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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century
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on October 23, 2014
Masterful and elucidating commentary on the "petty urbanites" of Shanghai in the 20's and 30's and somewhat forward. The "tome" focuses on the majority of the Shanghai "Chinese" population. Types of row houses lived in, the diversity of food stuffs and type of food vendors, living conditions, costs, transportation (among which rickshaw drivers predominate), entertainment, restaurants, markets, repairmen and all manner of social economic considerations for the vast Chinese "petty urbanites". Strong and focused piece. I wished only that it was 300 pages longer! Very illuminating book.
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on May 31, 2013
I enjoyed this informative book tremendously. It jogged my memory of my childhood home, Shanghai, Paris of the East. The alleyways (lilong), where we spent so much time, were truly beyond the Neon Lights. Wonderful descriptions and photographs of street life. It filled me with nostalgia and helped me keep my focus and elevated standards when writing my own book. Hangchao Lu has written about a side of Shanghai that is little known to tourists and foreigners. Highly recommended.
Ester Benjamin Shifren, Author Hiding in a Cave of Trunks: A Prominent Jewish Family's Century in Shanghai and Internment in a WWII POW camp.
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on April 22, 2015
I enjoyed the book, but it wasn't too straightforward a read with the density of specific words and descriptions. It really paints a great picture of the common people of Shanghai at the time, and that was something I appreciated above all the typical historical descriptions of Shanghai that I have read before.
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on February 11, 2011
This is one of those rare books that if you push ahead and force yourself to slog through the entire thing you will feel like an expert on the subject it covers.
This is an academic study of what everyday life was like for ordinary, Chinese citizens in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s with some coverage of things before and after that period. It is heavily footnoted and uses both and English language sources, both secondary and primary. The depth and detail of what it covers is astonishing. i.e. it contains forty pages, a full chapter, on the rickshaw industry in Shanghai from the time it began to the time it disappeared. Wages, licensing, enforcement of licensing, weekly work hours of typical rickshaw drivers, ages, places of origin, even the colors of rickshaws, its all here in great detail and sources of facts, figures and other information are carefully noted. And not only that, I found the details fascinating. (Then again I hold a master's degree in Chinese history and suspect many people would not find this level of detail to be their cup of tea.)
If you are wondering on how a city this size disposed of human waste there are nine pages on that. And again, it's all carefully footnoted and fascinating.
Restaurants for the working classes, and their menus, rates (i.e. a meal in a low class restaurant generally cost 13% of a Shanghai laborers daily wage) and more, it's here. Rent and living quarters as well as the use of space and relations among neighbors, it's here.
Again, a densely written academic study that is not for everyone, but for someone who really wants to know this subject in depth, I imagine this book will be the text to go to for a long time. In short, an amazing piece of work.
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on November 8, 2002
If you are looking to understand the enigma that is Shanghai, then look no further than Mr. Lu's incredibly insightful "Beyond the Neon Lights". It could be subtitled: "Beyond the hype, the myths, the stereotypes and the cliches," but Mr. Lu is an academic, and uses sound research to sell his books rather than sensationalism. Bravo for him, I say.
Shanghai history books - the sensationalist, badly researched ones, at least - tend to present an Old Shanghai of Gangsters, Bankers, Hookers, and Foreigners...oh my! Even the more thorough ones present mostly the wild advantures of those wacky expatriates, ignoring or neglecting the role and the life of the "laobaixing", the ordinary people of Shanghai.
"Beyond the Neon Lights" fills this very large gap amazingly well. It is dedicated to life in the lanes that were and are the arteries of the city, the source of its lifeblood, the petty urbanites. Lu explores the architecture of the Shikumen, the typical pre-1920s Shanghai lane dwelling, and explains how its system of sub-sub- and sub-letting fomented the complicated communities that emerged there. He also conveys how the social structures and cultural habits changed with the introduction of more modern lanes (with indoor plumbing, fewer households, etc) and the Art Deco highrises.
Every aspect of life in Shanghai was and often still is structured around the lane neighborhood. Although the new-style lanes are less contained, more open, and thus less of a microcosm, both vintages boast their own economy of scale. There is the old-style convenience store, the "tobacco and paper shop", at the entrance, plus a tailor, produce dealer, shoe-repairman, locksmith, pharacist...and more in the larger lanes. Other needs were serviced by the itineret peddlars, selling goods or repairing them or buying rubbish. The latter, Lu explains, were the main source of income for the housekeepers of the middle class.
The roving peddlers still ply their trade in Shanghai's remaining lanes; all that has changed are their regional backgrounds and some of their wares. But now, as then, they are distinguished by the ditties they sing to announce their arrival. I awake every morning to the tune of one of the three rice vendors who frequents my lane; he is followed by a series of seasonal fruit vendors, the chicken man, the beer man, and the used electronic buyers. About once a week the wicker chair repairman wanders by. The travelling cobbler skirts my street, since he has three permanent competitors on the block, but I see and hear him elsewhere. I rarely use their services, but I love hearing them: they make Shanghai Shanghai.
Lu also documents the migration patterns that configured the people who normally count themselves as Shanghainese. The relatively high-class ones came from Ningbo, Hangzhou and elsewhere in Zhejiang Province, the middle class from Jiangsu south of the Yangtze, and the dregs from north of the Yangtze. "Beyond the Neon Lights" goes into interesting depths about the slums of these despised "Jiangbei" people. This was of particular interest to me, as my current and previous residences are adjacent to the most notorious old slums: along the Suzhou Creek, which still exists, and on the Zhaojiabang Creek, which has since given way to a six-lane highway.
All the bustle, activity, and "decadence" that happened on Shanghai's main streets was only possible because of the oddly parochial yet international Shanghainese attitudes cultivated in the lanes. They were the foundation of the city, and these attitudes will prevail long after the lanes have vanished to give way to the urban planners' (mostly vengeful Jiangbei people) futuristic vision. The stories contained in "Beyond the Neon Lights" pose an argument why Shanghai's rapidly vanishing lanes should be preserved, or at least why you should enjoy them while you can.
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on July 13, 2005
This book is a welcome escape from the usual exotic kaleidoscope of old Shanghai descriptions of the city as the Paris of Asia, with its underworld, foreign expatriates, princely buildings and so on. On the contrary it documents Shanghai at street level and portrays the every day life of the man in the street. Obviously the work of an academic, it details immigration patterns, the intricacies of byzantine rental agreements, rickshaw fare structures, shikumen house floor plans in a scientific way. A long but fascinating reading, it will only appeal to people who already know the city well and want to go one step further in their understanding of Shanghai - and are not put off by the astronomic quantity of Chinese words contained in its pages.
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