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Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century.

Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century. By Hanchao Lu. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xvii, 456. $50.00.)

"The story of daily life in Shanghai is a tale of how the little people, in their own creative ways, lived through the gigantic changes in modern China" (296). Hanchao Lu's book is a "bottom-up" study of China's most populous, vibrant, and cosmopolitan city during the Republican era, particularly the 1920s and 1930s. The author sidesteps all the "gigantic" events of the period, such as the May 30th Movement, the anti-Communist White Terror, the Japanese conquest, and the Communist takeover. He ignores also the lives of the foreign minority (about 3 percent of the population) and those of the Chinese elite.

Lu focuses instead on the everyday life of the city's "little people." These consisted of two broad categories, the "urban poor" and "petty urbanites." The urban poor included rickshaw pullers, dock workers, street beggars, casual day laborers, and the unemployed; they constituted one-fifth of the city's population (which in the mid-1930s totaled 3.5 million). Petty urbanites were the office workers, shop assistants, and skilled factory laborers.

These three social groups differed according to housing types and residential areas. Thus, the elite lived in detached multifloor homes in the western and southwestern parts of the city. Petty urbanites most commonly resided in "alleyway houses" which were two-story or three-story brick row houses along alleys inside a compound that opened onto a street. By the late 1940s, "more than 72 percent of the city's dwellings were alleyway houses"; they were to be found throughout Shanghai (142). The more well-off among petty urbanite families owned and occupied an entire alleyway house; others rented a portion of a house (a floor, a room, or a loft above a room). The urban poor lived in straw shacks in filthy, crowded shantytowns along the boundary of the city's foreign settlements.

Most Shanghainese, according to Lu, spent their lives almost entirely within their immediate neighborhoods, whether they were shantytowns or alleyway compounds, far from the modern glitter of Nanking Road and Avenue Joffre with which Shanghai is most often identified. Petty urbanites, in particular, were able to meet almost all their daily needs from the various shops clustered around the entrances to their alleyway compounds (e.g., the "tiger store store" selling hot water) and from itinerant peddlers (e.g., the night soil collector). In short, Lu concludes, "Shanghai's image as modern Chinas showcase of Westernization often overshadowed the persistence of the past in the daily life of the 'little people'" (296).

The book is organized topically into six chapters. The first discusses the origins of the city's people, nearly all of whom (85 percent in 1950) were migrants from elsewhere. The next two chapters deal with the urban poor, focusing on the life of the rickshaw puller and on the shantytown dwellings. The last three chapters focus on the petty urbanites, their homes, their alleyway compounds, and their neighborhood stores (but, surprisingly, not their shrines and temples). Sources are wide-ranging and extensive. They include social surveys from the 1930s and the early 1950s, contemporary literary writings, published memoirs and oral histories, and the author's own interviews with forty-one longtime residents and his field surveys of seven alleyway compounds.

It is, overall, a fascinating and informative account of the material (as distinct from the intellectual) aspects of urban life in Republican China.

Edward Rhoads

University of Texas at Austin
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Author:Rhoads, Edwards
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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