Rebirth of the past


Shanghai Star. 2004-09-09

AT the beginning of August, when the government of the Hongkou District

held a news conference, an interesting point was mentioned by one official: the government had a rough idea for reconstructing the disused tram system. The proposal was initially floated last year but it was not until this year that it attracted public attention.

After the news was released in August, there was a strong and mixed public response to the controversial idea of bringing the trams back into use. The pros and cons of the issue were discussed by people from every walk of life. Soon almost everyone was talking about the trams, regardless of their age or occupation. One Shanghai website,, even launched a forum on the topic, drawing large numbers of participants.

According to the Hongkou District official, the government "had no comment on the issue. Moreover, the proposal to reconstruct the tram system was still vague."

This comment suggests that the heated debate about the return of trams to the city may prove superfluous.

Why would people actively advocate the return of the trams? To summarize the opinions posted on the website and in other media, those who support the idea have two main reasons for their position. Firstly, they argue an environmental case for the trams. Secondly, they take the same stance out of a feeling of nostalgia.

Among these two very different "arguments", it is the latter that has the greatest following. For many people, the thought of old fashioned trams shuttling among the modern skyscrapers of today's Shanghai clearly strikes them as almost irresistible.

In fact, the general tone of the discussion about the trams reveals a deep current of nostalgia for the old days of Shanghai.

It must be especially interesting for foreigners who visit Shanghai to note the way locals focus so much of their attentions upon such a short stretch of the city's history. Many Shanghai buildings or streets have been deliberately re-designed to recollect the style of the 1920s and 1930s. For instance, those visiting Shanghai for the first time may be struck by Xintiandi, an urban tourist attraction which is imbued with the cultural and historical flavour of this former period. In addition, the exotic buildings towering over the Bund, the old villas hidden in the downtown, the pubs and bars devoted to bygone tastes, and so on, all attest to people's nostalgia for the old days.

Former lifestyle

It is understandable that every city has a sense of its own best days, but for Shanghai, this type of nostalgia has developed into something of a stereotype: the whole history of Shanghai has been swallowed up by the history of Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s. The ladies and gentlemen of that time are mentioned all the time and their lifestyles are even followed today.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai was an important cultural and economic centre. As one of the first cities to be forced open by the British after the First Opium War in the early 1840s, Shanghai was also the first Chinese city to develop modern industries. The first international telegraph line in China was laid in Shanghai in 1871, and by the end of 19th century, large numbers of foreign banks and other companies had begun to gather in Shanghai.

On the other hand, elements of Western culture, which were strongly promoted by Chinese intellectuals of that time, also found a hothouse in Shanghai. Most intellectuals of that time regarded Shanghai as a bridge connecting China to the West.

Shanghai thus had a special temperament quite distinct from that of any other city in China. People could find the most advanced and sophisticated thinking in the city, where traditions and modernity collided. This gave people who lived in Shanghai an open-minded attitude towards international trends.

"Shanghai is a place which possessed typical urban characteristics - the close relationship between domestic and foreign cultures helped Shanghai to develop a kind of mature urban culture ... and this kind of urban culture still works today." said Xiong Yuezhi, head of the History Department at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

The people of Shanghai, raised in this type of urban culture, still take it for granted that this way of life is the best. They not only take any chance to celebrate the past, but also try to reproduce the images of the city's glorious past as modern realities, for instance, by reconstructing Shanghai's system of trams. Xu Jitao

Copyright by Shanghai Star.