Shanghai Student Discusses the Evolution of Tianzifang in New Documentary

By That's Shanghai, January 22, 2020

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Wentao (Samuel) Xue is currently a high school junior studying at the Shanghai World Foreign Language Academy. In winter 2018 and spring 2019, he visited Tianzifang multiple times, conducting extensive research on the community’s historical development and changes in the lifestyle of its residents over time. His short documentary, Pearls from a Winding Path, was created in an effort to reflect on social change in Tianzifang through two interconnected storylines.

Wentao (Samuel) Xue is a high school junior at the Shanghai World Foreign Language Academy. Image courtesy of Wentao (Samuel) Xue 

Below, Samuel tells us a little more about his video:

In the heart of Shanghai lies an old neighborhood as complex as it is renowned. Enduring the the Cultural Revolution, the changing times of the economic reformation and the growth of the past few decades, the neighborhood remains largely intact with arts and culture flourishing within. The neighborhood was named Tianzifang and was reconstructed into a commercialized tourist attraction in 2001. The area is now a labyrinth of alleyways stemming off of Taikang Road, where street stalls, boutique shops, bars and restaurants occupy the narrow spaces.

I explored the area and learned about the lives of two very different individuals whose lives are intertwined with a shabby, 4-story house. The first is Maodi, a born-proletariat who seized an opportunity to study abroad and rose to become a restaurant owner through hard work. The second is David, the son of a landowning family whose life was changed by the Cultural Revolution and who keeps a low profile till this day. Intrigued by the crisscrossing of their lives and the fascinating impact of national politics has on people’s lifestyles, I conducted a series of in-depth interviews and did some outdoor shootings of the community, combining the footage into a 20-minute-long documentary film titled Pearls from a Winding Path

While family ties play a role in this school research project, the unique commercial culture in the neighborhood also sparked my interest. In the early 2000s, it seemed like the place was going to be another Xintiandi. Clubs and bars were flushing in and a nightlife culture was growing, but they gradually got replaced by street stalls and handicraft shops whose tenders come from all over China. Now we are seeing a wonderful mix of western elegance, eastern hustle and bustle, as well as remnants of the traditional Shanghainese alley culture inside all that space.

Pearls from a Winding Path examines the twisting and turning of different threads in history and how they eventually come together in Tianzifang. The documentary demonstrates to the audience, in simple terms, what it means to grow up and settle down in a rapidly evolving modern society.

You can watch the video below:

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