Jos Gamble, Shanghai in Transition : Changing Perspectives and Social Contours of a Chinese Metropolis

Here is a new monograph on Shanghai, this publication being
distinguished by the originality of its angle of analysis. In order to report
the numerous and profound transformations which are drastically changing Shanghai
in the era of reforms, Jos Gamble has chosen to give a voice to the lower classes
of Shanghai, its laobaoxing, thus aiming, as he states in the preface, to establish
“the ethnography of a city”.

After a succinct reminder of Shanghai’s history, the
author proceeds, in the first chapter, to an analysis of the new expressions which
have appeared in Mandarin to describe the changes brought about by the policy
of reform and opening up. This introduction through lexicography can prove instructive
and even amusing to readers who have no direct contact with reforming China or
its inhabitants. However, despite what is suggested by the title of this chapter,
Representation and Metaphors of Reform in Shanghai, metaphors such as “duo
yi ge pengyou, duo yi tiao lu” (another friend opens another prospect), “ziji
zhao chulu” (to find your own way out, i.e. to manage on your own when you
are unemployed, for example) and “zou houmen” (to use the back door
to avoid bureaucratic obstacles) are all expressions which were already current
in China before the reforms, and are therefore in no way specific to that city.
These expressions, produced in common parlance or taken up from official discourse,
such as gaige kaifang (reform and opening up), are known to all researchers or
businessmen who frequent China, whether close up or at a distance, through Chinese
interlocutors or in the media. It is also to be regretted that there are so few
examples in Shanghainese dialect which would have much better illustrated the
author’s ethnographic approach and justified his undertaking of a monograph.

In the second chapter, “Global and intra-national cultural
flows: renegotiating boundaries and identities in contemporary Shanghai”,
the author, starting from the idea that the Chinese identity is not singular but
multiple and shifting, seeks to define the particularities of the Shanghailander
as the product of the mutual cultural penetration between Shanghai and the rest
of China, as well as the outside world. The third chapter, “The walls within:
Shanghai inside out”, explores further this Shanghainese identity and shows
that it also is multiple, varying according to the profession and place of residence
of each person.

The new modes of consumption, which are the subject of chapter
four, “Consuming Shanghai: hairy crabs, ghosts, and Christmas trees”,
are another marker of these identities. The introduction of leisure and of other
consumer products—such as karaoke, expensive restaurants and luxury clothing—is
in the process of altering the life habits of Shanghailanders. Gamble attacks
the thesis maintained by some writers, especially Linda Chao and Ramon Myers (1),
according to which the varying modes of consumption, in defining new social values
and feelings of belonging, strengthen the social, economic and political links
of the various strata in Chinese society. To Gamble, on the contrary, consumerism
helps to make disparities in wealth increasingly visible, with, at one extreme
the nouveaux riches, who can afford whatever they fancy, and at the other, those
left behind by the reforms, whose purchasing power is constantly shrinking. Without
minimising the social tensions which these disparities can produce and which the
author puts forward, one must recognise along with Chao, Myers and Goodman (2)
that the reforms have indeed given birth to a middle class, with its own characteristics.

But, contrary to what one might believe, as Li Jian and Niu
Xiaohan show, the feeling of political belonging of this middle class, at least
to a large extent, goes to the Chinese Communist Party and the system it represents,
since this middle class itself stems from it and is making full use of the advantage
it offers (3). What is more, the author, in
reproducing in his monograph the accounts of Shanghai’s laobaixing whom
he has frequented and interviewed, gives a sort of general idea of this emerging
middle class, even though he does not identify it in those terms.

Chapter 5, “Share dealers, trading places and new options
in contemporary Shanghai” deals with the Shanghai stock market and the way
in which dabbling in the market has altered the perceptions and the lives of Shanghailanders
who indulge in it. The book ends with a chapter entitled “Concluding impressions”
which summarises Gamble’s general survey, but also shows its limitations.
For the ethnographic approach, which here consists of reproducing what Shanghai’s
laobaixing said without confronting their point of view with other sources, such
as official data or academic studies of Shanghai’s development, offers only
a partial and not always truthful vision of the development of the metropolis,
of which one will retain only impressions, hence the title of the conclusion.
Even if the slices of life of the laobaoxing might interest those who are not
familiar with Shanghai or China in reform—from this point of view, Shanghai
in Transition does indeed constitute an account of the turn the metropolis took
in the early 1990s—, on the other hand, informed readers, their expectations
raised by the alluring title, will be left unsatisfied on closing the book.

In fact, the statements of the Shanghailanders reproduced
in this book published in 2003 are extracted from interviews which Gamble conducted
in 1992-1993, that is to say at the time when Shanghai had just boarded the reform
bandwagon, after Deng Xiaoping’s tour of the South. Gamble, as he writes
in the preface (p. xv), returned there four times between 1992 and 2000 ; one
strongly regrets that he did not bring up to date the descriptions he gives of
life in Shanghai, when one knows the transformations which the city and its inhabitants
have experienced all through the 1990s.

Translated from the French original by Michael Black

Back to top