The Paradoxical Power of Memory

By Ting GuoMay 26, 2015

Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life by Qiu Xiaolong and Howard W. French
Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life by Jie Li

FOR ME, reading Jie Li’s Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life — a book that combines memoir and ethnography to chart the course of ordinary lives during times of rapid change — was an emotional experience as well as an intellectual journey. As a Shanghai native who spent her childhood in alleyway houses much like those that are the focus of the work, Li struck me as someone acutely aware and truly understanding of the locale’s history, people, values, style, and struggles. The book, which follows her family members as they experience events from the late 1940s through the present, has real emotional power; it made me sigh, laugh, and cry, much like the bittersweet films by auteurs of cinematic nostalgia such as Wong Kar-wai and Tsai Ming-liang.

What adds depth to Li’s perspective is that she can draw on more than just her familiarity with Shanghai’s alleys, for she has experienced life in other places, having lived in New York and New England; she recently graduated from and now teaches at Harvard. A specialist in literature, film studies, and history, she scrutinizes the stories of her Shanghai relatives and other informants against the backdrop of the large, dramatic changes from the 1940s on, which has seen the city remade by economic shifts and traumas such as the Cultural Revolution. Li can write as a visitor and a local, an impartial narrator and a member of the family, someone who feels an emotional tie to the subjects of her story yet is ready to place some parts of familiar lives in a critical light.

Some of her comments will both amuse and boggle the mind of the reader, as when she writes: “The just division of this family inheritance remains so contentious as to have Yeye [paternal grandfather] and Nainai [paternal grandmother] turning over in their graves.” Li’s aunt (“Aunt Bean”) was once sued by Yeye for “robbing” her parents’ old alleyway house, but ended up becoming the sole heir to it once other family members one by one drifted away. An outsider who wrote in such a way would be seen as cruel, but Li’s insider status makes it seem unproblematically witty.

In an interview with Shanghai Daily, Li explained that one motivation for writing this book was her nostalgia for the city in an earlier time and for her childhood. Li’s focus is on two alleyway houses, both of which have ties to her family and both of which stand in what was once Shanghai’s International Settlement, a district that between the 1840s and 1940s was governed by a locally elected Municipal Council. One of these properties, on Alliance Lane (Youbang Li), is the house in which her mother grew up; the other is Lane 1695 Pingliang Road, where her father grew up. She uses stories of these two domiciles to explore larger historical events, zeroing in on how big and small political, economic, social, and cultural changes affected their inhabitants, with a method that she refers to as “excavating where I stand”:

Rather than investigating the subject from a lofty distance, I take on the role of a “root-seeking child” whose annual homecomings during summer vacations catalyzed a process of defamiliarization and refamiliarization.

Since these houses are located in the neighborhoods where she spent some of her childhood, she can weave into the tale personal experience along with memories shared with her by her parents, which are referenced and cross-checked against the memories of former residents, supplemented by contextual historical research and ethnographic investigation. She sets out in this book to salvage some of the specific memories undergoing erasure in a rapidly changing Shanghai, hoping to discern “what exactly ordinary Shanghainese might be ‘homesick’ for.”

Her mission and her sense that there are no definitive answers to the kinds of questions she asks become most clear in her conclusion. She recounts a homecoming trip that took place after her grandparents’ death, and her experience helping a man whose job is to recycle trash, separating useful from useless detritus, go through pieces from her grandparents’ lives. She describes watching him go home after his labors to his wife in another alleyway, leaving the readers to ponder the transmission of experiences, objects and memories from one generation to the next and from one home to another. We also are reminded of her complex position within the story she has told, as someone who left her neighborhood and family behind to live in another part of the world, and then prompted herself to review her life as an observer, a writer, and a person who temporarily returns “home” to China.

As a result of this unusual and productive research strategy, she is able to write in ways that make full use of her special access to the homes and stories of a range of interviewees, who told her things they might not have shared with someone less personally enmeshed in their communities. She draws on direct experience but also examines relationships that predated not only this project, but also her birth. Like Walter Benjamin’s writings on the Berlin of his youth, this book takes into account the ways that experiences and memories are transmitted from generation to generation — an inquiry into community history as much as personal history.

The connection to Benjamin is also noted by Leo Ou-fan Lee on the back cover: “Dare one consider it a present-day Chinese counterpoint to Walter Benjamin’s classic, A Berlin Childhood?” Li uses Benjamin as a theoretical inspiration, and phrases in Shanghai Homes such as “to live is to leave traces” show the affinity between her project and Benjamin’s interest in depicting the spillover of private life into a more public realm. She cites his observation about the demolition of private life in Bolshevik Moscow when discussing Shanghai’s transformation under Communist rule.

In presenting individuals as both representative of general patterns and ineluctably particular, Li brings to mind the work of another figure associated with Weimar Germany: the photographer August Sander, who photographed a generation of ordinary German people in the wake of the First World War, using double-portraiture in each case, showing how each individual was at the same time a representative type and a unique person. And as the Austrian poet Rainer Rilke points out, the duality of the author as a “reader of himself,” requires a critical appraisal of self-knowledge, a constant awareness of the social context and of one’s relationships. As Li meditates, this is not to say that any given set of alleyway residents could serve as symbols or personifications of historical forces or social categories, for they are too ordinary to be called heroes or villains.

However, the strands in their lives are inextricably woven into a larger historical tapestry. While each thread has its own color and texture, the ordinary strands of people’s lives nonetheless determine the shape of the tapestry.

The personal, historical, and ethnographic account of changing alleyway life before, during, and after the Mao years (1949–1976) in Li’s book is unique, but a recent collaborative work based on interviews with residents of similar locales complements it nicely: Howard W. French and Qiu Xiaolong’s Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life (2012), which is made up of photographs by French and poems by Qiu. Qiu, who is best known as the author of the Inspector Chen mysteries, like Li has inherited memories of Shanghai alleyway houses upon which to draw, and dedicates the book: “To my parents who lived all their lives in a neighborhood similar to those in Howard’s pictures.” Teju Cole, who wrote a foreword to Disappearing Shanghai, points out that, by its very nature, photography is a record of the past. It does not have film’s “durational quality, in which the illusion of a present continuous tense is conjured”; rather, a photograph shows “what was at the time it was taken.” Paradoxically, this form of “archival art” evokes re-imaginations and reconfigurations of what is gone, bestowing new life to what is passing and already past, and transforming melancholia to new journeys of heart and mind — and accounts for the comfort and liberation we feel upon reading the ending of Shanghai Homes, in which the artifacts of everyday life in the past are turned into raw materials for a new generation.

The palimpsest character of memory was explained in Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises, which Benjamin read when he was young. Baudelaire speaks of the human ability to retain the memory of impressions as the invisible realities. As Baudelaire writes:

An outline dimly shown.
And which the artist finishes to paint
From memory alone. 

Here more directly, human memory becomes a canvas or a manuscript on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing, while traces of the original remain. Such a method has its weaknesses, of course, due to the erratic veracity of personal narratives. Li’s solution is to check narratives against the historical record and against each other. She also asks what the inconsistencies, anachronisms, and blatant errors in the stories people recount can tell us about how the speakers saw the world and experienced history.

Alleyway houses have now become a cultural symbol for Shanghai urban life — the quintessential embodiment of daily life among city dwellers who were far from rich but also hardly destitute. This theme has been explored in recent scholarly works, such as Gregory Bracken’s The Shanghai Alleyway House: A Vanishing Urban Vernacular (2013), and in literature, most famously in Wang Anyi’s acclaimed novel The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (translated by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan, published in 2010), which has been adapted for television and film and is widely regarded as a contemporary literary classic on Shanghai life. In alleyway houses, gossip was an important component to everyday life in the neighborhood, as Li reminds her readers in Shanghai Homes. She refers to drawing on an “anthology of gossip,” noting that onlookers enjoyed tales of the foibles of their neighbors in turbulent times in Shanghai because “in other people’s pain and embarrassment they find catharsis or consolation for the unspeakable in their own lives.” In this “anthology,” she writes, “descriptions of scenes and moments unravel into complicated and serialized narratives featuring complex relationships playing out over several generations.” Li further argues for the creative quality of gossip in Shanghai, treating it as a legitimate part of local culture that informs modern literature and print media. In a similar fashion, gossip also helped shape moral views.

The role that gossip plays in Li’s book evoked my own real and inherited memory of Shanghai life, as did other things such as her discussion of the reuse and careful husbanding of everyday materials. One grandmother in the book is described as someone who bought the cheapest brands of household items and would soak the tiny stubs of soap leftovers in water overnight and then “sculpt the mixture into a new bar.” She would also, before going to bed, turn the tap onto a very slow trickle, so that the water meter would “sleep” without noticing how a whole basin of water accumulated overnight. Her hands would be rough and swollen, due to the fact that she only washed clothes and vegetables in cold water even in winter, and she was so harsh on her electricity usage that she would strain her eyes under 15-watt light bulbs.

All of this brought back a flood of memories, for even now, despite enjoying an affluent lifestyle, my mother, as someone who had to grow up overnight in order to run the house while her parents were sent off to labor reform camps, still subconsciously applies all those forms of thrift. She has never left completely behind the time when she would carefully iron her limited shirts with a teapot, turn burnt rice crusts into snack bars, and save money to send to her old house staff whom they were forced to dismiss. Shanghainese of my mother’s generation are often viewed, by those in other parts of China, as being calculative and stingy, but that is a misreading of their philosophy: they are merely harsh on their own everyday spending, as they learnt how to endure difficult years by saving every bit in order to recover a lifestyle that they consider dignified.

Li, who grew up in two different cultures, seems comfortable moving between them, shifting her identity as a Chinese-American scholar and a native Shanghai local freely in her writing. Qiu Xiaolong, who came to the US in 1988 and has lived abroad ever since, feels more disconnected from his “traditional urban neighborhood,” feeling that it is something he is searching for that is already long lost. As he confesses on his website, the “imagist” poems he wrote for Disappearing Shanghai sketch out scenes that are “familiar, but disappearing.” Howard French, an accomplished journalist and also a talented photographer, has yet another perspective, since he is an outsider to Shanghai but one who lived there for years as local bureau chief for The New York Times. His knowledgeable but still etic position allows him to create a particularly observant portrait of day-to-day life and trivia, highlighting objects and settings that local residents might have viewed as so ordinary as to be unworthy of attention. He seeks and glorifies a world that was strange to him. As a result, he stuns us with the rich human experience and depth of his appreciation for mundane life, for the vanishing scenes and spaces that were once familiar to many, and for the atmosphere of nostalgia that affects many who are now far from them in space and time — including this reviewer.

The dedication and attentiveness of Li and Qiu’s writings and French’s photographs show their understanding of and passion for different worlds: the world that they currently live in, and the world that they remember and yearn for. This perhaps is the transformation of the meaning of “home”: not just a clan or a building, and not just the microcosmic polity of hierarchies of gender, generation, and rank inherent to the Chinese social order, but also what individuals as travelers and drifters who are often caught between different places make on their own. As the old Chinese idiom tells us, “wherever your heart settles, wherever is home,” which is echoed by the English-language writer par excellence, William Shakespeare: “All places that the eyes of heaven visits, Are to the wise man ports and happy havens.”


Ting Guo recently received her PhD in religious studies from the University of Edinburgh and currently works for the Free Speech Debate Project at St Anthony's College, Oxford.

LARB Contributor

Ting Guo recently received her PhD in religious studies from the University of Edinburgh and currently works for the Free Speech Debate Project at St Anthony's College, Oxford.


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