Feb 15, 2010

Seminar on Shanghai and Berlin


Two Western novels treat the experiences of two boys in the International Settlement in Shanghai in between the First and Second World War: When We Were Orphans and Empire of the Sun. In 1854, fueled by economic interest in the opium trade, Shanghai was occupied by foreign concessions who had carved out privileged extraterritorial conclaves within the city that enjoyed economic hegemony. National boundaries were drawn; the clear demarcators between privileged and other were univocally established. Shanghai ostensibly was an urban collaboration between East and West, but the experiment ultimately failed. I am thinking through issues of the Settlement in Shanghai because I hope to get accepted to a seminar at Stanford this summer on Shanghai and Berlin as a contemporaneous urban site for investigating modernism and fascism in both the East and the West. Both cities had a strong sense of nationalism that led to the rise of dictatorial power. The seminar this summer, to quote a goal, will us help us understand “the weakness of forms of modernity that ultimately gave way to dictatorial regimes”; for example in Doblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Fassbinder’s film, that outlines Germany’s rise to Fascism. I am very much interested in investigating parallels to Shanghai’s similar route to a violent regime overthrow. I want to explore further texts that illustrate how Berlin and Shanghai were postulates for a cosmopolitan, aesthetic space, that despite their hopes for modern ideals, fell sway to the destructive nature of war and aggression. Berlin and Shanghai were both cosmopolitan urban spaces in the interwar period and both experienced Axis takeover. It is obvious to think of fascism’s rise in the West during this period; I think it is also important to look at Shanghai as a similar space — as a projection of European modernity and the paradox of both Berlin and Shanghai becoming seed beds for violent upheaval.
        My work on Shanghai was not born in a vacuum. My own research on Shanghai was begun first with a graduate course on globalization. Then, I wrote an essay on Ballard’s conception of the Settlement seen through the memory of a boy held captive after the invasion of the foreign concessions in Shanghai in 1937. For my MA thesis for English, I worked on the psychological development of boys’ coming-of-age vis-á-vis the trauma of the Second World War in Asia seen through the lens of contemporary fiction writers, J.G. Ballard, Kappa Senoh, and Kazuo Ishiguro. In this project I laid out Lacan’s idea of the tripartite rendering of the mind, the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real as a conceptual framework to look at the development of a boy’s worldview and the rise and fall of imperial regimes. While researching my thesis, I became interested in how boundaries define space in an urban milieu, focusing on the weakness of the symbolic order during war. I want to return to this theme that was not fully worked out in the course of my thesis. In times of destabilization, urban spaces, with clearly demarcated boundary lines disappear, revealing the coarser aggressive nature of regimes (under the idealistic banner of modernity). Since the completion of my thesis, which had been psychoanalytic in nature, I am drawn back to some previous concerns of globalization, humanitarianism and the weakness of modernity. I want to free my work on Ishiguro from the arguments of my thesis and work solely on Ishiguro’s Shanghai as a potential journal article. I am very much interested in looking at the primary sources written during the interwar period in Shanghai, looking for examples of how Europeans interacted with Chinese laborers; what popular culture documents were being produced that possibly outlined the relationship between the two parties. How was the Settlement constructed; where were the boundaries; were the rules merely on paper, or did rules strictly govern who could come and go?
       During a telephone discussion with my former thesis director, among talk of goals and pursuits, we began talking about Ishiguro’s novel and the concept of urban space as a signifier for modern ideology, noting the scene, on the eve of another world war, when the optimistic protagonist Banks returns to his childhood home in the International Settlement in Shanghai. The detective imagines the space in Shanghai as virtually unchanged, and his parents still there, even though his parents had been reported missing years before. The strictures of the settlement itself, closed to Chinese nationals, until the Japanese invasion, except for labor — the walls outside of the settlement become a metaphor for danger and war, not couched within the West’s (or here, England) protective womb. The space had originally been granted economic privilege at the height of British and Western expansion into Asia. After the First World War, imperialism was in its death throes; the West loses the International Settlement. Banks returns to Shanghai at the close of modern optimism in the novel to uncover an urban Shanghai on the verge of war that no longer exists in the quasi-imperial form he wishes to remember it. Entering the Settlement, he does not recognize his childhood home. Its new Chinese family have renovated the dwelling, making it unknown to Banks. He attempts to explain to Mr. Lin, its new owner, how he wishes to restore the home to its imperial glory, saying, “how inevitable it is that a house undergoes alteration whenever its occupants change” (206). Banks makes an observation about the tendency for new occupants to mold a space to fit the needs of the present while attempting to outmode — to eradicate — the past. This psychopathology of memory is clear when Banks, lead by a Chinese lieutenant, is led into an urban battle at the outbreak of the invasion of Shanghai in 1930, a brutal, hostile urban warfare that irrevocably alters the once idealistic, cosmopolitan face of the city into a dangerous world where the once powerful European signifiers fail to hold sway. Upon leaving the Settlement borders, and his parents’ home, entering Chaipei at the climax of the Japanese invasion, Banks cries out, “We’re possibly dangerously close to the war zone. And we’ve left the Settlement!” (242). Banks is similar, perhaps, to the ex-prisoner in Alexanderplatz, an apt parallel story in Berlin, losing his mind — an allegory of a society about to lose its underlying order. The novel, then, begins to play on Bank’s memory of a past Shanghai — an imperial past — that has ceased to exist under the might of a new aggressive order.
        I hope to be an active participant in this summer’s seminar at Stanford. I think the seminar’s stated goals of examining innovations of both cities, through the arts, through film, and literature as way to also examine inherent dissimilarities between “East and West” is a cogent metaphor for today, where the same seeming incommensurabilities still exist. Not only will the seminar advance my own scholarly research goals, but I believe the marriage of both Berlin and Shanghai as similar urban sites makes a lot of sense. Scholarship has been done on both cities, especially their role in world affairs in the first half of the twentieth century, but I am not aware of an effort to think through both cities as a mirroring metaphors for modernism.