The Invisible City of Shanghai

Shanghai. Pearl of the Orient. Paris of the East. Take your pick of name, but any one of them would ignite instant recognition of this Chinese megacity. Images of gleaming lights and towering skyscrapers come to mind when we think about this global metropolis and financial centre.

Shanghai’s night skyline. Source: Baidu (x)

However, images can be deceiving. As photographer Rob Withworth and urban identity expert JT Singh capture in their video, Shanghai goes beyond a sparkling financial district. There are lesser known aspects of Shanghai hidden away in the lower stratum areas.

“Just as New York City exemplified the strengths and ambitions of emerging America in the 20th century, Shanghai, perhaps more than any old or emerging rival, will personify the power and dreams of rising Asia in the 21st century.”

JT Singh, 2013

Personally, I know Shanghai by her contemporary moniker, “魔都” (Mó dū) or “demon city”. This nickname was first mentioned by Shōfu Muramatsu in his 1924 novel of the same name, where he portrayed Shanghai as a place with hidden conflicts. At the root of these conflicts is the coexistence of two different “natures” in Shanghai – one which stems from the rapid urbanisation of a humble trading port. This name was popularised by the Chinese youths, as they recognised the many dichotomies present in Shanghai. 

Indeed, Shanghai is not as simple as she seems. Her corporate opulence is built upon the misery of the migrant population. The stunning city lights reflected in the Huangpu River is tainted by floating pig carcasses.

“This hybrid socio-natural “thing” called “the city” is full of contradictions, tensions and conflicts.”

Erik Swyngedouw, 1996

These dichotomies present makes Shanghai the perfect place to discuss hybridity. Coined by Latour (1993), hybrids are ‘mixtures…of nature and culture’. Swyngedouw (1996) elaborates that they are created from ‘a network of interwoven processes that are both human and natural…real and fictional’. Zimmer (2010) illustrates the dimensions of hybridisation, as put forth by Swyngedouw:

These scholars suggest that metabolic processes within the city are shaped by the myriad of interactions between social, economic, political, and environmental conditions. Hence, beneath these visible, material cities lie the “invisible cities” of social construction, discourse, and meanings (Calvino, 2007, cited by Zimmer, 2010).

I believe that the glitz and glamour of Shanghai hides her “invisible city”. Over this series of blogposts, I wish to explore these hybrids in more detail, identifying how the structures and social relations in place affect the material flow and transformation in this city. I will identify the various actors and seek to study how they shape the process of urbanisation in Shanghai, in both empowering and disempowering ways.


Latour, B., 1993. We have never been modern. Cambridge, Mass. 

Swyngedouw, E., 1996. ‘The city as a hybrid: On nature, society and cyborg urbanization’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 65-80. DOI: 10.1080/10455759609358679

Zimmer, A., 2010. ‘Urban political ecology: Theoretical concepts, challenges, and suggested future directions’, Erdkunde, vol. 64, no. 4, pp. 343-354.

3 thoughts on “The Invisible City of Shanghai

  1. You give a great description to Shanghai, the way you described it brings me back to last year walking down The Bund late at night. I look forward to reading the rest of your blog.


    1. Thank you!! (-: Glad it brings back memories of Shanghai for you (strolling down The Bund sounds so good) and hopefully you will enjoy my other posts!


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