Our last day in Shanghai drew together three great currents in the life of any city: the power of the poster, urban planning and a great night out.
The basement of a well-maintained apartment block in the leafy, cafe-lined streets around Shanghai Library was the home of one of the most exciting places we've visited yet: The museum of Propaganda Poster Art. One could mention so many things about the lovingly collected and preserved private collection. If one reflects that the museum can only house a small sample from this rich and diverse art form, it is interesting to note the themes that stand out.
Anti-Americianism was a recurring feature of many of the posters. Yet so too was a sentiment which was known in the 1960s and 1970s as Third Worldism - a belief that the least developed countries in the world could unite together in a common struggle. Costumes and hairstyles marked out the peoples of the world. Beyond the vague optimism of such images, the posters referred to more specific struggles. Posters depicted not only the Vietnam War, but African American protesters holding placards denouncing it. The posters reminded us how all domestic political movements (certainly all the ones we can think of) make use of international political events to further their cause.
The aesthetic beauty of propaganda is sometime irresistible. Whatever we may know of their context, the striking slogans and optimistic faces depicted in the posters still captivate. Could we simply enjoy or consume such posters as kitsch memorabilia of the kind that might appear on any modern cafe wall, from Shanghai to San Francisco? A moment's reflection reminds us of the part these posters played in the tumult of the twentieth century. It is an irony that the language and expressions used in the captions attached to the posters were often carefully chosen to appeal to the young. They also adopted a neutral, informative register belying any deeper purpose. Propaganda may still be a part of life in China today. But if we, as visitors from abroad, simply assume its pervasiveness are we not also succumbing to another strain of propaganda?
Few cities merit a museum dedicated to their own planning as much as Shanghai. Tracing the development of the city from a village to a rampant and globalised megalopolis, it celebrates its most recent transformation, into an environmentally friendly space for the people. The rhetoric of the 'return to green' is backed up by projects such as the remaking of the Bund to give more space to pedestrians and give greater access to the river. Between water and land, the journey that the museum proposes is most interesting when one thinks about Shanghai's identity as a port. The floor dedicated to its maritime past presents European maps of the 17th century, where the scientific tentative reconstruction of Asian geography coexists with the orientalist representation of its alien inhabitants. The sea is depicted as the reign of whales and mermaids. Thus the museum traces another journey from science as orientalist fantasy to science as the pilot of urban expansion in a century of Asian preeminence.
Anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman once quipped, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." Dancing through Shanghai on a Saturday night, the city feels as it does in the best of moments -- both exhilirating and relaxed. There is perhaps an affective, embodied dimension to travel. You move through the space of the city, shaking loose old skin, and gaining new experience, new scars, new words for old desires.
Going dancing in Shanghai seems a fairly standard experience and perhaps the nightlife is comparable to that in any other major city. And yet, there is something striking about the scent of rice frying on the streets outside the clubs, with well-dressed boys exhaling cigarette smoke into the darkened rain soaked night, texting frantically as the lurking taxis snake up and down the road. Over-crowded bars are teeming with ex pats, students, and socialites, all sweating under the hot lights as they sway and grind to your average cheesy pop song. The nights of Shanghai seem as fraught with contradiction and rich with possibility as the days. There is always a sordid beauty to the city, an explosion of light and laughter that is as fleeting as it is memorable.
- The Oecumene Team, 8 June 2013