This past weekend, I made a last-minute trip to Shanghai, the sprawling megalopolis about halfway up China’s jagged coastline. Ashley’s family had made plans weeks ago to visit their youngest daughter and her husband, Joanne and Joe – who moved to the city together after their Xiamen wedding – but I’d initially decided against joining them due to school obligations. A productive couple of weeks was enough to change my mind, though, and I picked up a cheap ticket from Hong Kong Airlines flying out early Saturday morning, and returning to Hong Kong in the afternoon on Monday. I’d been to Shanghai a few times before (2010, 2011, and 2015), and the focus of the weekend was to spend time with family, so we didn’t make very many specific plans to see or go anywhere in particular. I brought my camera along, hoping to do a bit of street photography, but most of my photos seemed to involve Mila, Joe and Joanne’s dog. It wasn’t a very eventful trip, but we ate well and spent time with loved ones, and that’s a good weekend by any definition.
Great World is one of Shanghai’s iconic buildings, a somewhat lopsided structure that has come to symbolize the city’s wild and decadent past. Once the biggest indoor theme park and entertainment complex in Shanghai, the pleasures and distractions within enticed guests from all over the world during its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, when it was owned and operated by infamous crime families and gangsters. Post-revolution, it limped along, enjoying brief resurgences in popularity and going through a number of politically-motivated re-branding exercises, before competition from more modern theme parks and entertainment options forced ownership to shutter its doors in 2003.
It remained closed and dormant for the next decade or so, until the municipal district government announced plans last year to renovate the building and reopen Great World in 2017. Instead of gambling and parlour games, however, the venue would showcase cultural exhibits from around the world – arts and handicrafts, folk music, food, and theatre performances. After a three-month, invite-only soft opening, the park finally opened to the public on Friday, and I checked it out on Saturday afternoon with Ashley, Joanne, and my father-in-law.
The purpose of the visit wasn’t solely for sightseeing, however – I was there to take photos and do interviews for a feature story assignment in one of my classes. It seemed to have the elements of a good story brewing: nostalgia and a symbol of Shanghai’s golden age, a revival of a long-dead icon in a city that has changed much since it last opened, and a small park competing in an entertainment market consumed by spectacle and branding – see Shanghai Disney and the under-construction Legoland and Six Flags parks. As we walked through the courtyard and the four floors of the building that afternoon, however, we encountered more confusion and disappointment than the enthusiasm and crowds that management had hoped for.
Groups of elderly guests roamed the corridors, searching for a glimpse of the park they once knew. Most of the guests that we interviewed expressed a longing for the old Great World, sharing with us their memories of the park when they were younger. Gone were the arcade games and cinema halls, the lively restaurants and theatre shows of old. In their place, somber exhibition rooms displaying white ceramic bowls with paintings of everyday activities, paper art made in southern Yunnan, furniture that wouldn’t be out of place in Ikea, and random glass sculptures hanging from the ceiling – a hodgepodge museum lacking both rhyme and reason.
Great World has so much going for it: a beautiful building, a hundred years of history, and the living memories of visitors old enough to remember what it once was. In North America or Europe I can imagine a venue like this succeeding as a sort of immersive historical/cultural experience, like Black Creek Pioneer Village outside Toronto, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, or Puy du Fou in France. Even in China, the massively successful Songcheng parks – which started in nearby Hangzhou – is proof that history and culture, when done right, can compete alongside rollercoasters and thrill rides. There is so much history in Shanghai that demands to be told and re-told, and Great World is the perfect venue to stage it. Sadly, the operators of Great World don’t seem to have figured that out yet. Even if some of the seedier elements of old Shanghai don’t quite jive with the Communist Party’s morals, there’s still enough to make a damn good park in the mold of Songcheng. Instead, we’re left with a park that is neither here nor there, a neutered space stripped of anything compelling – just another Chinese bureaucratic mess of a provincial museum hiding behind an iconic facade.
I’d originally imagined getting more time to roam around Shanghai with my camera over the weekend, but I was, in the words of the current leader of the free world, feeling very “low energy”, especially after my early morning flight out on Saturday. I was completely fine with how things turned out, though. Sometimes it’s nice to just have a couple days to not do anything and follow along with other people’s plans. Whatever street photography I ended up with was a result of walking to lunches and dinners, an afternoon at a dog park, and views from various balconies and rooftops.
The last time Ashley and I were in Shanghai together, in the fall of 2015, we had gone with Joe and Joanne to a dog adoption event. It was there, on the second floor of the Shanghai Brewery, that they first met Mila. A quiet, nondescript, coarse-haired dog of undetermined breed, she managed to stand out enough that day to win the hearts of the pretty-much-newlyweds, and she went home with them a few weeks later. Everyone else in the family has made a trip up to Shanghai since, including Ashley in December, when I was doing my internship in Myanmar, so I ended up being the last one to meet Mila as a proper member of the family. Our relationship started out slow, but once it was established that I was a source of endless scratching and cuddling, she warmed up a smidgen. She had a knack for coming over and resting her head between my legs whenever I started working on my laptop, and, like a trained monkey, I put down my computer every time to give her a few scratches. What a good dog.
I was back at the airport by 10 on Monday morning, having spent less than 48 hours in Shanghai. A rush of productivity had cleared my schedule the week before, but the schoolwork cycle restarted again over the weekend, and my plate was already beginning to fill by the time I landed in Hong Kong that afternoon. Ashley arrived on a different flight later that evening, and we reunited in our Wan Chai apartment after my night class on the west end of the island. Our brief weekend in Shanghai had scratched an itch for us – we get restless when we stay in Hong Kong for too long – but it wasn’t nearly enough. My school schedule put a damper on our travel plans for the year, but things are starting to pick up. Further holidays beckon in the weeks to come, including a short hop over tropical tides and across a thousand islands, to a stretch of white sand beach facing the cerulean waters of the Sulu Sea.