Book Reviews

The following review was first published by the George Mason University History News Network, December 12, 2008.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010, Routledge, New York, 2008.

Reviewed by Mark Anthony Jones

Historians have long been interested in the impact of Europeans on Asia, though the focus has begun to shift in recent years, with some now emphasising the dominant role of the intra-Asian marketplace on the growth of world trade, especially from the Ming period onwards. Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom is one such revisionist, whose empirically based study of Shanghai’s emergence as a global city challenges the predominant Eurocentric view that pushes a discourse of an East-meets-West metropolis. Even during the treaty-port era, when Shanghai was so often described as the ‘Paris of the Orient’, it was, argues Wasserstrom, the result of more than ‘simply an East-meets-West’ dynamic, for there ‘were always non-Western and non-Chinese actors playing key roles in the story of Shanghai’s globalisation.’ When the Public Garden was off-limits to Chinese other than servants, for example,

it might be visited by a businessman from Korea and a family of Baghdadi Jews, who had come to listen to the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, in which Filipinos were among the musicians, and when they entered to hear the band, they might have passed by a Gurkha constable at the gate. Most significantly, of course, among the non-Western and non-Chinese participants in Shanghai’s initial rise to global city status were the many Japanese who, as investors, as tourists, as literary influences, and as invaders and then conquerors, figured prominently in shaping the history of the city throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

The same holds true for Shanghai today, argues Wasserstrom, with the city’s re-globalisation again being ‘very much an East-meets-East as well as an East-meets-West story.’ Japanese companies have been heavily involved in creating many of Shanghai’s postmodern new landmarks, ‘including what is just now the tallest skyscraper on earth, the World Financial Centre,’ and Taiwanese and Hong Kong investors have ‘played a crucial part’ in the city’s resurgence. Xintiandi for example, one of the city’s leading entertainment and retail districts, was bankrolled primarily by a Hong Kong developer. Even the management team in charge of the city’s Starbucks franchise is based not in Seattle but in Taipei.

Although ‘the rapidity with which Shanghai has been changing and continues to change makes it difficult to predict what lies in store for it,’ Wasserstrom believes that Shanghai’s hosting of the World Expo in 2010 will be an important moment in the city’s history, as there is an expectation that the event will draw an estimated 70 million tourists to Shanghai, not only from the West, ‘but from other parts of the Chinese mainland, from Hong Kong, and from countries near to China, especially Japan and Korea as well as Singapore and Taiwan.’ The event then, will not only increase Shanghai’s status as a global city, but will also ‘lead to yet another face-lift for its waterfront’ in order to provide docking space for large cruise ships and to make room for national pavilions.

Another of Wasserstrom’s many interesting predictions, is that Shanghai will provide a model for other cities with global aspirations to follow:

Looking beyond Shanghai and into the future, we can expect to see the city, due to its success at using ideas about the local past to serve its present globalising goals, stand out more and more as a model for other urban centres that had golden ages as cosmopolitan hubs. This has happened already with Bombay (Mumbai), where some boosters have invoked Shanghai as having blazed a path that their city should follow. And it is easy to imagine developers in a Havana or Hanoi of 2020 trying to figure out how to create a local counterpart to Xintiandi that would simultaneously, like that site, point to a storied past and an ambitious future.

A city that is constantly re-inventing itself, post-socialist Shanghai, says Wasserstrom, is not only the city of the present, but also of the future. In a line reminiscent of Marshall Berman’s description of modernity, where we as subjects are ‘alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure’ while also being ‘frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead’, the futuristic city, writes Wasserstrom, is ‘one that regularly inspires dreams and nightmares, not just within but also well beyond its borders, and one that is thought of as rich in disturbing portents and also promise.’

Shanghai’s potent ‘mix of sensation and spectacle, exploitation and excitement’, not only attracts international capital, but also those of us who, like Wasserstrom, find magnetic the global dynamism of such cities of perpetual disintegration and renewal.

Adopting a global rather than Eurocentric perspective, Wasserstrom has produced a fascinating, well-researched and empirically grounded study that sheds much needed light on Shanghai’s emergence, and re-emergence, as a cosmopolitan city of global importance. Highly recommended.


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