Shanghai's architectural historyan East-West hybrid combining the modest sturdiness of a Chinese trading town with the showier Art Deco ambitions of the foreigners who began descending in the 19th centuryis fast disappearing. Helping us remember this remarkable urban legacy before the last of the wrecking crews strikes is Canadian photographer Greg Girard, a longtime resident of China's largest metropolis, whose new book Phantom Shanghai was published last month. Many of the historic buildings that Girard documentsforlorn carcasses cowering below towers of concrete and glasshave already been demolished. Understanding this lends the photos a nostalgic resonance, a sense that we are witnessing what novelist William Gibson, in his foreword to the book, calls "the actual vanishing, the hideous 21st-century urban hat trick."
No city stops growing, of course, unless it runs out of money or relevanceand Shanghai boasts plenty of both. But each time I return, my favorite place in China seems less itself. Many residents, too, look disoriented: Wasn't a noodle shop here just a week ago, or a tailor's atelier there, or a row of lane houses just around the corner?
Girard accentuates this sense of dislocation by taking most of his pictures in those crepuscular moments when Shanghai reveals its private self. Behind the blinding economic razzle-dazzle and throngs of striving entrepreneurs, the city is defined by its intimate sense of neighborhood, what Girard calls its "lived-in-ness." Walk Shanghai's alleyways at night and inhale the smell of braised pork wafting out of a communal kitchen, hear the slap of a shuttlecock struck by a pajama-clad girl, catch a glimpse of a chandelier in a threadbare bedroomonce part of a ballroom in some silk merchant's mansion, now subdivided to house a dozen families. Yet I know this Shanghaimy Shanghai, Girard's Shanghaiis vanishing. All that will be left are these phantom images, a visual elegy to a city that is lost.