In Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, Stella Dong summarises the views of many commentators who have grappled with the special character of the place and its inhabitants. She writes: “Part arrogance and part vanity, their attitude revealed, above all, an unassailable confi dence.” The Shanghainese are credited with capability and adaptability. They are not afraid of hard work. They are also identifi ed as opportunistic, “shrewd, cunning and instinctively manipulative,” with “an inbuilt flair for the theatrical.”

One may search for signs of these traits in Danny Huynh’s A Sense of Place. In a highly original manner this suite combines documentary photography with staged scenarios reminiscent of fashion shoots or Vanity Fair style portraiture. This combination of the street and the studio refl ects Huynh’s own ambivalent attitudes toward his medium. On one hand he is happy to snap family photos just like any commercial photographer. On the other, he undertakes ambitious projects that document the dreams and aspirations of his community – showing people in their domestic environments and their places of worship. Then there are projects like A Sense of Place, which might even be called postmodernist. This willingness to move freely between genres is one of the most appealing aspects of Huynh’s work. He devoid of that stereotypical photographer’s vice: preciousness; and imbued with that most essential of all photographic qualities: curiosity.

Huynh fi rst visited Shanghai in 2000 as part of a three-month residency. Like every other visitor he was amazed at the spectacle of a vast metropolis in the throes of continual, frenetic reinvention. If one stands at the entrance to the Bund, looking over the Huangpu River, one can virtually see the skyscrapers edging upward, metre by metre, day after day. Little more than a generation ago the Pudong fi nancial district was a low-level slum, now resembles a set from a science fi ction movie. It is dominated by the Oriental Pearl Tower, which tourists ascend to get a panoramic view of the city. At the base of the tower is a cavernous, circular chamber lined with massive colour photographs of the wonders of the world: from the Pyramids to the Eiffel Tower, to the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Without leaving Shanghai visitors may have themselves photographed, standing in front of the world’s most impressive monuments.

Jean Baudrillard once argued facetiously that the role of Disneyland was to make Americans believe that the rest of their country was notDisneyland. One might say the same about the Oriental Pearl Tower, whose conspicuous artifi ce seems designed to distract attention from the theatricality of the entire city. The Shanghainese have always understood the value of appearances – never more so than in the 1920s and ‘30s, when their hometown was a business centre and playground for the great foreign powers. Shanghai was famous for its nightclub culture; for its gangsters and political cliques; for entertainment centres such The Great World, and solidEuropean institutions such as the Race Club – now transformed into the Shanghai Art Museum.

Shanghai was always the most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities, and has reclaimed this reputation in the era of economic reforms. There is no place in China where east and west mingle so freely, or where westerners feel so much at ease.

In travelling to China prior to the 1990s, the visitor was immediately struck by the absence of advertising. This was to change rapidly as the country became part of the international marketplace. Huge billboards began appearing in the major cities, taking the place of the propaganda pictures of the Mao era. These billboards made an impression on Huynh in 2000, and he incorporated them into his street photographs. Some, such as an advertisement for Budweiser beer, which features ants carrying gigantic bottles, seemed to comment ironically on the ant-like activity of Shanghai’s construction boom.

Huynh noted at the time: “The people, however, remain relatively unchanged, and are mainly industrial workers wearing casual work clothes.” He observed that: “the citizens of Shanghai prefer to dress casually. This is because they’re modest and economically wise about the costs of producing such brand names.”

Does this remain true today? When I was in Shanghai a couple of years ago, I had the opposite feeling. In the central part of the city the streets were fi lled with people wearing designer clothes, even if they were only the knock-off versions sold at Xiang Yang Market. The modesty and frugality that Huynh discerned seemed to have waned as the economy soared. To get ahead in the new China it is important to look sharp, to wear the right labels and to carry the right accessories.

This does not alter the fact that Shanghai has millions of poor workers who do not have the option of wearing designer clothes. This gap between rich and poor is perhaps more typical of Shanghai than the rudimentary equality of the Maoist years. The huge fortunes and lavish lifestyles of the 20s and 30s were based on the labour of poorly paid workers. It was not uncommon
for women and children to toil in silk-weaving mills or in match factories for twelve-hours a day, seven days a week.

Under the new market economy some of these bad labour practices have returned, although probably not in such extreme forms. All of this acts as a backdrop to Huynh’s photographs, which juxtapose shots of ordinary working people in Shanghai with staged portraits of caucasian models wearing similar clothes and striking similar attitudes.

At first this comes across as a parody of the way modern China has looked to the west for its fashion tips. In the early years of economic reform the covers of Chinese magazines invariably carried photographs of western models and movie stars. In Huynh’s pictures a group of young westerners seem to have based their idea of cool on the poor workers of Shanghai.

This may not seem so far-fetched when we consider the way the Mao jacket was adopted in the west as a form of ‘proletarian chic’ during the Cultural Revolution. Huynh’s point, however, most probably lies in the jarring sensation of seeing youthful caucasians acting out the roles of Chinese labourers and street venders. Could this be a vision of the future, as China goes up the economic ladder and Australia goes down? On the contrary, it suggests how completely alienated we have become from the kind of work that is a fact of everyday life in China. Huynh is hinting that westerners tend to see everything through the lens of fashion or the idealised images of advertising. The black-and-white pictures snapped in the streets of Shanghaihave a directness and honesty that fi nds progressively less traction in the western media, which oscillates between the extremes of glamour or scandal, triumph or tragedy. Yet this larger than-life focus is only a small part of the whole. In these photographs Huynh pays homage to the greater part, in a celebration of the people who keep one of the world’s busiest, fastest-growing cities on the move.

John McDonald
Art Critic,
The Sydney Morning Herald