Shanghai, where he was born and raised, is artist Huang Shi’s “sweetheart” and he has sketched 100 city scenes that avoid the skyscrapers and evoke the charms.
The pencil sketches, accompanied by descriptions and reminiscences, have been compiled into a coffee table book, “The Most Beautiful Shanghai,” which was launched at the recent Shanghai Book Fair. It’s in Chinese only.
Some celebrated Shanghai writers, such as Wang Anyi, Sun Ganlu and Chen Danyan contributed articles about their memories of particular scenes.
“This book is the love poem I wrote to Shanghai. No matter how I used to curse or hate this city, it’s still my sweetheart,” 62-year-old Huang told Shanghai Daily in an interview.
Huang, a self-taught artist, was a city bus conductor, a reporter, an editor and the artistic director for a real estate company. He quit several years ago to devote himself to art. He lived for two years in Canada, but the rest of his life was spent in Shanghai.
He was inspired to depict his city during the recent Spring Festival when he stood at the intersection of Jiangxi Road M. and Jiujiang Road. It was getting late, few people were about and he could appreciate the quiet, tree-lined street. It reminded him of his childhood. He took a photo and later sketched it in colored pencil.
In six months he completed 100 sketches of his city. For each sketch, he wrote a short article about the ambience, history, architecture and some of his personal insights.
He doesn’t depict the dazzling, congested, modern high-rise city, but instead the city of narrow streets and lanes of changing light and shadow, old buildings, the former French concession and Yuyuan area where he was born. He sketches a stone bridge in the aged water town of Zhujiajiao on the outskirts of the city.
He points to a sketch of leafy Jing’an Park, saying the area once contained a cemetery and Gothic-style crematory.
“Skyscrapers are splendid, that’s for sure. But I deliberately avoided this subject in my book since I want to draw something with a profound history,” Huang said. Shanghai still has a European flavor in some areas that he was keen to depict.
Huang has traveled around the world and often visits art galleries. He is influenced by Impressionism, its depiction of light and its changing qualities, as well as ordinary subject matter. He cites Monet, Pissarro and Sisley as influential.
“In my sketches of Shanghai, none of the figures have detailed facial features since I want to reduce the distinctions among people,” he said.
He said he wanted to create a coffee table book that is relaxing to read, while conveying the city’s culture and history. Just as there are “Sketches of London” and “Sketches of Paris,” he wants to produce “Sketches of Shanghai.”
Huang has always been interested in painting and for a short time he took art classes at the children’s palace. But times were hard, and he had to teach himself.
Huang’s parents were both reporters and during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) his father was labeled a rightist. “I finished high school at the age of 17, but considering my family’s situation, there was no way I could apply for any university,” he recalled.
He left school and was assigned to be a bus conductor. He never returned to studies. “I started to paint whenever I had a chance and realized that art was the one thing I could never give up. All doors were closed, so I had to demand more of myself,” he said.
At that time, the arts were strictly regulated, Western influence was frowned upon, and novelists, painters and musicians in general were considered noncontributing members of society. Socialist realism was stressed.
Huang used to meet in secret with a small group of friends in the arts; they used to share books of paintings and music albums. He recalled a Tchaikovsky concerto. Those moments were blissful.
“But I was happy. In the larger society, from which I was excluded, finding a hobby was a matter of salvation,” he said. He used to ride his bicycle around the city to find the scenes he wanted to capture; later he drove a car around.
Huang has also published an illustration book in which he wrote the storyline. The book, titled “The Adventure of Mimilu, the Wandering Cat,” tells the adventure about a lost cat at the Bund. It is in Chinese, English and French.
“The city is too chaotic and busy so I wanted to sketch a clean and warm city for children. I can be a (Japanese animated film dirctor) Hayao Miyazaki in China,” he said in jest.