Saturday, March 6, 2010

Shanghai - Art of the City at the Asian - Soiled Doves, New Women and Celluloid Goddesses

What do the following have in common – foot binding, prostitution, the silk industry, concubines? They all have to deal with the reality of women in Shanghai and they are all omitted from the current exhibit at the Asian. Shanghai, The Art of the City,  presents such a cleaned up and ready for its close-up image that you would never guess that it was a byword for decadence, corruption, violence,  and in the 1920's and 1930's, the  VD capital of the world.

Shining Eyes and White Wrists. (Above) (1887-1893) Wu Youru. Ink on Paper. Collection of the Shanghai History Museum. Women are playing billiards in one of the new public gardens in Shanghai. Since upper class and "respectable " women were largely secluded during this time, it's a reasonable assumption that these women were prostitutes (from the catalog of the show, p. 95)

In the first part of the exhibit, we are treated to a display of charming images about women. One brush-and-ink drawing is described as women playing table tennis, another one is identified as a courtesan while another women is using a sewing machine, but among the lot, there is only a casual mention of bound feet.

Bound feet were a fact of life in China. In a conversation during the press preview, Barbara Koh, the Shanghai Celebration assistant, told me that food binding wasn’t banned until 1949. So, all those tiny feet peeping out underneath trousers were actually bound, one of the numerous ways humans have invented to torture themselves in the name of fashion. Girls, some as young as four years old, had their feet strapped and broken. They suffered years of pain and a life-long restricted mobility, all for the sake of fashion, custom and what was thought of as sexy and erotic.

Image on the left: Bound feet (Wikipedia, Creative Commons License)

It wouldn’t have taken much to include this information in the exhibit –  maybe a photo, a pair of the tiny embroidered slippers and we would have had a telling visual of the deformed feet that Chinese women tottered on for centuries.

What about the reality in the section titled "New Women?"  In Stella Dong’s book on Shanghai, she recounts the experience of Alicia Little, a 19th century Englishman who attended an upper class banquet. As upper class women were secluded, the only women who attended were concubines and prostitutes attached to the various brothels in the district. Beautiful, young and beautifully dressed, the women were carried into the room in palanquins and "limped" back into them after the dinner was over. These women were the lucky ones, pretty, with some accomplishments who lived in fairly luxurious surroundings until they got too old to ply their trade or got ill. But the reality for most women in Shanghai was different.  By the time Shanghai became a treaty port, it was the brothel capital of the world. One in every 130 women in Shanghai were prostitutes and the city had the highest rate of VD in the world. (Dong, 35 - 45).

The exhibit would have gained immeasurably if there had been an open acknowledgment of the status of women during the 150 years covered by the show. Women were regarded as inferior and expendable. An ancient maxim decreed “Eight saintly daughters are not equal to a boy with a limp.” It's something that the Chinese Communist government fought against but their "one family, one child" policy resulted in more male births with girls being either aborted or abandoned (and China is not alone in this attitude).  This policy resulted in a disparate ratio of 114 males for every 100 females among babies from birth through children four years of age. Normally, 105 males are naturally born for every 100 females.

It Often Begins with a Smile, Jin Meisheng, 1930's - New Woman or just the same old profession, dressed up in new clothing? (from the catalog, pl 148).

There is a whole section of the exhibit on the new women of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The posters are gorgeous, the new fashionable dress elegant but how many women would afford this life style?. There is a delightful poster of two women dancing together. They are called tea girls but the text tiptoes around what their actual profession was.

Now, I realize that the museum is doing a survey and that a lot of children come to view the exhibit. It wouldn’t do to have too much frankness in the signage but why not somewhere in the catalog? In fact, given the talented museum staff, why not something in the wall text?

Some new women – like the Soong Sisters, daughters of a millionaire family really were new women -- although they were still defined by whom they married.  The second daughter, Ching-ling married Sun Yat-Sin, the founder of the Chinese Republic. The youngest daughter, May-Ling married  Chiang Kai-shek., the eventual dictator of China and Taiwan and the eldest daughter, Ai-ling, married the richest man in China at the time. There were the daughters of the nouveau riche bought the gorgeous Art Deco furniture and carpets displayed in the exhibit but the majority of women in China, in Shanghai (or elsewhere), worked for pennies, were treated like dirt and lived hard and difficult lives.

Even the goddesses of the Chinese Cinema suffered from public expectations of their behavior and their role. Ruan Lingyg, one of the most famous, committed suicide because of this. I wrote about this in a previous post:

 Where the Asian DOES get it right is in their film series. Starting off with the film "Triad," they will be showing a wide variety of films not normally seen in the U.S. There are films from ethe earliest days of Chinese cinema, films with a social focus and ones that portray the reality of the city, from the prostitute in "Triad" to "The Goddess," the best known surviving film staring Ruan Lingyu to documentaries on the Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

If women make up 50% of the population, why are we, why is the museum in 2010 promoting such an inaccurate and sanitized picture of their lives? The Shanghai exhibit at the Asian is a survey show. Parts of the exhibit suffer from taking such a wide angle view of a city with such rich and difficult past. Yet, it would not have taken much to include a few items such as an opium pipe, a pair of bound slippers, a portrait of of a real prostitute, even a photograph of the Chinese part of the city to have make the show more accurate, without sacrificing its broad appeal. Monday is International Women's Day and we are still fighting to have our authentic experience and history told. 

Stella Dong. Shanghai, The rise and fall of a decadent city.

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