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Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Shanghai Illuminations: 1890-2010

2010. 1 May

by The China Beat (Blog)
( [Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.”]

As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately giving talks about my new book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. And as followers of my blog posts also know, the 2010 Expo is one of the many topics addressed in that book, where I treat it largely, as an excerpt that went online a week ago illustrates, in terms of its connections to the 2008 Beijing Games. Right now, though, I’m at Yale for a conference and preparing to give a joint presentation with Rebecca Nedostup that focuses on the Dianshizhai illustrated magazine and as a result has a closer tie to my last book, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010, than to my new one. No doubt in part because of that, when I went online just now to look at images of the Expo’s Opening Ceremonies, which took place yesterday (when it was still April 30 in the U.S. but already May Day in China), I was struck by the value of placing the fireworks and fanfare of 5/1/10 into a more local and longer term perspective.

It is worth noting, after all, that this is not the first time by any means that large crowds (though never this large) and one or more international celebrities have seen a Shanghai spectacle that involved state-of-the-art pyrotechnics. In the fall of 2001, for example, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, who would later come back to China to witness the 08/08/08 Bird’s Nest gala, were in Pudong for the APEC Summit. And that 2001 event, which was staged as Shanghai was bidding to get the rights to hold the 2010 Expo and hence striving to wow the media covering the gathering, included a firework display that was visually very striking (as the Associated Press photograph reprinted here shows) and described at the time as the largest one ever put on in China.

We can, though, go back much further in our search for precursors to the Expo’s Opening Ceremony–all the way, in fact, to the treaty-port century (1843-1943), during which Shanghai was divided into foreign-run and Chinese-run districts. We can go back to 1879, for example, when General Grant stopped in Shanghai on his world tour and witnessed “illuminations” that were touted as the most impressive that the city had ever seen.

Or better still, given the attention just paid to the famous European couple (a French one) that witnessed the 2010 show, we can go back to 1890, when a famous British couple (the Duke and Duchess of Connaught) were in town. Here are excerpts from the third chapter of Global Shanghai that deal with that visit and make, I hope, for particularly interesting reading at the current moment in time, even if the difference in the political contexts of 1890 and 2010 are profound, and even if, alas, I have no color images to include that would give a sense of the displays of that long ago year:

For a city with strong ties to Britain, that was eager to establish itself as a world center, the arrival of a son of Queen Victoria and his wife was seen as highly significant. (It was viewed as even more important than the arrival in 1879 of General Ulysses S. Grant, during that former U.S. President’s tour around the world.) It provided an opportunity for not just local Britons (though they played the leading role) but also other foreigners in Shanghai to make a positive impression on a pair of visiting dignitaries, who might, with luck, speak well of the city when they returned to Europe.

According to a commemorative album published by the Shanghai Mercury, many things were done to encourage the Duke and Duchess to view Shanghai in a positive light. Local leaders gave speeches that typically focussed on what had been accomplished in less that fifty years in the Settlement, and a new statue to a British hero, Sir Harry Parkes, was unveiled in the Public Garden. Different groups presented gifts to the visitors (for example, the local German community presented them with a “huge pagoda of flowers”), and sightseeing tours were arranged…

Judging from the admittedly unreliable source at hand (commemorative volumes are not known for their impartiality) all of these things [there was also a banquet and a theatrical performance in their honor] made a positive impression on the Duke and Duchess. But the highlight for all came after the Chinese banquet was over when the royal couple was taken to “Messrs. Jardine, Matheson & Co.’s hong [trading company] to see the Fire Parade, Illuminations and Fireworks.” The decorations and displays are described in great detail in the commemorative album. The Duke and Duchess were driven through a “tree-lined avenue” covered with “myriads of lanterns and lit up with coloured fires.” The Public Garden, “at all times beautiful” was “rendered an enchanting blaze of bright colours,” some from flowers but others from artifice, “as if nature and art were entering a friendly competition to outshine each other”…And a lively parade was staged by an international array of Fire Brigades, who marched along with the flags of different countries and roman candles and other fireworks going off in their midst. The writers of the volume insisted not just that this was the best display “ever seen in Shanghai” but also—and this reveals the ongoing concern with asserting their community’s status as a world-class metropolis—a “spectacle worthy of any city, no matter how large, populous and wealthy.”