by Lauren De’Ath
Old Shanghai was a city unlike any other. Notable for its free port, it was where the whole world came to work and play. Disparate Europeans and adventuring Americans rubbed shoulders with Jewish émigrés, Japanese expats and Russians: it was indeed a city with many faces. Alongside decadent jazz clubs and exclusive glamorous hangouts for a resident aristocracy, there was also an entrenched criminality sprung from starkest poverty; drug cartels and rampant prostitution overshadowed the city, yet these dramatic contradictions came to encapsulate Shanghai. To this day it remains an urban metropolis shrouded in myth and exoticism.
Recreating a reliable image of any city that has fallen behind a curtain of romanticism or mysticism is a much contended one amongst contemporary historians. Hence, when a piece of potential primary evidence comes to light that can disperse the haze of time, the news can be very exciting indeed.
In the 1920s, an eighteen year old Frenchman called Louis-Philippe Messelier set forth for the city of Shanghai to partake in the buzzing wool trade there (if we can imagine such a thing). Since the city was carved up among Western imperialists in 1842, Shanghai was split into concessions: the British got a slice, followed by the Americans and finally the French; where Messelier was based. The city, he came to learn, was a visual feast and juggling his business career became a photographer for the documentary publication French Journal of Shanghai.
His subsequent pictures took him to the furthest corners of the city and beyond; taking in everything from passing ritual processions to street entertainment, including clowns, acrobats and snake charmers; from peasants to players in the opera, movie stars and a game of Mahjong. He documents the chaos of traffic on the Bund and the magnificent huge Junk ships on the river Huang-Pu, pavilions, noodle shops, race courses and of course, dress, in stunning clarity. Hugely underrated, his work ought to be lauded for a sincere and atypical approach to his subjects. To date, over 250 shots remain.
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