Flying kites on The Bund in Shanghai.

The Streets of Shanghai


While I’ll acknowledge that the location of my street photography workshops is Hong Kong, I’ve been around, and then some more.

In this post we’ll take a look around Shanghai. I have to say, Shanghai is one of my favourite cities. And no, I have not yet travelled around nearly enough to make this statement “categorical”. Have I been to Sydney? No. Have I been to Istanbul, Rome, Venice, Florence, Vienne, Berlin, Frankfurt, Bonn, Lisbon, Barcelona, Seville, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro – all of these places? NO. So, there’s hope yet.


But, here we are – in Shanghai.

I first visited the city in 1994. And, like I’ve said elsewhere before, that’s not all that long ago. But, looking at Shanghai now, it may have been long enough. Save for The Bund and some of the old, let’s say more traditional districts, the change, the transformation has been something else – almost like a blooming flower unfolding before one’s eyes.

In this post, I’m not going to add much more and will the pictures speak for themselves, as it were. There’ll be a mix – from that time to something more recent – and here, we’re talking about the last 7 or so years ago. So, let’s take a look.

Folk dancing, Shanghai
CHINA, SHANGHAI – circa APRIL, 1994: Ladies practice their synchronised folk dancing routines in the early morning on the Bund in Shanghai, China circa April, 1994. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

As someone new to the city – and to China for that matter – I found this open-air display of synchronised folk dancing fascinating. In my “space”, so to speak, one only witnessed something like this indoors, be this in a room fitted out for the purpose, a covered gymnasium or some such. Here it was out in the open and for all to witness. There was a “measured” air to all this – the steps, the movement and the “thwack” as the fans were flashed open. There was no music as such, just a tape recorded voice announcing the steps and the sequences. At the time, these groups were few and far between. The last time I was in Shanghai, just about every vacant space was taken up by groups either doing their early morning tai chi classes, synchronised folk or modern dance routines and more.

Rush hour - Shanghai 1994
CHINA, SHANGHAI – circa APRIL 1994: Rush hour on a busy street in the Puxi district of Shanghai in China circa April, 1994. (Photo by Rogan Coles)


At the time – in the above image – this was “rush hour” in Shanghai. The principle form of private transport was the humble bicycle. Motorised transport was usually confined to public transport such as articulated buses, VW Passat taxis and a range of delivery vans. There were some cars around but, like all else, one would need to have the facilities to park, store or maintain such vehicles. Even motorcycles in this period were far and few between.

Commuting in Shanghai #1625
CHINA, SHANGHAI – JULY 10, 2011: Commuting in Shanghai – two women cycling through the Jing-an District in Shanghai, China on July 10, 2011. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

Even in more recent times, bicycles still seem to be the preferred form of transport to get around town. Putting this into context, Shanghai is still very much a bicycle orientated city. Yes, there are magnificent multilane thoroughfares coursing through the newer districts. But, to get around and to do what you need to get done, nothing better than to get on to a bike. No parking hassles. Well, within reason. Space for parking bicycles is equally tight as it might be for cars in these parts.

Commuting in Shanghai
CHINA, SHANGHAI – SEPTEMBER 02, 2011: Commuting in Shanghai, September 2, 2011. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

Of course, mopeds and motorcycles are now just as popular as the humble bicycle. A moped can usually carry two and, sometimes, more people. They can be loaded up with shopping or used for ferrying commercial goods. In this regard, walking the streets of Shanghai can be quite an education. There have been occasions where I’ve done little else but spend the day photographing the daily commute in this city. Got to love it.

Downtown Shanghai - the Pudong District
CHINA, SHANGHAI, PUDONG DISTRICT – MARCH 27, 2011: Pedestrians waiting at pedestrian crossing in the Pudong District in Shanghai, China on March 27, 2011 {Photo by Rogan Coles)

The other thing I love about this metropolis is the juxtaposition of the old and the new, the modern and the traditional. Where, in the new there are vast and expansive thoroughfares lined with some of the tallest buildings in the world. And then, not too far away, are the some of the older residential districts with their townhouses, their market places, the eating houses, the street vendors and, almost, another whole way of life.

Shanghai residential district
CHINA, SHANGHAI – SEPTEMBER 02, 2011: Residents taking a stroll through one of Shanghai’s residential districts in Shanghai, Chine on September 2, 2011. (Photo by Rogan Coles)
Flying kites on The Bund in Shanghai.
SHANGHAI, CHINA – JULY 30, 2011: A kite enthusiast flying his kite in the early morning on The Bund in Shanghai, China on July 30, 2011. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

Another aspect of Shanghai that fascinated me to no end was the flying of kites along the Bund. Watching these kite enthusiasts almost gives a whole new meaning to the term, “enthusiast”. An “enthusiast” is typically defined as, “a person who is very interested in a particular activity or subject”. On viewing the kit and rigs these guys use, there is something going on here that I’ve rarely witnessed elsewhere in the world and with the same consistency that manifests itself along this walk way. You could almost say, it was the Chinese who both invented and mastered the art of kite flying. Is this so? No, I’m not sure. But, what you will witness here is kite flying taken to a whole other level. To see what I mean, check out the picture gallery at this link – KITES ON THE BUND.

Flying kites on The Bund in Shanghai.
SHANGHAI, CHINA – SEPTEMBER 2, 2011: A kite enthusiast flying his kite in the early morning on The Bund in Shanghai, China on September 2, 2011. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

And, on another angle, Shanghai is not without it’s surprises and it’s idiosyncrasies. I mean, this is the way it may seem to an outsider or visitor to this city. But, for the most part, these scenes and situations are kind of every day, down any street and around almost every corner. There’s nothing staged here or, put on as a show. This is Shanghai. Well, a small part of it and, through the eyes of one person.

Barbershop - Shanghai
SHANGHAI, CHINA – JULY 09: A woman barber giving a client a shave at an open-air barber shop in suburban Shanghai, China taken on July 9, 2011. (Photo by Rogan Coles)

There are barber shops and then, there are barber shops.

Suburban residents playing mahjong in Shanghai, China
SHANGHAI, CHINA – JULY 9, 2011: Residents in a Shanghai suburb playing mah-jong under a street light in Shanghai, China on July 9, 2011. Photo by Rogan Coles.

This particular scene floored me. I had been mooching around the building in the background – which was “exotic” enough on its own – as in a radical piece of modern architecture. I was about to head back to base when I eyed this group of people playing mah-jong under the glare of a sodium street lamp. These people were residents from a nearby row of townhouses. Here we have a group of people playing mah-jong – as in playing mah-jong on the streets. That, on it’s own, was a whole story in and of itself. I mean, I could have also put this picture into a “local context” – as in having their townhouses as a back drop. But, hey, this is Shanghai. Add in the whacky building in the background and, here we have an other world view of a decidedly exotic city. Got to love it.

There’s more – there always is more. There’s a fuller collection of images that’ll serve to enhance this particular set of blog post images over at Adobe’s Behance. More images can also be found over at the Rogan Coles Photo Archive. Enjoy…

TECHNICAL NOTES: Most of the images here were taken using various Canon cameras. In the case of the earlier black and white images, a Canon F-1. The more recent colour images, with a Canon EOS 5D Mk II/III capture device plus various lenses.

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Rogan Coles
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