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    Remembering a Golden Age: Shanghai at the Turn of the Century

    Photographer Xu Haifeng captures the melancholic optimism of China’s commercial hub in the 1990s and 2000s.

    For photographer Xu Haifeng and many others of his generation, Shanghai in the 1990s was a place teeming with possibilities. As China’s economic reforms put the city at the forefront of globalization, youths of his age embraced fashion, business opportunities, and a stronger sense of freedom to pursue their dreams.

    As a budding photographer at the time, Xu found himself drawn to the urban ruins — old areas demolished to make way for new construction — rather than the sprouting high-rises. He then turned his lens to the people affected by the city’s rapid development as well as those riding the tide in pursuit of a better life. His work has captured the city and its people at a moment of drastic change.

    “Shanghai felt like a construction site then,” says Xu in an interview. Highways sprang up one after another along his daily commute to work, while people had to wait longer for buses as construction obstructed traffic. They stretched their necks in vain, looking “frustrated at having no control over the circumstances, and yet the wait could be seen as a symbol for hope,” he tells The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication.

    With the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, completed in 1994, looming over countless residential buildings, layers of the city unfold in 175 photos taken by Xu in the 1990s and 2000s. The exhibition, “The Expressions of Shanghai at the Turn of the Century,” opened in September 2022, drawing people who lived through that golden decade and younger audiences who remembered the period from their childhood.

    Editor: Elise Mak.

    (Header image: Photo taken in November 1993. Xu Haifeng for Sixth Tone)