Crabs, bats and communists, in Cuba's greatest Soviet souvenir.
In a suburb of Shanghai, tucked away into the basement of a regular-looking apartment building, lies one of the largest collections of propaganda that I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s known as the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre.
I have to say however, I didn’t particularly like Shanghai. It was nothing like Beijing: with those picturesque lakes and old hutongs scattered throughout the Chinese capital. Back in Beijing, sometimes the pollution was so bad that the skies would close over me, thick and grey, so that the skyscrapers up above disappeared completely. It happened once while I was exploring a historic neighbourhood of little old houses and courtyards, and for a moment, losing sight of the city, I could almost imagine I had gone back in time to some ancient, rural village. For all its hideous pollution, Beijing oozes character, personality and mystique.
Shanghai, though, was relentlessly modern.
…or at least, that is, the parts of Shanghai that I saw.
Bright lights, flashing signs, massive towers and nightmarish traffic. It felt cleaner than the capital, too – all the dirt and grit and grime that had made Beijing so intriguing was gone, to be replaced here by pale concrete and white plastic cladding that glittered up the flanks of new-looking 30-storey towers.
The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre was not the only reason I travelled to Shanghai – but it would turn out to be the only thing I particularly enjoyed about the city. Everything else just felt manufactured and overpriced: from the waterfront region known as the Bund, where gaggles of tourists posed for photos in front of the bright, shiny towers of banks and shopping malls… to the Shanghai French Concession, now a popular party street where clubs and bars sell small bottles of beer for ten times what they’d cost in the rest of China.
Even the Pearl Tower, one of the most famous icons of Shanghai, felt somehow forced when I saw it up close. A monument for the sake of monumentalism, a clean, shiny object that offered no history lesson but rather seemed to exist simply for the sake of featuring in travel brochures.
Of course, it would be wrong to judge a city of 24 million people on just a few days spent in its cosmopolitan centre – I don’t doubt that there are other curious treasures lurking in the less-visited neighbourhoods of Shanghai, and perhaps some day I’ll return – but this trip, as it turned out, was all about getting in, finding the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, then quickly hopping onto the next train back to Beijing.
Happily though, this peculiar little museum would prove to be well worth the trip.
The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre
Shanghai’s Museum of Propaganda Posters began as a private collection; but over the years, it grew to become a sprawling exhibition numbering more than 5,000 printed works. For something so unique however, the place is surprisingly hard to find.
The centre is located in the basement of an apartment block, right out in the suburbs of the city. I had an address scribbled down on my notepad – though it didn’t help. As is often the case in Chinese cities, this taxi driver seemed to be unfamiliar with the streets and neighbourhoods of Shanghai. In the end, we had to direct him… navigating from a map on my friend’s phone, until eventually, some 50 minutes later, we rolled up outside a rather nondescript tower block that my notepad insisted was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre.
I say ‘tower block’… but blocks would be more accurate. The address took us to a series of apartment buildings that rose up inside a gated enclosure; all of them identical, and not a sign for the museum in sight.
My research told me that the museum was located in a basement, but it wasn’t until the third building that we had success… finally exiting an elevator on the basement floor to run face-to-face into a huge print of Chairman Mao.
Most of the collection focusses on the propaganda prints that heralded Chairman Mao Zedong’s rise to power – and his cultural revolution, the ‘Great Leap Forward.’
Wall-size prints put Mao’s face in alignment with the other big names of communist philosophy: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, as if painting the Chairman as the ultimate evolution of the movement.
Some of the posters depict scenes of battle – others are stylised messages celebrating the stirrings of communism in the Arab world, or advertising support for the North Korean struggle against US interference on the Korean Peninsula.
In the pictures, Chinese soldiers stand tall and proud with handsome, chiselled features. Some punch the air with raised fists. Others clutch at copies of Mao’s Little Red Book. Allied forces meanwhile, British and American, appear as withered, diseased ghouls or drawn like pompous, fat little children. It’s all rather fun, and fiercely indiscreet with its black-and-white depictions of foreign evil.
Some of the exhibits featured English translations beneath. The majority didn’t, though when I ran the pictures past a Chinese friend later, none of the captions were particularly surprising.
“Long live the great Marxism, Leninism and Maoism!”
And so forth.
Contrary to what its name might suggest, the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre is more than just a collection of propaganda posters. The owner’s interests run broader than that, even if Mao-era communist prints are the main selling point here. Other basement rooms were filled with 1930s Shanghai pin-up girls, shipping notices and ‘Big Character Posters‘: the handwritten signs that the Chinese have used since imperial times to communicate protest or propaganda, a practice which private citizens were tentatively permitted to continue even under Mao.
Reviews of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre often talk about the host, the collector himself, and how glad he is to spend time chatting with his visitors. Perhaps I caught him on a bad day, then – because I found his presence uncomfortable, and strangely authoritarian. I said Hello when I arrived, and he merely nodded; didn’t smile. Then, much like the staff who guard the tourist shops in downtown Shanghai, the proprietor discreetly followed me around his museum, checking this, adjusting that, until it gave me the deeply unsettling feeling that I was neither trusted nor welcome here, amidst his prized collection.
That’s not to say it spoiled the experience – it merely changed it. As a result I didn’t feel as though I was here on the outside of communism and looking in: looking at it under glass. But rather the authoritarianism, the ideological conflict portrayed in these posters seemed to permeate my whole experience of the place. I avoided the proprietor as I moved carefully through the shadowy corners of the museum.
Photographs were forbidden, while signs pointed visitors towards the gift shop next door to buy expensive reproductions instead. I kept my camera low and shot from the hip… coming out with a set of blurry contraband photos that would be my only souvenir from this peculiarly commercialised collection of communist art.
I left Shanghai the morning after my visit to the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. But not before sampling the nightlife of the city.
It wasn’t my idea. I had been travelling in China with a friend, and we stayed at a hostel for our time in Shanghai. While there we’d met a couple of Canadian backpackers, and they’d come along with us to the Propaganda Poster Museum. Now it was their turn to suggest an excursion: the famous nightclubs of the Shanghai French Concession. It says a lot about my feelings for Shanghai that I couldn’t think of a single thing I’d prefer to do that night; and so off we went, to the clubbing district.
The place was just as grim as I imagined. Bad music, the smell of sweat, and flashing lights… too expensive to drink, too loud to hold a conversation. I spent my evening lurking near the bar, nursing one far-too-expensive gin and tonic, as I watched the other patrons of the club.
Nearby there were two girls dressed like supermodels, who appeared to be running some kind of scam. I saw them talking to a shady character at a VIP table; he would give them orders, point out some drunk foreigner on the dance floor, and immediately the girls would head over and start dancing around the unexpecting tourist. I never quite worked out if they were prostitutes, or pickpockets.
My new friends were off nearby somewhere, drinking, dancing, and generally having a lot more fun than I was. I felt like a hostage in that nightclub… I’d been Shanghaied, I suddenly realised, and I laughed to myself in a way that probably made me look quite insane.
China today is a peculiar place: a modern-day People’s Republic ruled over by the Chinese Communist Party, and yet it is a place where advanced capitalism is in full bloom. I can’t say I exactly enjoyed my time in Shanghai; but it was interesting nonetheless, as a microcosmic illustration of the contradiction that is modern China. At first glance, the city centre is a lively, liberal party town where the only traces of communism hang behind glass. But those seemingly carefree girls in the nightclubs might just be reporting back to an invisible power hierarchy… while at the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, what’s framed as history is rather a work-in-progress, the family photo album of the same political party that still rules China now.