Business is booming in Shanghai’s glass towers, but is there still room for alternative living in this megalopolis? Yes – in the basements and on the rooftops.
Jennifer Bin, 26, walks through the brightly illuminated, skyscraper-lined streets of Pudong. Suddenly, she disappears into a side street. The shadows are sharply defined in this city’s neon glare. It’s into these shadows that Bin wants to slip, behind the buildings of this still-young Shanghai district. She wants to leave behind the glass facades and store windows displaying expensive bags and shoes that cost the equivalent of an average monthly wage in China. In the narrow back alleys, the puddles are black and the smell of wok grease hangs in the air.
Bin pushes past steel doors into an unlocked apartment building and heads for the roof. Her penchant for high places made her famous, on the internet at first: 122 000 people follow her on Instagram; collectors pay good money for her photos. Born to Chinese parents and raised in Toronto, Canada, Bin moved to Shanghai to get away from home and experience something new. This is where she developed her photographic style. The images she shoots from on high are geometric – life in a static world, where architecture becomes a symbol of feeling lost within our overly structured lives. Most people look upward from below, crane their necks to see the sky. Bin points her camera downward. “We have to go up to the 21st floor.”
The city has emerged countless times from the ruins by wrecking balls
Shanghai is a very strange place, not only from above. Driven by the port that has brought money and raw materials into the country for about 400 years, the city has emerged countless times from the ruins created by a succession of wrecking balls. In the 1920s, it was the haunt of intellectuals. Some found oblivion from the ubiquitous filth in opium, but life in Shanghai was as wild and colorful as Paris back then.
Communist China had little time for this lifestyle and by the 1980s, Shanghai was nearly forgotten. Then the Communist Party chose the megalopolis as the site of a modernist experiment and Pudong district became a special economic zone, a showpiece. Today, some 30 years later, it appears to have outdone itself to become a city where the future has always already arrived. A city that never sleeps, it has no center and little visible history, it has impressive architecture and is a consumer paradise. Inaccessible to many, it is still a city of the masses.
A parallel world has taken shape above and below the streamlined daily confusion. The (nonconformist) young generation is timidly in evidence, not in clubs and galleries, as it is in New York, London or Berlin, but on roofs and in basements. It’s this caution that makes it difficult for visitors to discover. The nameplates are written in Chinese, and for directions, you have to search the internet and wade through complicated descriptions. To find the Shanghai beyond the illuminated facades takes courage, especially when faced with angry men – as Bin is right now. Blocking our way up to the 21st floor is a man of around 50 in a white undershirt, his gold chain twinkling in the half-light of the energy-saving lamps. But then he recognizes the famous photographer. She nods to him, he nods politely back and vanishes backwards into his apartment. He knows she isn’t planning to make any noise, she just wants pictures. And she’s no longer the only one. “It’s a trend,” explains Bin, whose day job is graphic designer, “it all started in Russia, where they’re called “roofers.”
In Russia, roofing was a youth movement. Youngsters climbed onto state-owned buildings to say “this space belongs to us.” In Shanghai, it’s more an escapist pastime. “Many people just want to escape their daily routine and see a world that’s hidden to them,” says Bin. She is very much a representative of her generation, with her hair dyed pink and wearing expensive, trendy gear. It’s hard to stand out in Shanghai, so she takes photos – and does it better than others, from unusual angles. With her drone perspective, she also creates a portrait of the metropolitan dweller as such.
There are lots of hideaways in Shanghai, where houses have basement vaults, a system of passageways housing clubs, cafés and galleries. This is where you live your life if your pockets aren’t deep enough for the glitzy world above. Pirate DVDs and fake Chanel bags are sold here for 10 euros; rents are still affordable where no daylight pierces the skyscrapers’ shadows. The art world flourishes here, too. Basement 6 in Changning district is one of the better-known spaces. A narrow staircase leading downward evokes the smell of childhood, of secret expeditions to your neighbor’s cellar. Alcoves, poster walls screaming Chinese propaganda slogans, individuals sticking close to the wall, cold LED light. DJs regularly meet down here, shy Chinese and effusive Westerners. At the end of the long passage, we come to three small red rooms with boxes of records on the wall, DJ Sacco’s Uptown Records, where Shanghai’s DJs buy their vinyl.
DJ Sacco, 38, hails from the U.S. and was a radio DJ in San Francisco. He seems unsure of himself when he isn’t talking about music. “The Chinese aren’t really up to speed on vinyl,” he says, “they have a different musical socialization. You can get cheesy Chinese hits on vinyl, but no pop or punk. I want to bring them closer to this medium.” His wife, Sophia Wang, 33, is sorting records for his gig. “You won’t get rich with a record store in Shanghai,” she says. That’s why the couple opened the Uptown Records ’n’ Beer bar as an additional source of income.
Bin pushes open the last door, the one to the roof. “They always used to be unlocked but not so much anymore. Many people take foolish risks just to get a perfect photo. They are one of the reasons the roofs are being locked.” Her face betrays her opinion of such recklessness. She walks over to the ledge, points her camera. Sounds up here are muffled: Washing lines flap in the wind, commercials are just audible on a television somewhere, and between them her shutter clicks. The face of Shanghai, usually so hard to make out, suddenly comes into sharp focus. In the foreground, the Oriental Pearl Tower; behind it, the imposing skyline. The city opens up for a brief moment. “It’s easy to feel lost here. I try to show that with my photos,” says Bin.
People as individuals – that’s not a notion rooted in the history of China. To better understand China’s past, it’s worth paying a visit to the basement of house number 868 on Huashan street. This unremarkable building contains the Propaganda Poster Art Center, a huge historical treasure trove. “If there’s one thing the functionaries of the Cultural Revolution were really good at, it was printing great posters,” says Yang Pei Ming, a stocky figure in practical attire with a friendly face. For him, collecting Mao-era posters was a hobby until he had so many he started using the basement as a store. Today, it’s a museum, where it quickly becomes clear that past slogans still very much shape China today. “Ever forward” is emblazoned on many posters – and the Middle Kingdom is moving steadily in that direction. “It doesn’t matter whether we are communists or capitalists,” says Ming, pointing to posters of people in front of space rockets, express trains and factories. “China only knows the way forward.” The posters reveal technological progress to be the priority. But the museum’s true exhibit is the man in charge, a 70-year-old retiree who unashamedly criticizes communism, capitalism, and the whole world.
Bin has turned off her camera. Her photos, which can be seen on jenniferbin.com, have changed in recent years. Ming’s basement, Uptown Records, the roofs – everything is becoming a playground for the masses. She documents the change.
A few streets further, a polished hipster dream. Daylight pours through skylights into an underground room where smartly and expensively dressed young Chinese – like Bin – are engrossed in their laptops, drinking expensive coffee and exhibiting taste. She, too, can afford the equivalent of six euros for a cappuccino. She pays via app, using the free WiFi. As she sifts through her photos, two girls come over, asking to take a selfie. “Where did you get your shoes?” one asks. Bin has to go; she wants to work on the photos from the roof. Later, she will upload an image: a brightly lit tower block with impoverished houses in the foreground. A perfect metaphor: The tower signifies power and the city’s efforts to move forward. This is 21st century China, built upon the people who live down below.
Far removed from the skyscrapers: a day in Shanghai
Spend the night at a fairy-tale castle that opened in 1936.
42 000 square meters of modern art in a former power plant.
A minimalist restaurant serving international food.
Dedicated drinks for different times: twilight, night and dawn.
Getting there from Germany
In September, Lufthansa serves Shanghai (PVG) twice daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and daily from Munich (MUC). Use the app to calculate your miles. Download here: miles-and-more.com