the roots of style
" I like looking at what makes Shanghai different. It is something I
have been thinking about for decades," says writer and historian Lynn
Pan 潘翎. Of course, Pan's done more than just think; she's parlayed
her interest into a writing career spanning several decades and
producing many books. Pan left the city in 1955 at age ten and went
on to spend much of her childhood in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Great
Britain, working in Hong Kong as a journalist for the Far Eastern
Economic Review and in Singapore establishing a research center on
the Chinese Diaspora.
But like many Chinese émigrés, Pan couldn't resist the pull of the
homeland and returned to explore the city of her birth. Her
grandfather was the Shanghainese developer behind many historic
Shanghai landmarks such as the Hengshan Hotel and the Canidrome, and
his legacy forms the narrative of Tracing It Home: A Chinese Journey
(1992). A resident since 1998, she first returned to Shanghai in 1981
and wrote Searching for Old Shanghai, and though stories were
plentiful, she had a hard time finding a willing publisher. "Back in
1981, no one had even heard of Shanghai," she recalls. She found one
in Sanlian Shudian 三联书店 (Joint Publishing Company), which has
seen the book through more than 15 printings.
Pan's oeuvre expanded in 1984, when she penned Old Shanghai:
Gangsters in Paradise after meeting the son of famed gangster Du
Yuesheng 杜月笙during her 1981 trip to Shanghai.
"His wife wore nail polish, and she served cucumber sandwiches with
sweet butter at tea – in 1981!" she recalls.
Not long thereafter, Pan wrote China's Sorrow, concerning the Yellow
River, and The New Chinese Revolution, about Deng Xiaoping's 邓小平
reforms, and in 1990 she released Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A
History of the Chinese Diaspora. She has also edited The Encyclopedia
of the Chinese Overseas and co-written books on Chinese craft art and
on Hong Kong in the 1960s.
Her latest book, Shanghai Style: Design Between the Wars, is the most
extensive and authoritative English-language history of the emergence
of haipai, Shanghai's unique fusion aesthetic, to date. Chinese-
language scholarship on haipai literature, art, design, theater, film
and music is extensive, though for the most part, English-language
pickings are limited to salacious tales of gangsters, bankers, whores
and foreigners, a situation that is perhaps attributable to the
belief that contemporary Western readers are uninterested in Chinese
"Foreigners have always underestimated Shanghainese culture," Pan
says, chuckling at British Shanghailander architect George Leopold
Wilson's declaration in 1930 that "Modernism will never go down well
in Shanghai." In fact, it was already popular with Shanghainese
artists, designers and architects at the time, and in 1921, the
city's leading paper, Shenbao 申报, ran an enthusiatic full page
article about Le Corbusier "when he was still considered quite
Shanghai Style is an engaging, enjoyable and rigorous academic read,
crammed with illustrations from paintings, books, magazines, comics,
advertising, architecture and interior design.
In the book, Pan differentiates haipai 海派 from what she calls
"Shanghai style" 上海式. Emerging between the wars, the latter,
explains Pan, is Chinese mixed with Western influences, to produce a
period style which was Modernist and commercialized. In the sense of
being bastardized and commercial, haipai shares these
characteristics, though it also encompasses elements of culture and
behavior. What's more, haipai is not period specific; it is
constantly evolving, even today.
One of Shanghai style's best representatives is the accomplished
graphic designer, musician, composer, publisher and entrepreneur Qian
Juntao 钱君??(1906-1998), whose biography launched Pan's
investigation into its origins.
Pan says that "Qian described his style as futurism, or weilai pai
未来派," a unique blend of obscure Russian cubist futurism and
Berlin dadaism. It is likely that Qian studied these two movements in
imported magazines, including Vanity Fair, which in the 1930s was
designed by Russian Mehemed Fehmy Agha and Italian Futurist Fortunato
Depero. Qian absorbed other influences from the set design and
cinematic styles of such films as Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Referring to the influences on artists such as himself and Qian,
cartoonist Ding Cong 丁聪 says they took a bit from here and a bit
from there, digesting and assimilating and translating it so
thoroughly that they completely obscured its origins.
In doing so, they created something entirely new, something uniquely