Interview| Lǐ Shǒubái and Preserving Shanghai's Crucial Hǎipài Culture

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Friday, June 17, 2016 

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Hǎipài” (海派) was a term coined in the beginning of the 20th century to describe, specifically, Shanghainese operatic theatre, as compared to “jīngpài” (京派) the more traditionally-rooted, conservative Beijing school of opera.

 


"Mystery Soul" (2015)


At first it was used as an insult. In Chinese art, new ideas in artwork must be grounded in the country’s rich artistic history. Hǎipài was more flamboyant, extravagant, you might even say modern, or radical. Perhaps strange words to associate with traditional Shanghainese culture nowadays, but at the time, Shanghai really was perhaps the most culturally varied place on China’s mainland. People elsewhere in China and even outside the country were inspiring new and interesting ideas and artforms. Gradually, the word hǎipài came to be adopted by Shanghai’s elite writers, artists, musicians, movie stars and actors, spreading to new art forms, and in the end, it simply came to describe that unique, early 19th century Shanghai spirit.

 

Eventually, anything produced in Shanghai came to be known as hǎipài. And as shíkùmén (石库门) neighborhoods were the kind of closely-packed, urban centers where ideas and movements thrive, it could be said that shíkùmén neighborhoods were the cradle of hǎipài culture. Famous artists and theorists like Zhāng Dàqiān (張大千) and Huáng Bīnhóng (黃賓虹) lived right next to each other. But as Shanghainese culture continues to evolve at a break-neck pace, and as more and more of those shíkùmén neighborhoods are being torn down, hǎipài is in the strange position of itself becoming the old culture that will be replaced with something new.

 

One artist with an especially strong attachment to those old alleyways and the culture that blossomed within them is Lǐ Shǒubái (李守白). We had a chance to speak to him about shíkùmén culture, about hǎipài, and about what he’s doing to keep it alive.

 



EnjoyShanghai: Can you introduce yourself?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: The name my father gave to me shows you what you need to know; painting is my whole life. Most native Chinese will understand these three characters, (李) shǒu (守) and bái (白), because they resemble an old expression zhībái shǒu hēi (知白守黑).

 

If you look at it form an artistic point of view, then hēi (黑) or “black” refers to the blank ink used in Chinese brush painting and calligraphy. Bái, on the other hand, means the unpainted space, the void, a blank area open to the viewers’ imagination.

 

I learned painting because of my father, he is also a painter. Under his instruction, I got quite interested in painting. I have a younger brother and sister as well, but in the end, I was the only one who inherited the skill from him. All my life I loved and pursued painting, since I started learning when I was six.

 


"Window Vision" (2010)

 

ES: Your paintings are loaded with nostalgia for the alley culture of old Shanghai. What is it that draws you to the shíkùmén in your work?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: I think that of every five Shanghainese, you have three who once lived in shíkùmén. So this culture has influenced me deeply. It’s a varied culture. With contemporary culture, it is simply a repeating pattern. For example, windows are always 4 in a row; 4 of them make the whole picture.

 

But in shíkùmén, every family and every one of their windows are not the same. The cloth and curtains hanging over the windows are different. You need to walk into the alley to visit the people and know their stories. These stories become our themes, and based on the themes, we can paint, write a book or even make films. Contemporary culture and buildings, they’re just a simple repetition. What it wants to express is just a visual effect. So I think these alleys have influenced me much more deeply.

 


"Lost Dream of Shanghai "(2007)


ES: What do you remember from your own shíkùmén neighborhood?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: During my childhood, we had a balcony in my house, we could see everything happen outside our house. That’s what the children did when their parents didn’t allow them to go out to play.

 

As I recall, the scariest thing for me was seeing one of my neighbors. He seemed like a gang dom. We imagined this guy carrying an axe everywhere, but of course he didn’t. On the contrary, if you were playing inside the alley, if there was a problem, he would help you. If you fell down when you played and hit your head, he would give you a hand. So you know, he was actually a good guy. He knew you and knew that you lived here. I often include the faces and people from my childhood memories in my paintings.

 

ES: Do you have a favorite shíkùmén neighborhood?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: It has already been torn down.

 


"Setting Sun 2" (2012)


ES: Where was it?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: It was near our home, near where I lived. Jǐnán Road, it was near Xīntiāndì. The floor tiles had a decorative pattern on them. But now, it is all torn down.

 

Alley culture in Shanghai is disappearing. Shanghai used to be a small place, same as any other small city in Europe, so we could maintain our own culture. But now, with the changing of the world, everyone is pursuing bigger and higher aims. Gradually, this small city culture will die.

 


"Family Union" (2013)


Everyone says it is a pity to tear down these shíkùmén. But there’s nothing else to do because the houses were never meant to last more than 100 years. My favorite one made it to 70 years. It would probably have collapsed otherwise. Houses in Europe are made of stones, big stones. But in shíkùmén, they’re made with wood and brick.

 

When it rains, the wood rots away and the insects eat into the wood. The houses we see on Wàitān, the Bund, there are no problems with them, because they are made of stone. If you want to make a new window for a house on Wàitān, you need three days to finish it, but you only need half a day for shíkùmén. Wàitān buildings are thick and sturdy, shíkùmén buildings you can cut through no problem.

 

ES: So what’s the solution?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: It is necessary to renovate. Why? Because it is Shanghai’s cultural trademark. It is like a logo representing the city, you cannot remove the logo. My suggestion now is we should reinforce the remaining shíkùmén.

 


 

ES: Is it possible to reinforce them without destroying the building?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: Yes, we can. Xīntiāndì already did it. They first tear down the building, and then put each brick into treatment liquid, because it has insects inside it. And then we use the old materials to restore the building. But we’ve already torn down most of the old shíkùmén. so how can we protect them?

 

ES: What is it that makes Shanghai’s culture unique, where does it come from?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: We have our own culture in Shanghai’s lòngtáng (弄堂) or lane neighborhoods. I remembered that in the past, if we had a guest visit our home and we cooked food to serve them, we would take some food to our neighbors. When the neighbors had their food prepared, they would give us some. If parents were out and there was nobody at home to take care the children, the neighbors would help them. I can’t imagine that happening now. Life in the past, that small city life, it was everybody taking care of each other, even if they were from different places.

 

 

The Shoubai Art Center gallery

 

Although they were not from the same town or city or province, inside shíkùmén, we had people from Shàoxīng, Níngbō, Shanghai, Shāndōng, some were from the northern parts and some were from southern regions. We all lived together, shared not only space but the language, customs, we shared lives. Sometimes we would quarrel with each other, but what came out is just a different set of customs. For example, I am from Shàoxīng, what I cooked may be not suitable for you. But I would share my food with you.

 

In the past, those shíkùmén residences were accommodating people from everywhere, Chinese and occasionally non-Chinese tenants, who would have totally different outlooks. People were coming from all different backgrounds, differences in class, occupation, local origin. It was like a melting pot! Or perhaps more like a Chinese wok, a great variety of people were mixed together to produce a sauté.

 


"The Sounds of the Past" (2015)


ES: Is that what you would call hǎipài culture?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: There is a saying that goes hǎi nà bǎi chuān (海纳百川) meaning “sea refuses no river,” and that is what I believe the definition of hǎipài culture, Shanghai culture, really is. Shanghai culture is very welcoming, it embraces other cultures, it is very inclusive and open.  It embraced the cultures of people from virtually everywhere in the world, as well the cultures of other provinces in China. Hǎipàimeans that we mix the local culture and the foreign culture and make them ours. Finally, we get down to what’s left, a kind of culture that’s well-suited to everybody.

 

For example, even in the name of our houses, at first they were called shígūmén (石箍门), the pronunciation is a little bit different; are the iron hoops on a barrel, so it was “stone hoop doorway.” The name originated in Níngbō and spread from there, but people pronounced it differently. It became shíkùmén, and now it is just the Shanghai custom. And this is how those customs come into being.

 


"The Loft "(2013)


ES: Do you think contemporary Chinese people, even the ones living in Shanghai, have a misunderstanding about what alley culture really is?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: Yes, partially. But very few. People the same age as my daughter, the new generations may not have too much understanding of alley culture. But for those of us born in the 1950s and 1960s, we can talk about it for hours, we actually have that experience. If you talk to the younger generations, they just listen but don’t care much. So we must make it relatable. If people don’t like something they won’t inherit it.

 

 

"The Corner by the Window "(2011)


ES: Do you think your works can act as a bridge between generations, then?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: As for my work now, many people treat it as event recording of Shanghai. You can see the old houses which were torn down in my work. You can experience the changing of customs through my album of paintings. You find out what Shanghai used to be. We can say that the album is a reference. Many people regard my albums as a tool for understanding Shanghai.

 

ES: Do you consider it your mission to protect Shanghai’s alley culture?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: One is protecting, another one is to inherit Shanghai’s stories, like singing the old songs. I paint step by step. You cannot do it at random. You need to make it your mission. Maybe it’s a bit too serious to call it a “mission,” but it is my spontaneous response to the times and it is also a manifestation of my Shanghainese self.

 


 

ES: Besides your paintings, how do you and Shoubai Art Centre try to maintain hǎipài?

 

Lǐ Shǒubái: At Shoubai Art we take different approaches to increase people’s understanding and enjoyment of hǎipài culture. We are involved in various shíkùmén culture heritage preservation projects and educational programs. We are also trying to create more opportunities for the public to experience what hǎipài really is through workshops, seminars, lectures. And if you think about our Taste of Art series, we’re letting people try that taste of hǎipài.

 



 

It is a series of workshops that brings together Chinese traditional arts and crafts, such as brush painting, calligraphy, paper cutting and others with the culture of wine, which is predominantly the culture of the Western civilizations. So, if you think about it, it is very hǎipài of us to mix these two together. During the workshops, we also try to examine art from many different cultural perspectives. For example, when conducting a workshop about paper-cutting we look at the traditions of paper-cutting art not only in China but also in the West, where paper cutting traditions developed centuries later.

 

I think there must be a kind of cultural impact or conflict to create something beautiful, which means we need to put two different cultures together. Because it makes no sense to compare between two similar cultures. Only when two different cultures impact on each other can sparks be generated. And after all, that’s kind of what hǎipài is.

  


 

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If you’re interested in finding out more about what makes Shanghai’s culture unique, Lǐ Shǒubái will be at the Shanghai Film Museum this weekend for the opening of his exhibition “Lost in Shanghai’s Film World,” which will last from June 18th to October 31st.


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