An American in Shanghai: Then and Now

An American in Shanghai is a documentary film on US-China relations by William A. Callahan, who is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and author of China Dreams: 20 Visions of the Future, a paperback edition of which was published in 2015 (for The China Story coverage of this work, see here). His research examines the interplay of culture and politics in China, and explores documentary filmmaking as a research strategy (see ‘The Visual Turn in IR: Documentary Filmmaking as a Critical Method‘). Callahan’s other films include ‘toilet adventures’ (2015), which is posted on The China Story website and was shortlisted for a major award by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). For this and other films, see www.vimeo.com/billcallahan).  We thank Bill for sharing on The China Story this engaging filmic account of his search in present-day Shanghai for remnants of the Republican-era life enjoyed by his ‘Shanghailander’ Uncle Chuck. — The Editors

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When I was young, my parents told me about my Uncle Chuck’s magnificent house in Shanghai: A mansion built in the 1920s on nineteen acres of land in the center of the city. The house was so large that the Japanese turned it into a hospital during World War II.  I always wondered what happened to Uncle Chuck’s house. I started coming to China myself in 1985, but before I could ask him for the address, he had passed away. Over the years, street names changed and the address was lost. Nobody in the family even knew where to look. Only memories and mythologies remained.

A few years ago, I decided to track down Uncle Chuck’s house. What I found were strange and interesting things about my family and about the life of ‘Shanghailanders’, which is what foreigners called themselves in the 1930s. Chuck was a typical small-town Midwestern guy who pursued the American Dream of fame and fortune; but he is remarkable because he realised this dream in China. While most China-bound Americans worked as Christian missionaries to build schools and hospitals, Chuck was different: he was a merchant banker who led the American Cowboys polo team to victory over the Brits. He was interned by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942, returned to Shanghai after the war to re-stake his claim, and then escaped to Hong Kong just before the People’s Liberation Army liberated Shanghai in 1949.

An American in Shanghai traces the personal history of my uncle in Shanghai from 1924 to 1949 to illuminate new views of China’s modern history of imperialism, war, revolution, and now, rejuvenation. It shows how people like Chuck used the advantages of imperial system, such as extraterritorial protection, to build a fabulous life—often at the expense of their Chinese competitors. This short film is also an experiment, exploring different ways of doing and presenting academic research. Rather than just search for the ‘facts’, it traces the experiences and feelings of Americans in Shanghai in the 1930s – and the 2010s. Inspired by the work of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes, it mixes personal stories and professional analysis, with the goal of creatively ‘thinking visually’ and ‘feeling visually’.

But An American in Shanghai is more than an exploration of imperial history, US-China relations, or new research methods.

It is a mystery story: is Chuck’s house still there? If I find it, will the new owners let me in to take a look? — Bill Callahan