Creative Shanghai: A Photo Essay


This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional), Spanish

Shanghai is arguably China’s ever-incandescent jewel in its magisterial urban crown. A megacity of over 23 million people, it has catalysed the shift of global economic hegemony eastward, with seemingly each one of its inhabitants spurring it on. The important of the creative industries to economic growth is a rhetoric that has also been part of the immense dirigiste of Shanghai’s velocious growth. And like the ‘creative scene’ in any other global or megacity, the proliferation of a vibrant creative economy (paralleled with the increased mediation of the city) is predicated upon a vibrant subcultural milieu. This photo essay is the result of a psychogeographical dérive around the city, in an attempt to capture Shanghai’s creative milieu and the congenital urban mediation, but to also to gaze in voyeuristic (perhaps even Orientalist) pleasure at the vibrancy, complexity and rapidity of the city.

The creative industries are big business in Shanghai. With over 50 creative industry clusters, they have a serious city-building quality too. Perhaps the most famous (certainly the most talked about) is M50, an urban chic, SoHo style area, that has art galleries, exhibition spaces and boutique office spaces restyled from the old industrial architecture.


There are labelling plaques in or near the entrance to all the designated ‘culture industry parks’ – a very particular form of branding to make sure you know you’re in a creative space.


The old industrial units make for ideal exhibition, office and gallery spaces…


Another one of the many creative clusters designated by the Shanghai municipality was D1 International Creative Space. More of a media cluster, the mainly business offices was more corporate than the artistic, ‘boutiqueness’ of M50.



The sleek glass and stainless steel interiors modelled on an exclusive Manhattan ad agency perhaps?

Tianzifang (田子坊), another creative cluster is spread through the narrow, almost labyrinthine backstreets of Taikang Road in the French Concession area of the city.




The claustrophobic yet alluringly serene passages are dominated by micro retail outlets; a craft shop here, a gift shop there, a picture framer over there. An overtly touristic feel however negates any ethos of ‘authenticity’ (whatever that might actually entail).


Xintiandi (新天地), another manicured creative cluster was gearing up for Shanghai Fashion Week – a major creative industry event that catalyses collaborative activity and innovate economies to burgeon. These kinds of events are a must for a city to be taken seriously on the global creative stage. The area’s meticulous beautification belied the oppressive urbanity of the surrounding city – and the presence of chain stores only served to catalyse this isolative mantra.


In these instances, there is an albeit culturally disparate, but institutionally similar feel to the cultural quarter style developments. The intrinsic typology seems to hold true – media digital clusters, industrial-cum-artistic gallery spaces, and retail-led boutique areas.

But enough with formal, institutional ‘creativity’ (and its flirtation with sterility). We all know how these work (and how they don’t). The informal, subcultural, ‘urban subversion’ form of creativity the soup in which formality dunks its bread.


M50 is on Moganshan Road, one of the very few (the only one on my travels) that had any foreign objects adhered to it. Further down ‘graffiti alley’, the street art intesifies…


Elsewhere in the city, graffiti and street art is evident, but not pervasive.



Not even sure what this says as to my shame, I cannot speak or read the language (it is instructional?), but calligraphic beauty of written Mandarin turns any phrase into art…


The informality of Shanghai bleeds into the formal – the ordered chaos of the streets exudes complication yes, but only a complication of proximity. An attention to the senses contemporaneously is required in order to navigate, but such attention pays dividends in deciphering the imbued formality within the chaos…


Sometimes creativity is a survival instinct…


Or used for quirkier purposes….


Then there is the increasing mediation of the city. The ‘Blade Runner-isation’ of cities is of course not unique to Shanghai or East Asian cities more generally, but there is an ethereal hyper-reality to experiencing intense mediation through the Asian language. A hangover of intense Orientalism from Hollywood perhaps…


At the train stations, the digital mediation of useful transport information is emblazoned high for all to see, yet in other instances, it is advertising that is forced upon from on high, with gargantuan television screens hawking to all that pass by.


Wherever you go in the city, you are not far from the ubiquitous site of the lumbering steel and glass giants of Pudong.


Their omnipresence throughout the city is a constant visual cue of Shanghai’s aggrandizement; the past, present and future jostling aesthetically. Tradition, modernism, preservation, progress, formality, informality, promptitude and ponderousness come together is a melting pot of unique urbanism.




Oli Mould is a lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is interested in the creative practices of cities, those that contribute to capitalist accumulation, and those that seek to resist it. He blogs at
  • Meiqing Li

    Wow! As a frequent passer-by to Shanghai, I should say so empathetic and inspiring.

    FYI, the Chinese slogan on the wall is not instructional but it does demonstrate some sort of old-fashioned revolutionary calligraphy and context by shutting the parking space from outsiders.