- Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843–1937 by Cole Roskam
The past four decades have witnessed a rising academic interest in writing about Republican Shanghai, a city characterized by fragmented urban administration that resulted from the coexistence of the Chinese authorities and foreign colonial powers. The modern, eclectic design features of Shanghai’s built environment, the cultural diversity achieved through the city’s managerial fissures, as well as its prosperous economy have provided infinite topics for writing. Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843–1937 is a book published in 2019 by Cole Roskam, an architectural historian at the University of Hong Kong. The book uses chronologically and thematically organized materials to shed new insights into the Republican period of Shanghai’s architectural history.
This book explores the dialectics between governance and physical form through its focus on the extraterritoriality of foreign settlements, where the colonial powers created exceptions and autonomies that allowed them to abide by both their home country laws and customs in China. The starting point of this book is an examination of the social and political conditions that shaped the physical manifestation of the city. To be precise, the author looks at broadly constructed geopolitical and cultural contexts with particular attention paid to the reconciled yet conflicted multifaceted relationships, such as the contrast between the visions of the colonial powers and the realities of the Qing regime, the competing relationships between foreign colonial powers, and tensions between Chinese residents and foreign settlement administrations. The author delves into primary sources to reveal the ambivalent sentiments of the colonial powers through their interactions with the Qing dynasty, which have long been neglected in the field. In contrast to the Chinese cliche that describes the foreign powers as intruders, this book shows the opposite process: the Qing administration impeded the nation’s progress toward civilization and hindered the growth of people’s entrepreneurial spirit. As a consequence, the foreign powers believed that the violent opening of the country would lead to its glorious rebirth (chapter 1). By this logic, the establishment of foreign concessions aimed to protect the foreign mercantile class from being subjected to the “barbarism” of the Qing governance with its capricious and irrational legal system (chapter 1). On the other hand, the foreign powers cautiously avoided complete [End Page 237] subversion of the regime and crafted a vision of a collective prosperity of commerce (chapter 1). Their reconciliation with the Qing regime culminated in the formation of political and military allegiances against the Small Sword Uprising. In addition, the author thoughtfully unfolds diverse visions and missions of foreign powers beyond economic interests. These powers spread ideals and educated local people in civilized building tastes (chapter 4). This would contribute to contemporary Chinese people’s understanding of the war and the colonial powers in late Qing period Shanghai.
What impresses the reader most is the author’s convincing argument that the aforementioned social relationships of complexity took shape in the physical forms of extraterritoriality. This book shows that architecture reflected flexible yet universal legal and spatial systems and contradictions between mercantile ideals and the diplomatic realities of the Qing government. The principle of expediency led to the vision of a hybrid urban landscape (blending foreign physical fabrics and traditional Chinese architectural features and spatial frameworks) termed “urbane cosmopolitanism” (chapter 1). While constructing foreign consulates symbolizes the physical presence of the colonial governance in China, foreign settlement authorities were largely dedicated to maintaining the Qing’s rules (chapter 1). For example, the foreign powers’ preference for renting islands reflected a concern about limiting their influence within the boundary of islands in order to minimize their interference in Qing territory (chapter 1). The foreign-Qing political alliance against the Small Sword Uprising resulted in the expansion of the British and French concessions and architectural designs of eclecticism (chapter 2). Public memorialization of the foreign troops killed during the Uprising underscored the value systems of both China and the West that recognized the treaty port as a shared...