Story of Shanghai is rich, dazzling

This is the Year of the Tiger, and the Year of Shanghai.

The 2010 World Expo in Shanghai opens in May.

“Shanghai” — a major exhibit of dozens of oil paintings, furniture, rugs, revolutionary posters, fashion, film and contemporary installations at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco — opens Friday, the beginning of the Chinese New Year.

A city of dazzling variety, Shanghai (“above the sea”) is China’s largest city — a megalopolis of more than 20 million people.

It has a rich contemporary history, famous as a center of international commerce from the middle of the 19th century through its current status as the world’s largest cargo port.

History, diversity, landmarks and tourist destinations — the Bund, the City of God Temple and more — are represented in the exhibit, co-organized by the Shanghai Museum and the Asian Art Museum. Michael Knight is the lead curator.

The poster “Nanjing Road” is a fascinating visual representation of Shanghai as a hub of commercial power in the early 1900s.

It shows busy traffic — luxury cars, double-deck buses, not a rickshaw in sight — in a canyon of high-rise buildings, including some of the city’s major department stores. For good measure, the artist added two planes in the air, dangerously close to each other, but clearly serving only as added decoration in this picture of modernity.

Another cityscape, “Shadow in the Water,” is more abstract, but the installation of porcelain and light speaks of the same gleaming metropolis, which must have been fantastically incongruous in the middle of rural, impoverished, traditional China a century ago.

In addition to photographs of the city’s diverse population back then — including a group of Jewish refugees as World War II approached — paintings, calligraphy and other works chronicle the history and nature of Shanghai.

The show’s abstract art even deals with the reality of the city. “Shanghai Garden,” for example — an installation of silicone rubber rocks — is meaningful due to the material’s source. The piece was manufactured from molds of real rocks used in traditional gardens arrayed on top of bricks salvaged from the demolition of Shanghai houses in the 1920s.

Posters and paintings of young women represent both the city’s prosperity and its reputation in the old days for thriving prostitution.

Examples abound of the slender, form-fitting quipao — Shanghai’s update of the traditional Chinese women’s dress.
From fashion to politics, “Shanghai” also traces the city’s pre- and post-revolution days, including the socialist movement in the 1930s and life under the various phases of Mao’s rule, all the way to the 21st-century economic and social turmoil.


Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
When: Opens Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except until 9 p.m. Thursdays; closed Mondays; exhibit closes Sept. 5
Tickets: $17 general; $13 for seniors; $12 for ages 13-17; free for ages 12 and under
Contact: (415) 581-3500,

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