In Between Two Shanghai Cities

Last year, when I decided to study abroad in Shanghai for a semester of my junior year, I was excited to discover the modern and vibrant city depicted in the media. The program that I joined described Shanghai as “a bustling international metropolis and global financial center” on its website, and the cosmopolitan characteristics of Shanghai  ensured opportunities to meet people from all over the world, speaking both English and Chinese, and to adapt to the culture smoothly. The city appeared to be inclusive of diverse cultures and people. I was thrilled to live in a metropolis where I would learn about Chinese culture while  also remaining connected to more familiar western values. However, the Shanghai that I experienced was a city in flux, still new to foreigners, limited in its inclusion of other cultures, and perhaps not as modern as presented in the media.

The Bund and Lujiazui are the landmarks that I first visualize when thinking of Shanghai. Multiple glass skyscrapers and iconic buildings, such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and Shanghai World Financial Center in Lujiazui, and the vintage Western-style buildings in the Bund, across from the skyscrapers, both attract tourists. The alluring contrast between two sides of the Huangpu River is highlighted at night. When the city turns on lights in Lujiazui, the glass buildings become colorful screens that illuminate the area. On the other side of the river in the Bund, dim yellow street lights brighten the old architecture, giving people the impression that they might be in Europe.

The Bund and Lujiazui are symbolic spaces representing the past and the future of Shanghai. The Bund, one side of the Huangpu River, is characterized by Western-style architecture, shows the historical roots of Shanghai as a colonial trading city that opened after the First Opium War in 1839. The Treaty of Nanking, signed after the defeat of China in the First Opium War, allowed foreigners from Britain, America, and other European countries to occupy Shanghai. It is a part of the century of humiliation– an era when China  lost face and sovereignty, defeated by Western countries and Japan from 1839 to 1949, yet it indicates the beginning of international Shanghai. On the other side of the past, in Lujiazui, the skyscrapers reflect the new Shanghai that has become a global economic, trading, and financial center, the ‘modern’ future that the city plans to pursue.

However, Shanghai as an international metropolis seemed to be an illusion rather than a reality in the area in which I lived. I stayed in Yangpu District, a northeastern part of Shanghai city, which was neither international nor modern. In Yangpu District, the sidewalks were uneven and narrow, full of puddles of filthy water from restaurants, as a strong unpleasant odor emanated from overflowing garbage bins, and the honking of cars and motorcycles filled the air. Gray cemented buildings in the area – five floors high or lower with signs of Chinese characters – were often closed or empty. Old, odorous, dirty and bereft of attraction, Yangpu District was far from the glamorous depiction of Shanghai as international metropolis.

There were few foreigners or people of diverse ethnicities in this area. I was in a program with other American students, most of whom were white. When my friends walked in the neighborhood speaking Chinese, local people looked curious and confused. Yet they were displeased when I could not speak Chinese well, because they assumed me to be Chinese. When the local people figured out that I was Korean, they either emphasized the possible similarities between Chinese and Koreans or compared me to other Korean women that they saw in the Chinese media, which idealizes Korean beauty and cherishes the beauty of Korean actresses and singers. For them, I was not as much of a foreigner as my white friends, and I had to fit into the stereotypical image of Korean women projected in the media. As I began to realize that my everyday life attracted people’s attention and disturbed their common sense and beliefs, I started to wonder about the unrepresented part of Shanghai and to question the emphasis on modernization and the successful development of China in Shanghai.

The center of Shanghai was definitely modern and fit the depiction as an international metropolis, yet it was still not international in terms of inclusion and diversity. My white friends were treated differently from the Chinese and other people of color. On many occasions, white foreigners were treated as marketing assets in business. Club promoters would encourage my friends to come to clubs and bars and tended to pay for all expenses if necessary, while I had to pay for my cover. As I witnessed the different treatments that my friends received and the easy access open to them, the idealization of white foreigners became clear. One time, one of the promoters told me that once when he had set a table for a group of foreigners, the manager had asked about the race of the individuals in the group and showed his strong preference for white foreigners over black foreigners. This story demonstrated; the ethnic hierarchy or racism in this otherwise international city. The favoring of white people seemed to create the distinction between Chinese and foreigners and discourage diversity in Shanghai. In Yongkanglu, the well-known bar street for expats, expats have also created their own space in Shanghai, further exacerbating segregation in the city. The clear division between the local people and expats, the ethnic hierarchy, and the idealization of white foreigners that I observed in the center of Shanghai did not correspond with the sophisticated image of a cosmopolitan hub that the city claims to be.

Although I was always taken as Chinese because of my appearance, I was more exposed to the spaces where foreigners would go; my position as a foreigner was more accepted in spaces where other foreigners were present. Yet I was overwhelmed by my disadvantaged position and the unfair treatment that I received and thus unable to stand the seemingly China-centric perception and exoticization of white foreigners.

I did, however, have advantages as a student studying abroad. I explored both the center of Shanghai and other districts. Through my constant movements between the center of the city to Yangpu District, I was able to see the interactions between the Shanghainese and my white friends in different social settings. Especially in the spaces of nightlife entertainment, where white foreigners were the most familiar, I was able to see the different social dynamics based on the race and the status of foreigner and the limitations of Shanghai as a cosmopolitan city.

The disconnect between the depiction of Shanghai as modern and international and the actuality of Shanghai in Yangpu District can be explained by the effort of the government to present itself and the city as part of the global trend of modernization or even westernization. Yet this effort has resulted in a gap between the reality and the image. This illusory image of Shanghai then influences the Shanghainese to maintain their reputation of ultimate modernization by idealizing and exoticizing white foreigners, diminishing the value of diversity, and creating otherness.

In my ignorance of Shanghai and with my American values contributing to my outsider’s perspective, I readily believed the government’s depiction of the city as one that merged western and Chinese cultures. My experience, however, in both the center and periphery of Shanghai did not correspond to this idealized depiction. With my new understanding that there are “two Shanghais,” I can acknowledge the discomfort, curiosity, unfamiliarity, and possible ethnic hierarchy or racism that I dealt with. My lived experience of Shanghai may be discomforting in its confrontations with issues of race, modernization, diversity, and representation, yet I hope it is also equally revealing of the limits imposed by my own ethno-centric and American perspective.


Yoon  Roh ’17 is a senior majoring in Anthropology and Government.  She was born and raised in South Korea before she attended Miss Hall’s, a boarding school in Pittsfield, MA. She has love for elephants and hopes to one day volunteer at an elephant refuge camp in Kenya.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather