With only one full day in Shanghai, my parents and I sated our urge for instant gratification at a couple exceptional museums.
We were traversing the People’s Park (人民公园）when we stumbled upon a staircase with a sign that said “Step back to Shanghai of the 1930s.“ Peering down the stairs, we caught a glimpse of people snapping shots of themselves beside a vintage streetcar and imitation old gas streetlamps. Turns out that the underground passage was an abbreviated recreation of yesteryear’s Shanghai!
As curiosity led us to discover that this historic display connected to the nearby subway station and the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum. Is this museum for nerds or what? On second thought, I thought, this is brilliant! People need to know more how cities come to be — between commerce, history, culture and pro-active government action. They don’t just make themselves; everyone has a role to play in them. And honestly, it wasn’t that nerdy, as we soon saw large groups of European tourists buying tickets. Apparently it has some level of notoriety among foreign tours of China as a cultural magnet.
The Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, which opened in the 90s, is a prominently large building at six floors tall and explains the past, present, and future of Shanghai through urban design, sewage and environmental impact mitigation programs, water and energy supply systems, transportation, and homes for future growth. For a citadine, this is everything you don’t see but count on to work.
(AN ASIDE: The first time that I discovered my fascination with the invisible mechanisms essential to the health of a city was when I was 18 years old. My friend Ashleigh and I got stuck in downtown San Francisco after the last BART left and decided to wait out the two hours before the arrival of the first train in the morning. During those hours, as we huddled on a park bench at Powell Station, I recall witnessing city crew emptying all of the street trash cans on Market Street, power-washing the sidewalks, illuminating burned out streetlights, and patrolling the streets for irreverent activity. It was then that I realized that a great army of silent, assiduous keepers tend to the health of the city, whose existence, until that moment, was oblivious to me.)
Multi-media, Multi-disciplinary Content
Never having set foot in an urban planning museum before, moreover encountering one, my parents and I ran on curiosity. The museum encompasses the arc of recent Shanghai history, emphasizing the Qing Dynasty and the European Concessions post-WWI. The media is diverse — from blown-up black and white photos, recordings, dioramas, 3-D wall graphics, and video. For example, we saw miniature layouts of the estates of the governor — in particular, Yu Garden ( 豫園 or Yu Yuan) as a miniature with mechanical figurines, lights, and sound. Originally an estate of the Pan family during the Ming Dynasty (late 1500s), the sprawling collection of pavilions and interstitial gardens passed hands over the centuries to caretakers of varying levels of conscientiousness and neglectfulness. At present, it has transformed into a grandiose network of shops, restaurants and galleries. So many of China’s former esteemed and exclusive estates and neighborhoods find resurrection from dereliction through new incarnations as outdoor malls. Considering the amount of artisanal and material support necessary to fund the maintenance and access to these historical treasures, the funding must come from somewhere if not public coffers. The money comes from consumerism and capitalist stewardship.
As the pre-eminent Chinese cosmopolitan, Shanghai embraces a magnitude of dynamism and drama of which this large museum only captures a small fragment. And its attempt is remarkable. The third floor features an all-consuming hand-made model of the city, updated every year to account for its constant change. It is just incredible.
The Transportation Floor
My personal favorite floor is the fourth, dedicated to the Shanghai transportation. Systematically, it accounts for all modes of movement, from pedestrian to bike to bus & rail to taxi to private vehicles to ferries to ships to airplanes. The lighting takes the form of its subway line map. Its position in “the sky” is homage to its value in society, “illuminating” all that people can see and do in the city. The graphics are colorful and the facts practical and delivered in a friendly manner, conveying with clarity a system that is meant to reach quantifiable benchmarks of service. The visual language of the transit system is borrowed, to guide the viewer through the exhibition.
Everyone’s a Seasoned Transit Rider
The Shanghai mass transit system not only is the backbone of getting around town for everyone, it also helps people map the city in their minds, even in this phone-addicted era. The average Shanghainese’s awareness of the mass transport system is enough to give rescue to a lost tourist. In fact, while at Yu Yuan, we asked a man how to get to the neighborhood of our hotel by bus, and the location of its nearest stop. He told us without hesitation: the 93 or the 209 buses up the street through three intersections and hang a right. Another notable commentary is the average Chinese person’s idea of “walkable distance.” Often, they’ve described a destination as a “short jaunt away” which, in real terms, was 1 to 1.5 miles away. Your average Angeleno would freak out at this interpretation.
Transportation as Part & Parcel of the Larger Urban Design
The exhibitions demonstrated that the boundaries between transportation, commerce, private vs. public space, natural resources, and population are porous, illustrating a compelling complexity of the inter-dependencies. In fact, the information seemed to settle on the fact that population is the main driver of infrastructure development in Shanghai. According to the exhibition, the population of official residents will be capped at 2,500,000 which should be reached by 2035. The birthplace of the One-Child policy, China would naturally carry out such a population containment mandate in its biggest cities. Nonetheless, it aims to ensure a certain quality of life for both individual and city.
I can appreciate that the urban planners and government of Shanghai invested in exhibition design and curation to declare these bold goals and plans, and make the effort to endow the public with this knowledge. Again, back to that fateful night in San Francisco, I think it is important to make visible the invisible workings of the city so that people know what it takes, can appreciate the quiet and constant effort, and ultimately, pitch in when their participation is needed.
Fosun Foundation (复星中心）
Fosun is an international corporation based in Hong Kong. Like so many lucrative, large companies, they set up foundations for public benefit. Here in Shanghai, the Fosun Foundation is a museum featuring rotating art and culture exhibitions, such as the Tiffany’s show which we caught.
I’m not even a fan of jewels and diamonds. At first, I was disappointed to find out this subject of the show but my dad is ticket trigger-happy so before I could protest, he had already purchased admission. I’m glad he did! My disappointment quickly dissipated when I saw the stellar quality of the exhibition design. It was sublime and received international rave reviews. Every room is uniquely designed with attention detail, right down to the tiny, pin-prick lights that preside over each piece of jewelry in their cases.
The star of the show was the yellow diamond. A giant thumb-sized rock enchained with more diamonds.
I will forever remember this show for its craft, thought, and beauty — all exuding with generosity. The exhibition captures what I believe design is at its best: a multi-sensorial aesthetic experience in which communication, education, and pleasure emulsify into one cohesive delivery.