghai.

Looking at the painted walls, it seems to me that old Shanghai was really a rather nice place to live in – assuming of course that one had money! Here’s what Huaihai Road – then called Avenue Joffre – looked like. Joffre, BTW, was the commander-in-chief of the French army during WW1.

As a result of its multinational colonialist status, Shanghai quickly became the nationwide centre for newspapers and information in the 1920s. Wangping Street, which is where more than 10 famous newspapers began production at the end of the Qing Dynasty, became known as Newspaper Street.

Naturally, sex was never far below the surface of this heaving metropolis, and the city’s dens of ill repute are also captured for all to gawk at…

… including a model of one of the call girls. I notice that here there are no explanations given in English of what is going on. Perhaps the images speak loudly enough by themselves!

And anyone who despairs nowadays at how sex is used to sell all kinds of products need only come here to see that the idea is anything but new! Why this girl is holding her box of ciggies while she already has a lit cigarette in her holder is anyone’s guess. But look at her left hand. Something definitely a bit deformed about her, I’d say!

This poor devil, on the other hand, looks like she has pigged out a bit too much on the confectionary someone has given her. She looks as if she’s about to throw up at any minute!

I have mentioned in a previous blog about the Jing’an Temple. There used to be a well in front of it from which its bubbling water gave it the moniker of “bubbling well” (ok, so what else would you call it!). The spring water gushed out day and night, and it was widely regarded as the 'Sixth Spring of China'.

And here it is a few years later. The buildings and the people have changed, but not the well, which was abandoned when Nanjing Road was widened; but in 1999 when the new subway line 2 was being dug, the original well guardrail was unearthed, and after reconstruction, the spring was relocated to the crossing of Huashan Road and West Nanjing Road, where it regained its former charm – or so we are told.

Shanghai also became the financial hub in the region, given its international status. Both foreign and Chinese currency circulated together. But in the 1930s, the head offices of the Central Bank, Bank of Communication and Bank of Peasants started using the same money, and Shanghai’s position as the financial centre was consolidated further.

Something else that Shanghai typically “made its own” was to supply the opera trade with costumes. There was a concentration of various opera troupes including Peking, Kun, Hu , Yue, Gunagdong, Xi and Yong operas, and the top suppliers all set up shop in Shanghai. Here’s a reconstruction...

Peking Opera became very popular in Shanghai, and the Dangui Tea House was the earliest theatre offering this kind of entertainment for its customers. Two were built – one on 1867 and the second in 1884.

There was also a district known as “Small Garden” which was a popular name for the area around the present Guangxi Road and Zhejiang Rpoad, adjacent to Fuzhou and Shantou roads. The concentration of recreational facilities led to the emergence of nearly 100 shops which specialised in selling women’s shoes in fashion at the time. Can you imagine squeezing into something as small as one of these shoes? It must have been so painful!

After the 1911 Revolution, when men no longer wore pigtails, people started visiting the barbers more often and by the 1930s there were about 1000 large and small barber shops in the city. I love this depiction which is a bit like something out of the Frankenstein films, don’t you think!

I’m nearing the end of my trip through Shanghai’s time tunnel. From here until the exit one walks through a huge collection of yet more pictures and lithographs. Here’s a few more for you to enjoy…

A forest of masts…

Reflection of ship masts on the Huangpu River…

Shanghai-Wusong Railway’s Opening to traffic…

A girl from a wealthy family on a wheelbarrow sedan…

Mid lake pavilion in Yu Yuan…

I emerge into the daylight once again, now knowing everything there is to know that is worth knowing about the history of Shanghai. What a fabulous museum!

Web Analytics