Design in China manifests through the tension between modernity and tradition. It is deeply rooted in 5000 years of cultural heritage. A Cultural Revolution during the late 60’s and 70’s closed the door to the past and the connection to that heritage was broken and much of it destroyed. Over the past 3 decades that door has slowly opened, serving fractured memories to a new generation of designers and artists. There is a passion to reconnect with a wealth of heritage. Young designers are eager to share their culture through a new lens. It’s not about reliving the past, but reinterpreting it to bring authenticity to the design community.
I went to Shanghai to collect inspiration and to challenge some of my preconceptions. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d been there before but on short, meeting-filled trips with little time to explore. To be honest, I knew very little about China in general. This time I had space to immerse, get inspired and to look up with fresh eyes. There is this generalized western perspective– even within design communities, that design in China is nothing but rapidly produced generic copies. I’ve been in a lot of meetings where someone asked ‘What can we do to prevent this being ripped off in China?’ Of course this happens, but it’s a failure to see the bigger picture, and its an unsustainable mindset. We need to look past this to understand what’s really happening.
There is a real sensitivity to the external perception of ‘Made in China’ and the practice of copying design and goods. In contrast, there is a lot of pride in Chinese craftsmanship history and the beauty of craft and quality. Sometimes you need to reconnect with the past to guide your path. We’ve seen this prominently over the past 10 years here in the west, the return to craft, our obsession with authenticity and hand-crafted objects.
Technology charges forward in parallel and we are hitting a synthesis in craft and technology. Designers can push the limits of what’s possible; driven by algorithms and generative design, but our desire for authenticity is what’s guiding our progress, keeping us human. I’m not as interested in seeing another white printed resin object no matter how high the resolution or complex the model. I’d rather learn about the crude ceramic printer using music resonance to alter the form of a vase under production. We design for the tension between art & science, searching for authenticity in modernity. China is experiencing this same trend, but on steroids. Their past is trickier to navigate, but also rich with process and history. There is such a long heritage of craft but also an unmentioned gap during the Cultural Revolution.
The ‘Rebirth of Design’ is a collection of 8 moments, observations and conversations relating to my recent experiences in Shanghai. Over the course of 2 weeks; I spoke to designers eager to connect with a fractured past. I found a real sensitivity to copy culture, discovered a hyper digital bubble, ran face to face with censorship and found the best museum no one wants to talk about. I look forward to sharing some experiences over coming days.
Shangxia: In search of timelessness not trendiness.
Shang Xia is a cofounded company by Hermes Group and Chinese designer Jiang Qiong Er. While they share a deep connection to quality, craftsmanship, culture and style, Shang Xia and Hermès are two separate brands. Like Hermes, Shang Xia has it’s own identity, embedded in Chinese culture and craftsmanship Shang Xia designs and produces furniture, decorative objects, accessories and garments to convey messages of tradition, guardianship and remembrance. In essence, they represent a renaissance of culture, in fine Chinese living within a modern lifestyle. ‘Made in China’ is a term of pride, connecting to 5000 years of cultural heritage. Searching for traditional techniques- nearly lost during the past century and giving them new life through form and context. Its strength as a brand lies in this dialogue between tradition and modernity.
Shang Xia’s products are clearly focused on the ‘return to craft’. The influence of the past is obvious but the interpretation works. The materials, forms and techniques seem timeless. I was instantly drawn to this approach. The BRIDGE TEA SET is a great example. The inspiration for this set can be seen in Song Dynasty porcelain; the handle on the vessel lids is typical of the era, representing a bridge, metaphorically ‘bridging’ conversation and hospitality. The method of intricate weaving bamboo over porcelain dates back to the late Qing Dynasty. The result is a tightly woven sleeve over each vessel. The two techniques perfected centuries ago are brought together in a modern context with very little ornament. The materials are authentic, clean and contemporary. The bamboo over porcelain design is functional, making it more comfortable to handle hot tea. This is what makes it feel* designed, not just crafted. The design feels classic but not revolutionary, which isn’t a bad thing, it’s a beautifully hand crafted object that fits within a modern context.
Another great example is the DA TIAN DI chair, an evolution of Ming style furniture with a contemporary perspective. The Ming Dynasty style chair has been streamlined using modern materials & process with carbon fiber. The chair is deeply rooted in tradition, but the material choice helps push the design. The traditional humped brace of the Ming chair has been simplified into a flying support at the joints allowing a much lighter and minimalist construction. Again, this is a reconnection to heritage through the application of design while modernizing the piece through a unique material story.
For their 2016 garments, Shang Xia draws inspiration from the murals in ancient Dunhuang grottoes and traditional landscape paintings in ink wash. The clothing shown in classical paintings is an important source of inspiration. The abstracted, artistic expression captures character. Its not an effort to reproduce ancient designs but to capture the essence and reinterpret for a modern context. Palette inspiration is found in ancient porcelain, paintings and murals and, through experimentation, and editing a clear identity is revealed.
The purpose of all of this is to reconnect and sustain culture, tradition, and quality craft with a modern lens. The objects are timeless, not trendy. This isn’t a revolutionary leap in design. Nothing screams provocation, instead it’s a very considered, calculated and respectful rediscovery of heritage. There is an eagerness to reconnect with Chinese culture from before the Cultural Revolution to see how it can be redefined and shared.
Crafting the experience
The retail area was a beautiful contemporary contrast to the colonial exterior. The walls and ceiling are covered in white textile patches. The patches are geometrically cut & formed, & collectively the installation is very light and airy with an organic flow. The craziness outside quickly faded and I felt relaxed. This is clearly a very high-end retail experience but not in a polished, high gloss pretentious way; rather, it was very welcoming. The staff was friendly, excited to share the story of the space, the products, the history of each crafted object. It felt like being welcomed into someone’s home. I was offered to sit for a cup of seasonal tea, their own brand made by one of their tea-associates from loose tea at a small table. In their words, ‘Our lives are like the turning of the seasons, winter to summer, summer to winter. Only home remains the same, our haven and our touchstone. We hope to strike the chord of home with its natural products and clean space.’ –and they do, It was all so considered, every touch point.
I was fortunate enough to arrange a tour of the entire space for a second visit. The Maison is actually three stories. The second floor is a furniture showroom laid out like a home, with a large private terrace shared with Hermes for hosting events. The third floor exhibits a long ink on silk scroll by artist Pan Xi with an incense walk way and a suspended tearoom. There was a fantastic blend of aromas as you walked through the space. Even the walls of the tearoom were built from compressed blocks of tea. They had an incredible texture and were assembled like staggered bricks to let light through into the small intimate room.
It’s not enough to have great products; the brand experience is the sum of every touch point. Shang Xia engages the senses and evokes emotion through their space, their products service representatives and crafted experiences. There was a reason for everything, nothing was out of place, nothing felt forced, and the experience was meticulous, from object to environment – and that’s what makes you want to buy their products, you don’t just buy an object you buy a piece of their sanctuary universe.
So what’s next?
After my tour, I asked what’s next for Shang Xia? I guess I was expecting a teaser of coming products or collaborations. Their answer was a little formulated, but true to their mission: Shang Xia is a cultural project. They believe that commercial success will follow cultural revival. The focus is long-term, cultivating and reinterpreting Chinese heritage through fine living experiences. They find the time to research, to learn the culture, to conceptualize. There is no rush, 5000 years is a lot to sort through.
Steve Jobs famously quoted Picasso in saying that ‘Good artists copy great artists steal’. The quote is often misunderstood– There is a small fuzzy line between ripping something off and taking it to a new space. We’re comfortable sampling from others if it’s creatively reinterpreted- and with permission. At some point you don’t need permission any more, and you move from ‘copied’, to ‘inspired by’. In essence we want to be aware of the best things in the world, to understand, leverage and reimagine them. It’s better to start where others left off than to disregard collective knowledge.
We hear a lot about China’s ‘copy-culture’ and it’s part of this conversation. Its everywhere you turn in Shanghai; from the fake markets, to the appropriation of celebrity style, to the reinterpretation of heritage. ‘Stealing’ is definitely the most successful when it’s rooted in something deeper.
I had a chance to grab some tea with Tom Chung, a keystone in Shanghai sneaker culture and street fashion. Tom was born in Hong Kong and moved to Canada at an early age. He moved back to Hong Kong during middle school then to Los Angeles for art college. Growing up he was drawn to sneakers through sport, fashion, music and the culture surrounding it. After graduating from Art College he moved straight to Shanghai and opened one of the first sneaker boutiques in the city called (ACU) with a long time celebrity friend Edison Chen. They basically put sneaker culture and street style on the map in Shanghai. I wanted to hear about how this was being adopted today. Tom expressed that originality- in lifestyle and fashion- isn’t normality here. Critical thought and creative expression is still a sensitive subject.
Although there are plenty of people with great style in Shanghai, street style is still in its infancy. A lot of younger consumers will see others wearing a brand or a product and they try to copy it. Sometimes they don’t know anything about the brand but they just want it because it’s new. There is this desire to have the latest, to be the coolest, to be part of something, but the understanding behind the style and the taste can get lost along the way. There is little originality and early adopters often end up looking awkward. They might see a look and try to copy it, even if it isn’t the right look for them. Unlike in other geos, when new product comes to market it can take a few days before people really start buying it. There’s this need for reassurance; to see others wearing it, especially celebrities, and then it just takes off. This is an opportunity to educate consumers on style, not looks. It’s hard to live up to the standards of god-like celebrities. Connecting more authentically to aspirations- rooted in culture and community- will resonate and nurture originality.
NIKELAB X158: FROM ASPIRATION TO INSPIRATION
Tom now runs the Shanghai NIKE LAB x158 store, which opened in 2014. It’s one of two NikeLab flagship stores in China. It showcases some of Nike’s most innovative and limited gear with some products exclusive to each location. The retail experience lives somewhere between sport, innovation and fashion culture. A lot of people go there really to see what’s up, what people are wearing, what’s next. It’s a rare opportunity to physically interact with some of the most anticipated products coming out of NIKE. The upstairs space is dedicated to showcasing collaborations and special projects.
When I was visiting, there it was a Sacai x NikeLab installation which consumed the room. The store felt more like a gallery, telling a story beyond the product in an immersive and tangible way. This is the future of retail; a collective expression that shifts your mindset, while you experience the brand in a new way. We all want to be inspired and it’s bigger than the individual athlete, designer or celebrity. If you can own that experience, you will inspire people and challenge them with fresh perspectives.
STEAL FROM THE PAST
DONGLIANG is a multi-brand concept store committed to promoting new, talented Chinese designers in China and abroad. Launched in Wudaoying Hutong, Beijing in 2009, it has since expanded to Shanghai. There are 3 locations in the former French Concession, where one is an outlet location for previous seasons. The main attraction is ‘The Crow House’, a beautifully restored lane house with a teashop on the ground floor and various designers represented on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors. There is a clear sense of a young brand with a deeply rooted perspective on design. The multitude of designers represented express Asian heritage, in the context of modern fashion. The store layouts, materials & finishing details remind me of some of the design conscious spaces you would find here in Portland, OR; clean surfaces, hints of wood, brass and white surfaces (the usual ‘designery’ suspects). Although the bones of the building are old, the restoration was progressive and the execution remained respectful and perfectly dialed. The products have that feeling of being on the edge of design and craft, while holding a distinctive cultural point of view. The designers represented are Chinese, but a bigger, worldlier vision is present as many have studied, worked or live abroad.
These are the collections that are breaking the convention of ‘Made in China’. Copy culture doesn’t exist here. Much like Shang Xia; designers build on strong references from the past but present it within a modern context. DONG LIANG represents an effort to gain support for original Chinese design on both the national and international stage. There is a spirit of originality rooted in heritage. There is this rebirth in design happening with an endless archive of rich history to tap into. The originality comes from the individual designers interpretation of their heritage, their life experiences in China and abroad. DONG LIANG facilitates this story through their participation in the international design community, hosting events during Shanghai’s Design week and their active promotion of designers they represent on an international scale, ultimately redefining ‘MADE IN CHINA’ on a global stage.
The term ‘4, 2, 1’ relates to the scenario of 4 grandparents and 2 parents supporting 1 child. This is a result of China’s one child policy implemented in 1978 (revoked recently, October 2015). Most children are born into a huge support structure, completely dedicated to them, making sure that they are afforded a life better than their predecessors. Much of the family’s income goes towards providing for that child despite the possibility that the child may not be able to support 6 adults as they get older. So what do you do if you are under 38, always online and have a lot of spending power?
I arrived in Shanghai a few days after ‘Singles Day’. Heard of it? It lands on the 11.11; the four ‘ones’ represent individual elements. People were still buzzing about it during most of my stay. Singles Day was started at a university to honor and celebrate the culture of being single. I imagine this concept has some relation to growing up as single children, which also affected the population ratio between men and women; 12:10 respectively. Some say it has evolved to encompass the idea of finding your match. Others even use the day to get married and celebrate finding their one true love. Back in 2009, online retailer Alibaba; China’s e-commerse powerhouse, felt that love and saw an opportunity to turn it into a massive online shopping day. Let me put this into perspective: This past year on Cyber Monday, online retailers in the United States accounted for a record of over 3 billion in spending.
During ‘Singles Day’, November 11th, 2015 Alibaba pulled in over $14 billion in sales in just 24 hours. The 1st billion in just 8 minutes, $5 billion in the first 90 minutes. Boom. So what does this mean? Is the love for brands replacing the love for people? For 11.11, it is. Mindset check: Singles day is about me, and spending more than I can afford because the value of the savings outweighs the consequences of my overspending.
Digital is huge for these young generations of only children; even for one of the most censored online communities in the world. A lot of sales records are being blown out of the water and it’s an explosive trend. Naturally, in China, this has led to an increasing focus on the build up to 11.11; the most important online shopping event of the year. Although the event lasts for just 24 hours, consumers prepare weeks in advance adding items to their cart. You can reserve the right to a good deal for a small fee– yes, pay for the opportunity to shop. The majority of this is driven by the promise of cost savings, and promoted heavily across social media. Singles day is primarily an online event but there are some live bidding events that allow brands to interact with the audience.
While this screams opportunity, the reality is that online shopping experiences are still fractured. On the biggest shopping day of the year, it’s difficult to tell a compelling brand story or build excitement beyond getting the best deal. The main focus is slashing prices; it’s not the best light to communicate the benefit or quality of a product or brand. Although it feels impersonal and disconnected, of course Singles Day is not going away. It makes a ton of money. There is, however, a huge opportunity to tell a more authentic story in the weeks leading up to it. To craft an amazing brand experience that’s rewarding beyond the savings. It’s a battle between brand value and dollar value . The momentum is there with a very captive audience eager for the opportunity to shop and save – but you want people to remember the brand experience, not the savings.
A FRACTURED EXPERIENCE.
Singles day highlights a divide in the fractured experience we have with brands. Between our online experiences and our physical experiences there is little continuity. We tell different stories and have different transactions. As soon as we walk into a store, our profiles and our purchase history is lost. When we shop online, the brands know us and they can help us find what we like, what we’ve bought in the past and what we might be looking for– we walk back into a store and a representative basically has to assume that we’ve never been there before and starts from scratch.
Looking the other direction consumers walk into stores with their phones in hand. ‘Mobile first’ is at a whole other level in China and I’ve never seen so many people glued to their phones. Riding the subway was like walking into a hypnotism experiment. We’re all familiar with the trend by now but this exceeded expectations. What also surprised me was to see how much people use QR codes which WeChat has managed to make a part of everyday life. Although somewhat clumsy, they are broadly used to exchange information between the physical and digital worlds in a way nothing else has. It has become a very successful strategy in bridging digital and physical experiences. With a QR reader built into the app (using the camera) it’s very easy to capture detailed product information, to interact with the brand digitally in retail environments and to share these experiences with your friends instantly. We all remember that it ‘came and went’ in the west as a fad, mostly because no one was really able to figure out how to make it seamless or even what to really do with it. It works in China because transactions are facilitated through the most popular social media platform in in the country.
With over 650 million users, WeChat enables people to use QR codes for a lot of things, they exchange information, sign up for things or just to go deeper into a product benefit. They might want to see how others wear a piece of apparel, to see it in context, to share with their friends and get feedback. It works because it’s where the consumer is, and the app is usually open while shopping. There is a little button always present in the top right corner— super easy. By simply taking a photo of the code consumers aren’t just starting a conversation, they’re joining one.
As crude as it seems, it’s the most seamless widespread digital experience I’ve seen a retail environment, and we can learn a lot from it: Don’t make consumers learn your UI or expect them to adapt to your new fancy ‘digital experience’. Just know where they are; in the store and on their phones, and exist to serve them on their terms.
Having the right tools in your pocket can make your day in Shanghai go a lot more smoothly. I felt pretty reliant on my phone; more than usual. I actually caught myself questioning ‘am I really getting anything out of this or am I seeing it through my screen? The reality is that the few apps I used strangely enough enabled me to look up, and immerse in the city without sweating the details. They kept me fed with what I wanted to eat, made it easy to navigate, communicate and translate, and even kept me safe from the smog. On this trip, I realized my phone was enabling, not disrupting the experience. It’s how you use the tools that matter. These apps will make your life a little easier when visiting Shanghai, and allow you to discover the city on your own terms.
WeChat is amazing. It pretty much does everything, so it can be a little daunting to exhaust it’s functionality at first. There are over half a billion users (yes, way more than Instagram). Haven’t heard of it? It’s what happens when you aren’t allowed on Facebook. It feels like its used in almost every sentence of conversation with people, because people use it for so many things. Imagine Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, text, voice & video calls, shopping, wayfinding and 10 thousand other functions in the same app. Moments, part of the app menu, is essentially China’s version of Instagram and if you want to spend the next two hours looking at what people are eating right now, I highly recommend it. WeChat started small but just keeps snowballing with swarms of features basically ‘failing forward’ and seeing what sticks. I used a tiny fraction of the app’s capabilities but can see its push toward a ‘seamless life’– it integrates into almost everything you do.
So how did I use it?
Shirt tailoring. A friend recommended her favorite tailor and designer, he makes apparel for everyone from tourists to athletes to visiting celebrities. He’ll meet you at your hotel room and hook you up. I wanted some fairly specific shirts made so we decided to meet at the fabric market where I could choose the materials. The thing is I don’t read, write or speak Chinese, and he of course didn’t speak English or Danish. So we used WeChat for everything. I could tap his texts and they would instantly translate. If I tapped his name it would point me in his direction. So we could find each other. It was so easy, so seamless, so integrated– then we met in person. With a super computer in one hand, we still we tried to communicate using primitive hand gestures and speaking loudly. Eventually we sorted it out, that’s why I look so damn sharp now.
Air Quality monitoring:
I’m sorry Shanghai, but you have a serious problem. The pollution was actually worse than I expected, you could taste it in the air. It was noticeably different from day to day but ever present. A looming cloud of smog engulfs the city while the wind directs its most concentrated core. There are plenty of apps that monitor china’s air quality and its worth having a look before you go out. I used the China Air Quality Index, which warns you what areas have the poorest air quality and gives you a clear ratings system to help you decide what days to admit defeat & stay inside.
Set up a VPN before you go.
Trying to use the internet can be frustrating. A lot of services are limited within the ‘Great firewall of China’. So if you are keen on uncensored access to harmful things like the cat memes on your Facebook feed, set up a VPN. If you are traveling for business, your company may already have a set up, it’s worth looking into. You might run into a VPN blocker, but there are a number of services that are able to get around that.
The interface is pretty straightforward, nothing revolutionary here, but great for anyone looking for something to do on short notice. Hands down, the most useful feature was for directing taxis. This is worth the $1.99 app price alone. Search for a destination and the app will generate a taxi card with large clear characters. It’s easy enough for the driver to read and you can keep a hold of you phone while they read it. The directory also includes a guide to the metro, phone numbers, opening hours, and descriptions of the search results. You can find recommendations for some great spots to eat or grab a drink. As I was having trouble using Google, this was a decent alternative to way-finding if what your looking for is in the register. Smart Shanghai is a good city guide app for visitors and expats living in Shanghai.
Waygo is a Camera based character translator. I discovered it about a week into my trip; total game changer. Don’t worry about the trial and just buy the package; you’ll use this a lot. It’s pretty practical when trying to find a store or reading a menu, but its also really fun. It turns the city into a giant word search – apparently Google translate can do the same, but Google might be inconsistent in China.
Its hard to imagine navigating Shanghai without my phone. It’s so massive; I wouldn’t know where to start! I’m not saying I couldn’t do it but it just makes everything so much easier. Some people think using a smartphone obstructs authentic experience, walking around with a screen in your face, but for me it really unlocked the city. It helped me focus my interests, meet and chat with others, find my way and even keep me safe. It enabled me to look up and immerse because it took care of everything else. Oh yeah, bring your charger everywhere; using more apps, all the time, will drain your phone.
At the end of the day nothing beats local expertise. Shanghai can be a very friendly city if you meet the right people. They’ll share things you’ll never find on your phone; whether it’s a local gallery or just great dinner conversation. I’m so thankful for the people I met, their insight and experiences shared.
I found that some people in Shanghai are still guarded in their opinions of the State. The reality is there are still things you don’t talk about. Naturally age and generation play a role but I was surprised that I noticed it. It’s hard to put a finger on something that isn’t there even when it’s the elephant in the room. China is one of the most censored countries in the world. There are over 2 million cyber police trying to regulate information shared over the Internet. Today, there isn’t the total blackout of the past – People are getting around it with VPNs, many are able to travel, but the regulation is serious. Speaking out against the State can get you thrown in prison. However, my perception was that art is the ultimate freedom of expression. You can say things without saying it; leave it up to interpretation. It can be hard to judge the meaning or message behind certain pieces or to hold it accountable for anything, as it’s ‘just art.’
One day I found myself in a silk workshop in the art district of Shanghai. I came across it by accident walking with my fiancé thinking it was a small gallery off a side street. When we walked in we were invited upstairs into a much larger space. It turns out that the place operates as an interiors consultancy for the hospitality industry. There are workshops for embroidery and silk dying. In contrast to these workshops, there are intricate large-scale embroidery pieces hanging that artists have spent years creating – commissions that go for millions of dollars. There was one that stuck out in particular depicting Mao’s life at various stages from birth, his rise to power, his family, his death.
The curator was kind enough to give us a tour and explain the works as she was locking up. She pointed out that most of the piece was meant to be beautiful while a smaller portion; the portion in shadow was meant to be ‘less beautiful’. It actually represents a government policy, the official stance documented by the Communist Party of China that Mao was 70% good, and 30% bad (seriously, look it up). I loved how neatly divided that was, and that the party had dedicated resources to quantifying this and making it official. ‘This is how you should think – look, we made it official.” I felt the piece was a little tongue and cheek, poking fun at this policy. I was curious over whether this was the intention, and how sensitive artists need to be when approaching these topics.
I wanted to hear the curator’s opinion on some of Ai Weiwei’s work. Weiwei is one of China’s most notorious and influential artists. Recently he had been denied a large quantity order from LEGO on the grounds that they do not support the use of their products to make political statements. I was surprised by this decision; as I’m a huge fan and have done a lot of work for LEGO in the past. It just seemed so strange coming from a brand that represented pure creativity to take such a strong stance.
LEGO has since reversed their decision with their official stance being ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’. 🙉 🙈 🙊 but there I was in the silk shop in Shanghai asking what she thought and her response was ‘He is a very dangerous man.’ I asked what she meant and she responded ‘He is a very dangerous man.’ There was an expression of concern on her face (like her words were not her own) and my imagination went wild. Is the place bugged? Can I get in trouble for this? I looked at the windows below the roof waiting for agents rappelling from helicopters to smash through and raid the place. It had caught me off guard, but then we changed the subject and everything was fine and friendly again- like nothing happened. Somehow of all the inspiration I absorbed in Shanghai, those six words had the most impact. I may be reading too much into this but it feels there is a long way to go. In China, even art is not yet free.
You could spend a full day at the SHANGHAI MUSEUM and still want to go back. The enormous and very imposing building is located in the People’s Square of the Huangpu District. It is the main museum that displays ancient art, and the exhibitions are incredible. Particularly the porcelain section, which tells the story of technical advancements over hundreds of years. However, it was a hidden museum that captivated me. I stumbled upon the SHANGHAI PROPAGANDA POSTER ART CENTER because other museums were closed that day and I found a reference on some random travel blog. You won’t find flyers for this around the city. It was a bit of a chore to find it even once I was there.
After walking up and down the street, an attendant saw that I looked lost and handed me a small card. I walked through a parking lot of an apartment complex around three buildings, still no sign. Went into building 3A and down to the basement. I shared the elevator with someone who was on the way to do laundry. What I discovered when the doors opened is arguably one of the most important collective documents of the Cultural Revolution. Its pretty amazing that the collection has survived. The collection includes thousands of posters spanning the 20th century, telling a story of China, its ideology, industry, allies and foes representing the worker, the farmer & the people of China. Exploring the exhibit was like a walk through the ages, reflecting the cultural tone and the mindset of the people.
The earlier posters have an illustration style that resembles satirical newspaper cartoons or pulp fiction novel covers. The styles seem to change with the mood of the times. Idyllic depictions of farmer and workers through evolve to a folk art style throughout the 50’s. There is a shift into a much harder, darker militaristic theme as the Cultural Revolution nears in the mid 60’s. When I think of Propaganda art, my mind goes straight to that constructivist style; black, red and white posters of fists, tanks, artillery. This was definitely present although the spectrum was so broad. There is a very clear shift from motivational calls for unity and progress to the attack on outside ideologies. There are moments of support for other struggles like the Civil Rights Movement in America, and camaraderie with Russian allies. Though it’s clear their intent is to paint a dark picture of ‘Western imperialism’ and other external cultures. What makes this all so bizarre is after the Cultural Revolution the posters keep printing.
The exhibit continues into the 80’s and 90’s, where messaging gets obscure. It’s no longer politically savvy to be printing propaganda art. The government still, however, issued posters for Chinese New Years. Here is where things get wonderfully weird. These more recent posters aren’t really displayed in the museum but are for sale in a separate room. There are actually a lot of posters for sale as the collection is private, so I picked up a souvenir. I bought a poster from 1986. It depicts a happy, chubby young boy in a colorful garden with roses in full bloom. The gun he holds is a toy, his chariot a bicycle with a soft pony chassis. The patches on his knees depict puppies and kittens. Butterflies dance above his head. It’s cute, playful, soft, with just a lingering hint of the past: his military hat.
Eerily the cheerful poster is a reminder that the same party still holds strong. The very small text at the bottom reads ‘When I grow up, I will protect the motherland.’ That boy in the image is all grown up now; we’re actually a similar age. He’s probably into sneakers, he’s connected on WeChat, and likely has a VPN to stay aware under the radar. It’s a reminder of a past that is not so far away, and that he is part of a new chapter in China’s history.
Creative Director, INDUSTRY
Shanghai seems to grow with every step through the city and there are no signs of it slowing down. It can be imposing, over bearing and hectic but there is also plenty of space to reflect. Designers looking to reconnect with a rich heritage. We see a tension in design; between tradition and modernity. A desire to break through the western preconceptions of ‘made in China’ and share culture on a global stage. This is the rebirth of design in China; the shift between remembering and creating a legacy.
Here are some top spots for your next visit to this amazing city.
Jiajia Steamed Bun:
Dumplings are must for anyone visiting Shanghai. They were good everywhere I went but a few were amazing. Not surprisingly it’s not the fancy restaurant that serves up the best goods. My favorite spot was a tiny place with a long line that gave it away. It was packed , I felt like half the people there were making the dumplings. Waiting in line I could see them standing in a circle chatting. With the meticulous assembly of dumplings happening on the table top there is a bit of pressure to get in there, get ordered, eat and get out, but its totally worth it.
90 Huanghe Rd, Huangpu
Another small but amazing spot was admittedly found watching Anthony Bourdain. Take his word over mine here, the wontons are delicious although it was pretty hard to find and once there, pretty hard to order. This place is far from fancy and if I hadn’t heard of it I probably wouldn’t have gone in, but I’m sure glad I did.
209 Zhaozhou Lu, Hefei Lu
A little bit of Portland in Shanghai, this place is a bit of an escape. Good food, IPA’s, music and atmosphere, a great place to start the night if you’re with a bigger crew.
KWah Centre, 2/F, 1028 Huaihai Zhong Lu, Xuhui District
Xiao Hei Hao Qing:
Seafood porridge? This one was recommended by a friend. Congee is delicious and perfect for sharing, we went for the seafood option with no regret. It’s comfort-food style rice porridge. The restaurant was family style, and we also ordered a bunch of small dishes to share. I used Waygo to find it on a street full of restaurants.
794 Dingxi Rd, Changning
Mercato by Jean Georges
Shanghai has a lot of options when it comes to food. You can really find anything you are looking for with uncompromising standards. Over the course of the trip I was hell bent on eating as much local food as possible, but sometimes you just feel like Italian. Wood oven pizzas, hand made pastas, fantastic ambiance, and a view of the Bund. We sat at the bar because the place was packed so if you are a bigger group, make a reservation.
3 Zhongshan East 1st Rd, Huangpu
Yes, Starbucks. Consistently good coffee can be hard to come by in Shanghai but there seams to be a Starbucks in every neighborhood. As a typical result of my generation I’m a bit of a coffee snob and living in Portland has spoiled me. I prefer smaller independent shops for the atmosphere, but when I travel, I rely on the comfort of a consistent flat white! It was nice to see they weren’t ‘cookie cutter’ and fit into their respective locations.
233 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Huangpi Nan Lu
The Crow House by DONG LIANG
No.888, Changie Road, Jing’An District, Shanghai.
Nike Lab x158
158 Xinle Lu, near Xiangyang Bei Lu
Sneakers and streetwear.
832 Julu Lu, near Changshu Lu
The Tailor: Kuang Cheng
As recommended by a friend, I had a couple of shirts made by this guy. He is amazing. He is also a designer and produces men’s and women’s clothing. Quang will come to your hotel or meet you at the fabric market. You are in good hands!
Mobile: 13120829722 (does not speak English) WeChat ID: Kc19790503
South Bund Fabric Market
Explore the side streets, there you’ll find great fabrics but be wary of what Tailor you choose – ask Quang to meet you there!
399 Lujiabang Lu, near Nancang Jie
These actually move around, it’s good to keep your ear to the ground and go check out out. They’re totally chaotic!
A large collection of ancient Chinese art including ceramics, bronze castings, currency, clothing and jade to name a few.
201 Renmin Ave, Huangpu in People’s Square
Propaganda Poster Art
You wont find it; it doesn’t look like a museum. Keep looking! Ask the parking attendant at the apartment block you are standing in front of.
868 Huashan Rd, Xuhui
A former foreign concession in Shanghai, this area retains some charm from its colonial past with lots of great restaurants and shops to explore.
Shanghai Arts District: M50
M50 is a large artist community featuring contemporary artists, and lots of studios to explore, open to the public. Go early, there is a lot to see.
50 Moganshan Road, Putuo District
National Tea Museum (Hangzhou)
Located in Hangzhou, this is definitely a daytrip and worth doing while you are there. The grounds were beautiful, take a walk through the fields of tea. There is a large silk museum in the area that is under construction but should open this summer.
88 Longjing Rd, Xihu, Hangzhou, Zhejiang
The waterfront area in central Shanghai. Get up early and walk along the bund. You’ll pass joggers, groups doing tai chi, people flying kites, and fishing off the board walk. Watch the sun rise over a spectacular skyline.
A large public square where Shanghai’s municipal government headquarters building is located as well as the Shanghai Museum.
Former French Concession
A former territory for French settlement, the concession retains a European character with plenty of shops, and cafes.
Shanghai Oriental Sports Center
It wasn’t open when I went and there were no events scheduled for a good 6 months but the building is worth the cab ride. There is a public pool that is open daily so bring a towel!
China, Shanghai, Pudong, 泳耀路300号
Hangzhou West Lake area
A couple hours by train from shanghai and its worth the trip. The area is very scenic with a lot to do. Take a boat ride on the lake, visit the tea museum or go to Lingyin Temple; one of china’s largest and wealthiest Buddhist temples.
I’m not a fan of heights, but there is something about a big city that makes me want to find the highest spots to look out and get an overview. This is impossible in Shanghai because the city is so expansive and endless. You get to a certain height and realize that it just goes on forever into the horizon. The smog becomes almost beautiful like a photo filter blurring the horizon in shades of the day. Here are some of my favorite spots to look out on this amazing city.
Shanghai World Financial Center (SWFC)
It looks like a bottle opener so it’s hard to miss. SWFC has the best observation deck on the 100th floor. A glass floor and the tapered shape of the building cheats perspective so you feel like there is nothing below you.
100 Century Ave, Pudong
Well its not actually open yet but it will be soon. The tallest building in china, it is directly across the street from the SWFC and the Jim Mao tower, you can’t miss it.
501 Yincheng Middle Rd, Pudong
Jin Mao tower
I can’t help but think this building somehow has a complex. It was the tallest building in China until 2007, when it was surpassed by the ‘Shanghai World Financial tower’, and more recently the ‘Shanghai tower’. It literally lives in the shadow of giants. There is a time of day where all of its 88 stories are perfectly blocked from the sun by The Shanghai tower, which looks weird because they dwarf everything else around them. You can see the shadow connecting the two buildings because of the smog, it looks like a wall of light fog between them. Despite its taller neighbors, Cloud 9 bar on the top has good cocktails and excellent views of the city.
88 Century Ave, Pudong
Mint Night Club
I was in this place within a couple of hours after landing in Shanghai and it helped me beat the jetlag. Good drinks, good music, and Damien Hirst’s Sharks will follow you to the bathroom.
Huangpu, Fuzhou Rd, 318号高腾大厦
Great place to dance! The music is fun, a good mix of people. If you want to sing karaoke in a bathtub, you can rent a room upstairs.
7F, 20 Donghu Lu near Huaihai Lu
Char Bar at the Hotel indigo on the Bund.
Good cocktails and a great view of down town. If you show up before 6pm you can watch the skyscrapers light up from the roof top patio.
585 Zhongshan East 2nd rd, Huangpu
Really good cocktails served at this ‘speak easy’ style bar. The front is a sandwich shop so just look for the old Coca-Cola fridge and walk through it to get into the bar.
432 Shaanxi Nan lu, Xuhui
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