Poetry News

LARB Unpacks Memories, Photographs, and Poetry from Old Shanghai

By Harriet Staff

Two recent books, Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life (2012) and Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life (2014), dwell on the most discreet artifacts of disappearing Shanghai: its distinct social and domestic life. Los Angeles Review of Books's Ting Guo takes a look at both:

For me, reading Jie Li’s Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life — a book that combines memoir and ethnography to chart the course of ordinary lives during times of rapid change — was an emotional experience as well as an intellectual journey. As a Shanghai native who spent her childhood in alleyway houses much like those that are the focus of the work, Li struck me as someone acutely aware and truly understanding of the locale’s history, people, values, style, and struggles. The book, which follows her family members as they experience events from the late 1940s through the present, has real emotional power; it made me sigh, laugh, and cry, much like the bittersweet films by auteurs of cinematic nostalgia such as Wong Kar-wai and Tsai Ming-liang.

What adds depth to Li’s perspective is that she can draw on more than just her familiarity with Shanghai’s alleys, for she has experienced life in other places, having lived in New York and New England; she recently graduated from and now teaches at Harvard. A specialist in literature, film studies, and history, she scrutinizes the stories of her Shanghai relatives and other informants against the backdrop of the large, dramatic changes from the 1940s on, which has seen the city remade by economic shifts and traumas such as the Cultural Revolution. Li can write as a visitor and a local, an impartial narrator and a member of the family, someone who feels an emotional tie to the subjects of her story yet is ready to place some parts of familiar lives in a critical light.

Some of her comments will both amuse and boggle the mind of the reader, as when she writes: “The just division of this family inheritance remains so contentious as to have Yeye [paternal grandfather] and Nainai [paternal grandmother] turning over in their graves.” Li’s aunt (“Aunt Bean”) was once sued by Yeye for “robbing” her parents’ old alleyway house, but ended up becoming the sole heir to it once other family members one by one drifted away. An outsider who wrote in such a way would be seen as cruel, but Li’s insider status makes it seem unproblematically witty.

In an interview with Shanghai Daily, Li explained that one motivation for writing this book was her nostalgia for the city in an earlier time and for her childhood. Li’s focus is on two alleyway houses, both of which have ties to her family and both of which stand in what was once Shanghai’s International Settlement, a district that between the 1840s and 1940s was governed by a locally elected Municipal Council. One of these properties, on Alliance Lane (Youbang Li), is the house in which her mother grew up; the other is Lane 1695 Pingliang Road, where her father grew up. She uses stories of these two domiciles to explore larger historical events, zeroing in on how big and small political, economic, social, and cultural changes affected their inhabitants [...]

Continue at LARB.

Originally Published: June 1st, 2015