Right before I embarked on the plane for my Shanghai visit, I finished reading a book titled Shanghai Girls by Lisa See, an absorbing look at the lives of two Chinese women from their storybook early lives as "beautiful girls" who pose for advertisements and calendars before the Japanese invasion in 1937 to their settled immigrant lives in California in the 1950s. (The photo above is from the Propaganda Poster Art Museum, which I'll blog in an upcoming post.)
Whether planning a trip to Shanghai or just interested in Oriental culture, this well-researched, perfectly-detailed account of the dramatic changes in China (and Chinese in the US) during this turbulent period--opulent shikumen living, the devastation and barbarism of the Japanese attack, institutional American racism, cultural and generational change, family drama, the rise of Maoism, middle age complacency--makes for a fine read.
The sisters, Pearl (the narrator) and May (the younger, prettier one), are the well-to-do offspring of a father who owns a rickshaw business and a depressive mother with wrapped feet; in the evenings, they pose for paintings that will be used to sell cigarettes and perfumes, after which they drink and dance in the Bund's hotspots with their society friends before heading home carried in a rickshaw in the early hours.
Home is a "shikumen" house, which is an architectural style melding the European and the Chinese, most frequentky found in the French Concession--where my hotel was located, west of the Bund, south of People's Square. Of course, there was no People's Square until 1949 when the Communists rose to power--before that it was a racecourse and park for foreigners.
I passed by the remains of shikumen architecture on my trips to the subway from the hotel (see my Walking Around Shanghai video) though they're not interesting from the outside. The much-referenced "long-tang" is just an alley between these houses.
However, I did get an interesting look at the inside of such a building by visiting Xintiandi (新天地), "New Heaven and Earth" which is a remodeled shikumen compound focused on upscale restaurants and shopping. The Shikumen Open House, which is open until 11 PM, serves as an informative tourist respite, after dinner and before drinks, and shows the kind of home Pearl and May lived in before their travails began.
I snapped the image below in the Dong Tail Lu Antiques Market, because I was interested in the way it juxtaposed the Mao era with the time of Shanghai "beautiful girls" that the cultural revolution was meant to wipe clean: