A hybrid port city on the coast of China: Shanghai, good and bad

Rev. Young John Allen, the man I spent last semester studying, was a foreigner living in Shanghai in the second half of the nineteenth century. In his day, the city was the only port open to the outside, although more would open as time went on. It was through Shanghai, then, that the world's collection of people came to see and trade with China, creating the "hybrid that confounds the very idea of East and West," as Brook Larmer writes in "Shanghai Dreams," in this month's National Geographic.

I felt that hybridity when I stayed there. I had been in other far more Chinese cities for nearly two months, and by the time I arrived in Shanghai at the end of my journey, it almost felt like I had already landed back in the West: Raisin Bran was for sale in the grocer's, stores accepted credit cards, and there was an H&M. My hotel charged inordinate daily prices on wifi, which I found insulting given the amount I had been paying in other dormitories and hotels across the country.

As the meeting place between East and West though, Shanghai is not the sell-out I considered it when I arrived three years ago coming off a wave of what I then saw as "real China"--the interior cities and Beijing. For the other places were certainly modern, and had their western influences, and contained millions of people, years of history, and Chinese culture in each of them. But they seemed to me to contain something less obstructed by the outside than Shanghai. But that is not the right way to approach it.

In this city, when immigrants were coming, like Young J. Allen, from abroad, they were bringing to the city their own background, creating something altogether unlike the rest of China, and which would forever alter its make-up. It is an oft-seen geographical trend, a city growing into something quite unlike its surroundings, as New York City is entirely separate in culture from its New York state, and is a place quite its own compared to the United States. The "exotic stew of British bankers and Russian dancing girls, American missionaries and French socialites, Jewish refugees and turbaned Sikh security guards" that Larmer describes all contributed quite disparate pieces of a larger patchwork that would become its own Babylon. But atop these imports was the huge amount of Chinese migrants joining the mixture in the city; everyone contributed to what has since been dubbed haipai (Shanghai style).

Initially I dismissed Shanghai for some of those very reasons, that intermingling of a century of foreign visitors with Shanghai natives and migrant workers, combined with the struggle the city faced during the crack-down on culture and foreign influences during the communist era-- I found it translated into pseudo-Chinese buildings that had obviously been constructed within the last ten years and street markets that catered almost entirely to tourists and visitors seeking Chinese intrigue. But looking at this in a positive light, the city really does stand alone against the country in which it lies, even given its tourist facade and foreign cereals.

Young J. Allen spent his entire adult life working towards educating Chinese citizens in and around Shanghai about western ideas and religion. He used the schools he built, the sermons he preached, and the journals he published as outlets for this goal, and earned respect and criticisms throughout his life for these methods. He was a missionary, after all, and most Chinese were not receptive to his Christian message at the time. Today, however, Jinlin Church in Shanghai stands in his honor. When rethinking the city, Allen's mission contributed to the Shanghai of today. There is valuable culture in each layer that has been added to the port city's personality.

Shanghai resident Shen Hongfei, interviewed in Larmer's story, may have hit the nail on the head: "We're always accused of worshiping foreigners. But taking foreign ideas and making them our own has made us the most advanced place in China." Allen may have felt frustrated trying to spread his message in his Shanghai, but the citizens living there were equally frustrated by the pushy foreigners. And coming from that exchange is a city culture all its own, blending some of those imported ideas with Confucian ones, every side compromising a little to create the place we know today.