Shanghai and Hong Kong

by Ting Guo

A tale of two cities – Shanghai and Hong Kong

In his landmark work, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China 1930-45, Harvard scholar Leo Oufan Lee ends the book with an ode to the past glory of Shanghai and an anticipation of the thriving financial centre and cosmopolis, Hong Kong, as a transformed continuation of old-time Shanghai. For Lee, the tale of these two cities is essentially concerned with and illustrates a particular type of translocal urban culture in China.


In both cities, the peak of their economic success was accompanied by a sense of rootlessness and uncertainty about the future. For Shanghai this was exemplified in the 1930s with its position as a treaty port and then as a so-called ‘Solitary Island’ from 1937-41, separated from the rest of China and the Communist ideology.

For Hong Kong we can look to the 1980s and the introduction of the British Nationality Act 1981 and the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong (The Joint Declaration), signed between the PRC and UK governments on 19 December 1984. The-then PRC’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping recognised the value of Hong Kong’s free market economy and advocated a more pragmatic approach known as the One Country, Two Systems policy.

Under this policy Hong Kong (as well as Macau, and potentially also Taiwan) would be able to retain their economic systems within the PRC, although the PRC reserved all rights for various changes and interpretations – as we have seen just recently when it redefined Hong Kong’s degree of autonomy in a White Paper that details the “one country, two systems” practice in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

Ackbar Abbas, professor of comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine argues that from the outset, Shanghai generated a set of images about itself that contributed to its mystique, but that we sometimes think of as merely outlandish or bizarre.

In Shanghai, within the space of 100 years, the extraterritorial presence of foreigners—British, American, and French, and, after 1895, Japanese (to name only the most obvious)—turned a place of nowhere into “Paris of the Orient”, and what J G Ballard called in his novel Empire of the Sun “this electric and lurid city more exciting than any other in the world”.

The existence of the different concessions, each with its own set of extra-territorial laws, meant that internal control of the city always had to be negotiated, often with the triad underworld operating as unofficial arbiters. However, this created less an anarchic city than a polycentric, or de-centred city, controlled by many different hands.

But far from being lawless, the space of Shanghai was subject to constant negotiations, and every initiative was observed from multiple perspectives. It was the existence of such a negotiated space that helped Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s develop its own special brand of cosmopolitan urban culture: what we might call a cosmopolitanism of extra-territoriality.

It could be argued, as Lee has done in Shanghai Modern, that the foreign presence produced not only new kinds of public and social spaces – such as cinemas, department stores, coffeehouses, dance halls, parks, and racecourses – but also spaces that could be appropriated by the Chinese themselves and used to construct a Chinese version of modern cosmopolitan culture.

Homi Bhabha proposes the notion of “colonial mimicry”, the desire for a reformed, recognisable other, as a subject of a difference demanded by colonial authority. However in the case of Shanghai, without a fully realised colonial authority, the culture of Shanghai concessions can be seen as a manifestation of a Chinese cosmopolitanism which looks out from China. This cosmopolitanism was in part shaped—and limited—by its historical and social circumstances, and in part indebted to the petite bourgeoisie who sought modernity for the sake of nationalism, demonstrating a particular type of bourgeois cosmopolitanism with undeniable international significance.

From this point of view, argues Bhabha, cosmopolitanism in Shanghai can be understood not as the cultural domination by the foreign, but as the appropriation by the local of “elements of foreign culture to enrich a new national culture.”

Foreign domination and local appropriation are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, it should not be forgotten that Shanghai’s strength as a cosmopolitan city was always based on China’s weakness as a nation. As such, there was always an underlying tension between national culture on the one hand, which could only be constructed as anti-colonial resistance, and Shanghai cosmopolitanism on the other.

As both committed bourgeois cosmopolitans and politically active patriots, Shanghai elites in the 1920 and 30s played a revolutionary role in economic and social evolution, and provided a positive challenge to the authority of traditional landed aristocracy by transforming themselves into emerging cosmopolitan urban elites. Lee defines cosmopolitanism as the “an abiding curiosity in looking out, locating oneself as a cultural mediator at the intersection between (China) and the rest of the world”.

Shanghai in the early twentieth century, with the effort of Shanghainese to actively appropriate Western liberal thought and lifestyles, is considered by Lee the cosmopolitan city par excellence, which earned from the Western tourists the epithet ‘Paris of the Orient’.

The Orientalist indication of this epithet is conveniently ignored by the local residents who have retained this term to refer to their city proudly, an attitude similar to the old time Shanghainese who purposefully adopted foreign perspectives while maintaining their Chinese subjective position in thinking, writing and everyday life, which facilitated “the Other” to become part of their identity.

Shanghai’s capacity to be all at once a space of negotiation, domination, and appropriation, prompted Mu Xin (木心 1927-2011), the eminent Chinese diaspora writer, to refer to what Lee understands to be the “flowering of Shanghai modern” as “deformed splendour”. In its time old Shanghai had the reputation of being the most “open” city in the world, the one place in China that was free from the control of a debilitated and bureaucratic state apparatus, giving it an air of freedom that drew in both political reformers and intellectuals, both prostitutes and adventurers.

The other side of this freedom and openness, however, was a certain isolation—a linkage to the world that went together with a de-linkage from the rest of China. There was always something very fragile about Shanghai cosmopolitanism. After 1949, Chinese communism, born in Shanghai, quickly made Shanghai’s urban culture no more than a memory.

In Hong Kong, there was little interest in nationalism. Hong Kong could never have been a city nation like Singapore, but only a hyphenation, a concept that Abbas adopts to refer not to the conjunctures of ‘East’ and ‘West’, but to the disjunctures of colonialism and globalism. It therefore accepted its colonial status as a priori and turned towards the international, fully exploiting its position as a port city or, in Mao’s picturesque phraseology, as “a pimple on the backside of China”.

As Abbas argues, if colonialism in Hong Kong had a certain benign-looking aspect to it, it was because it was a mutant political entity and a living demonstration of how the relative autonomy that comes from economic success could be based on dependency. While Shanghai was multiple and polyvalent, Hong Kong was single and paradoxical.

Oufan Lee portrays Hong Kong as the “Other” Shanghai, observing the portrait of Hong Kong as the exotic colony and Shanghai as a cultural transformation of East and West. Since the 1940s when many Shanghainese immigrated to Hong Kong in pursuit of a better political environment, Hong Kong’s commercial and cultural elite underwent a “Shanghainisation” with the massive immigrant influx from Shanghai, from a million in 1945 to two million in 1950.

They were followed by the tycoons from Shanghai who relocated their companies (including HSBC) to Hong Kong, and who attempted to maintain, as well as to construct, an empire on the island they recognize now as home.

However, since the conflicts between Hong Kong and the mainland have accelerated in recent years, a strong sense of local-awareness and even localism has emerged. Indeed for a long time, Hong Kong did not develop the kind of cosmopolitan culture that Shanghai exhibited in the 1920s and 1930s, and which emerged from the anomalous space of extra-territoriality.

Dependency meant that for most of its history, Hong Kong, culturally speaking, was caught in the double bind of divided loyalties. It was politically ambivalent about both Britain and China; ambivalent about what language, English or Chinese, it should master; and confident only about capital. The one moment when it began to rival the cultural vibrancy of Shanghai in the 1930s was during the 1980s and 1990s, after the Joint Declaration announcing the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997: that is, at precisely the moment when Hong Kong felt most vulnerable and dependent.

This was the period when more and more people discovered, invented, and rallied behind what they called “Hong Kong culture.” This Hong Kong culture was a hothouse plant that appeared at the moment when something was disappearing: a case of love at last sight, a culture of disappearance.

In contrast to Shanghai in the 1930s, nationalism was a negative stimulus in Hong Kong: one major anxiety was that the internationalism of the port city would be submerged and smothered by its re-inscription into the nation. But the anxiety was tempered by a tacit hope that Hong Kong might indeed be a special case.

This was what redirected attention back to the city’s local peculiarities. It could therefore be argued that Hong Kong cosmopolitanism was stimulated then not so much by a space of multivalence—which was the case in 1930s Shanghai—as by a space of disappearance, one effect of which was the transformation of the local into the translocal as a result of historical exigencies.

Nevertheless, historically both cities are composed of a large number of (im)migrants who are willing to break from the bonds of tradition and start anew, who are adventurous, ambitious, diligent, and more crucially, who have an open attitude to the world and who want to innovate and to improve.

For the Chinese who migrated to Shanghai, a willingness to demolish the burdens of traditions — of kinship and lineage, traditional rural gentry, and traditional governmental authority – was essential. As a matter of fact, the very translation of the English word modern was born in Shanghai – mo deng 摩登, a word that is often used to capture the spirit of the petit bourgeois (xiaozi 小資). Petit bourgeois in this sense bears not only fashionable thinking and ways of living, but also a revolutionary spirit to modernise society. It is a faith in improvement, as British sociologist Robert John Morris remarks, a faith in human rationality which implies democracy and the value of education, hence the potential for progression and mobilization.

Considering the growing conflicts on a civil level between the mainland and Hong Kong, some, including local public intellectual Leung Man-tao and activist organisation Co-China, argue that Hong Kong should not lose the principles and morals that made it unique, that instead of the growing sense of hostility and exclusivity towards the torrent of tourists and immigrants from the mainland, Hongkongers may want to exhibit openness, kindness and equal fairness: the fruit of civil society.

Simultaneously, we see the dramatic move of a Chinese official tearing out a single-page advertisement for Taiwan’s Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange at the 20th conference of the European Association of Chinese Studies (EACS). It seems that at a time when nationalism and localism are both emerging, such cosmopolitan spirit should perhaps be reflected upon and rekindled.

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