Planet Shanghai

Like a debutante about to go her ball, China is primping. The Middle Kingdom, which ruled much of the world before losing dominance in the late 1800s, has regained much of her economic, military and geopolitical strengths in the past couple of decades. The dragon is rising, and she wants to look good doing it.

In preparation for the 2010 World Expo opening in May in Shanghai, city officials have been busy making sure the metropolis and its inhabitants are presentable. The World Expo is a 'Big Deal'; it is the second largest event in the world behind the Olympics, which China also hosted in 2008 in its capital city of Beijing, which, by the way, also happens to be a perennial competitor of Shanghai. The government is determined to whip the city into shape, even if it stretches the very fabric of society, which in Shanghai happens to be ... cotton and silk pajamas! Shanghai officials have been rallying local community volunteers to chase down anyone wearing pajamas in the streets and give them a stern talking to. They argue that this sartorial habit make China look backwards.

Not so, according to photojournalist Justin Guariglia. He argues that rather than shaming China, the people of Shanghai and their inexplicable love of wearing nightwear in public actually add character to the city. If you go back a hundred years, he added, you'll notice a lot of similarities in the Qing Dynasty style of clothing and today's pajamas - loose, flowing cotton or silk clothing that are cool in the city's scorching summer. Indeed, Justin said, most foreigners find the pajama-habit charming and are jealous that they cannot wear PJs to work and go about their neighborhoods in the West!

Justin has set out to document the beauty and charm of the PJ-mad Shanghainese in his book Planet Shanghai. Travel writer John Krich wrote this about Justin's adventure:

When Justin Guariglia told me that he was spending some precious months of his life stalking people who wear pajamas in public, I figured that this veteran photojournalist - known for his playful sense of humor but even more for his devoted, deep study of the Shaolin Temple's martial Zen mysteries - had taken one too many sleeping pills. If a few benighted individuals still practiced a surreal sort of somnambulism in terms of attire, why should anyone beyond their scandalized neighbors care? What possible social significance could there be to this odd fashion statement?

But there turned out to be far more than a cute snapshot in this shooter's instinctive feel for visual clues to Chinese reality. Shanghai's sleepwear phenomenon, a direct outgrowth of the lack of personal space in the longtang neighborhoods - widespread and especially striking in hotter months - had in fact been a subject of heated media debate. Some newspaper accounts sympathetically listed the reasons given for modeling these buttoned-up outfits of cotton and silk: comfort, economy, suitability to the warm climate, and perhaps, in a strange way, a nostalgic return to China's floppy matching tunics of yore. Others openly branded these p.j. partyers as backward elements whose sad attachment to their shabby bedclothes brought shame and dishonor to the Chinese motherland.

And such finger pointing had made Justin's job more difficult. Stalking pajama wearers from early dawn rounds to night markets through Shanghai's clammy summer, he was rarely able to get more than a few subjects per day to pose for him. He had to use all his powers of persuasion and his best Mandarin to cajole and convince his subjects that he found them piaoliang (beautiful) or splendiferous, and that he had not even noticed their peculiar garb. With time to spare between encounters, his eye and camera began roaming over the changing environment of the city: Its diversions and daily pursuits. Still lives amid speedy demolition. The fabric of food and family, with long hours of work and short spells of recovery. The fashion statements of a city disguised as a thrift shop. First came the special nylon socklets unique to the mainland, celebrated with the care of a foot fetishist. Later, he noticed other curious clothed combinations born of a love of the random, the kitschy, the sentimental, as well as the streetwise, and, of course, symbols of Western status reconfigured by Eastern imaginations. The Shanghainese, it seems, forged their look from whatever they could scrounge.

Justin's book Planet Shanghai excerpted here is filled with wonderful snapshots of every day life in Shanghai. The skyscrapers next to run-down neighborhood. The food and fresh fruit being sold at the market. The shoes people wear there. Their hairstyles. Old guys hanging out in chairs they set down on the streets. And yes, people in pajamas. Lots of people in pajamas.

Take a look, then go get the book. Like the people of Shanghai, it's full of charm:


Photographs by Justin Guariglia, essay by John Krich. Published by Chronicle Books (2008)

Shanghai the legendary Pearl of the East and architectural powerhouse, continues to fascinate people from around the globe.

Photographer Justin Guariglia, whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler and Smithsonian magazines, frequently trains his lens on the old town and waterfront which have retained their cultural character amid mega-booming development. Shanghai's open-air lifestyle, bustling markets, and curious fashion sense are all seen here, granting us a multifaceted and intimate portrait of day-to-day life in one of the great cities of the world.

With the forthcoming World Expo 2010 drawing ever more attention to China, there has never been a better time to discover the astonishing city that is Shanghai.


Born in 1974 in Maplewood, New Jersey, Justin Guariglia lived and worked in Asia for nearly a decade before returning to live in New York City in 2006. He is the author of the critically acclaimed photography book Shaolin: Temple of Zen, which Aperture Foundation turned into a 100-piece internationally traveling photography exhibition. Guariglia is a regular contributor to Smithsonian magazine, and is a photographer and contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler magazine. He has been nominated for the International Center of Photography's Young Photographer Infinity Award, selected as a Fotofest Discovery of the Meeting Place, received several photo of the year awards, and was named one of the "30 Young Photographers under 30" by Photo District News.

John Krich is one of the most original voices in the new wave of travel writing. He is the author of Won Ton Lust, El Beisbol, Music in Every Room, and Why Is This Country Dancing? His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal Asia, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, the New York Times, and other leading publications. His novel about Fidel Castro, A Totally Free Man, won a Special Citation PEN/Hemingway Prize. Krich currently resides in Bangkok, Thailand, and has reported from China and Asia for the past eight years.

Links: Justin Guariglia's Website | Planet Shanghai on Amazon and Chronicle Books

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