In The Art of Travel Spring 2018, Shanghai, 11. Second book by William Denning2 Comments

Coming from Atlanta, I am no stranger to a city and it’s history with war. Roaming the streets of the city, you see historical artifacts everywhere, primarily from the civil war. The war devastated Atlanta, and thus, in it’s rebuilding, has lead to a lot of what makes Atlanta, Atlanta. The weird zoning, the highway structures, even the way the city blocks were reconstructed are artifacts from our past.

This, in particular, is what made Shanghai by Harriet Sergeant such an interesting read. Her portrait of Shanghai in the 20’s and 30’s is both imaginative and shockingly vivid. Understanding Shanghai in such international terms, Sergeant builds a Shanghai that is both within grasp and foreign.

Shanghai, back then, was known as the ‘Whore of the Orient’—it was filed with crime, gangs and was also the site of a new form of Western influence. Easy manipulation of Chinese workers brought businessmen from around the world, who were able to stake claims in the city. Beyond that, her descriptions of Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese war are almost hard to really understand when walking down the peaceful streets of the French Concession.

Shanghai, in terms of technology, is a very new city. It’s shiny, high tech. That’s why it’s so interesting to read such a vivid history. The Shanghai then is by no means the Shanghai now. Just the building up of Pudong is a major difference, and that area basically encircles most of my life here in China. That said, the artifacts are there. With a little listening, a careful eye and an ear for detail, the history can shine through.

So close to East Nanjing, as I discovered one day as I was out photographing the streets of Puxi, I walked across the Sihang Warehouse. I could read it, there was a giant plaque displaying the history of the location, but when I walked by, I knew it from the book.

It’s moments like this that make me realize why I like to study history. Walking and seeing the warehouse, which had housed Chinese soldiers in Shanghai as they held out in the first part of the Sino-Japanese war, made me feel as if I was walking, like in America, into a familiar place. History, in this case, provides a home, an understanding. It’s movements are not just historical but imaginary, ghostlike, domestic. I could imagine it’s history—the shouting, the fear.

Finding a home in a place isn’t about locating coffee shops or navigating the subway system. It’s not about speaking the language or seeing all of the most famous areas. Home is, as I’ve found reading this book, is understanding a place beyond you’re presence there. Understanding it as an established home, an established site. Just like growing up in a house that your parents have spent years building and developing, understanding the history and the trajectory of you’re home in this current moment is where you feel most connected.

That’s why, though reading this book, I’m not only confident in my ability to call a place like Shanghai home, but in my ability to call anywhere home. A bit of history and an understanding of the essence of a place are one in the same. It’s comforting.

And at the Sihang warehouse, and the museum that I attended shortly afterward, I felt as if I was walking over the battleground of a city that was just as much mine as it was everyone else’s. I’m not Chinese, not even close. But identity is more complex than that. Ideas of a city are varied, and if living in a place makes you a resident, it ties you to an infinite history of place, one that can wrap around you and make you feel home.

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(Image: The Sihang Warehouse; Source: Bespoke Travel Company)


  1. This was so interesting to read, as I had no idea the history of Shanghai. It’s crazy to think about the transformation that turned the “Whore of the Orient” into one of the most metropolitan, cutting edge cities in the world today. I also completely agree with the idea that understanding a place relies on knowing its history. A lot of adults in my life told me to read certain books or watch films about Australia before coming to Sydney, but I stupidly ignored their advice. Now I realize just how much the history of a place affects its current society.

  2. William,

    What a great post – it’s the first I’ve heard about the experience at NYU Shanghai. It is interesting to think about the history of such a technologically savvy city. A city of war isn’t typically the first thing I’d think of when referencing Shanghai. I studied Chinese all throughout middle and high school, but the wars there weren’t typically covered in detail. It must be interesting to learn the history there that most people don’t know about. I’ve had the opportunity of visiting Beijing and some other parts of China but never Shanghai. It sounds like a great place and I hope I get the chance to see it one day.

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