China is said to be urbanizing faster than any other country, and this process has been on unusually open display in Shanghai, where developers destroyed the communally-organized neighborhoods of the central city at an extraordinary clip, replacing them with high-rises and shopping malls. Typically, the residents of areas to be cleared received little advance notice before eviction and no say in the compensation they received for having to abandon their homes -- and often their livelihoods. This is the world of my book, Disappearing Shanghai.
Although I explored and photographed more than a dozen of the city's doomed communities, in the end this work consists of images from half a dozen neighborhoods, each of which I visited scores of times during a five-year period. Most of the places one can see in these images existed on a north-south axis that ran from the north banks of Suzhou Creek to the southern edge of Shanghai's Puxi district. When I began photographing, it was possible to walk from one end of this realm to the other without ever exiting this tattered, closely-knit world. Now, few remain, having given way to the city's massive efforts at urban development.
In 2009, the year after I left China, I undertook the final phase of this project, spending three summer months knocking every day on the doors of strangers in what remained of my target neighborhoods to photograph them inside of their homes and give a sense of their private lives.
The response of many Shanghai natives to this interior photography is to ask what city it was taken in, the assumption being that it couldn't be their own. Others have quickly declared that the subjects must surely be outsiders, or waidi ren, because in their view Shanghai natives should be affluent and sophisticated. In fact, well over half of these subjects were true Shanghai natives. This is not to say that their lives represent the real life of Shanghai, whatever that might be, but that the common images of the city often fail to take into account ordinary people whose lives have not been lifted dramatically by the boom.
Howard W. French