Although she’s been in Shanghai for seven and a half years, Yolanda vom Hagen admits that she used to “hate” the city for a long time.
Filmed by Holin Wang. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Special thanks to Joan Zheng and Andy Boreham.
“Compared with Beijing, the identity is very different, and the people are also different. Beijing residents are much louder and more open — they say what they think, while Shanghainese don’t,” she explains.
Standing more than 1.8 meters tall, the German photographer came to China in September 2006 on a one-year exchange program at the Beijing Film Academy.
“Then I returned to Germany and two years later I graduated and some months afterward I came to Shanghai with a job as the official press-photographer for the German Pavilion at World Expo 2010,” say vom Hagen, who’s in her 30s.
Living in an old alleyway house of traditional Shanghai style on Wanping Road, vom Hagen says she particularly likes the architecture in Shanghai “because I am an interior and architecture photographer.”
“I like the quiet European setting of the city. It makes life convenient. The streets are small, everything is very close, and I ride bike every day. This is what I like about Shanghai over Beijing,” says the photographer and marketing manager. “Although Beijing people’s character comes easier with me, their urban setup is very inconvenient; everything is super far away. I do really love the romantic feeling in Beijing, but for daily life, I just simply prefer Shanghai.”
DailyYolanda vom Hagen has been living in Shanghai for seven and a half years.
Q: What do you usually do on weekends or in your leisure time in Shanghai?
A: I do yoga, dancing or go for a walk. I think Xuhui waterfront is very nice, and I often have a walk there.
Q: Which area or place in Shanghai do you like best? Why?
A: My favorite area in Shanghai is Hongkou District, around Luxun Park. I think Luxun Park is one of the nicest local parks. There are not so many attractions, it’s just about going there and meeting people.
I also like Tian’ai Road. It was built by the British and Scottish society in old Shanghai. Tian’ai Road has been actually a shooting range for the British. That’s why the street is extremely straight. Now it’s the sweet lovers’ street.
Anyway, Hongkou is my favorite area, like Ha'erbin Road, Hailun Road, 1933 Old Millfun and Luxun Park. Many different architectural styles like shikumen (stone gate), lilong (lane) and Art Deco.
Q: Which aspect of Shanghai do you particularly like?
A: I like the positive energy and the international flair. For my projects, I have participants from all over the world. I have taken photos of Italians, Mexicans, Ukrainians, French, Germans, English, Chinese, Mongolians and many other nationalities.
I feel free here, very free. I like to connect with common people on the streets. I am interested in the lifestyles and stories of people.
And in Shanghai, there are a lot of coffee places. You can sit everywhere and have a cup of coffee. I just enjoy it a lot.
Q: Do you have an impressive story?
A: What impresses me is that Chinese people sometimes just can't accept that a foreigner can speak Chinese.
Once I wandered the street in Beijing to buy some fruit with my Chinese friends, and we ordered two apples. The saleswoman said, “I don’t speak your language” in Chinese. So I asked, “Wo shuo shenme yuyan?” (Then which language am I speaking?). Afterward, I asked my friends, “Is my Chinese really bad?” And she said, “No, it was good.”
So sometimes it is interesting. People put you into a box, and you have a tag saying “I am a foreigner.” It doesn’t matter whether you are shouting out of this box, it just won’t open. Sometimes I encounter this kind of problem in Shanghai. Sometimes it’s like they don’t really want to understand you.
Q: Compared with your country, is there anything lacking in Shanghai? Any solutions for Shanghai to borrow from?
A: I think the main thing lacking here is caring about other people and how you influence the others in your environment with what you’re doing.
For example, you have a sidewalk, there is one person with a motorbike, and then he just parks it in the middle of the sidewalk. They didn’t think so far that they actually disturb other people (and force them) to walk around. This reflects in many things, including throwing garbage out of the window.
I feel that this connection, “how do my actions influence my environment?” is often missing.
So in my opinion when everyone would care more about the people from their daily environment I believe our life would be better. This is what Germans are more caring about, such as “be aware of what you are costing to your environment” and “don’t influence others in a bad way.”
Another thing lacking is nanpengyou (boyfriend). Because foreign guys come here to Shanghai just for a short period of time, they are not really looking for long-term or very serious relationships. So for me as a foreign woman, it is quite difficult to find a partner in Shanghai.
And I am already a little bit old. Most guys coming here are after graduation or just starting work so they are too young for me, or the guys in my age group, they are already married and starting their families.
And I am tall, super tall you know, 184cm. I guess most Chinese are afraid of that.
Q: Is this a common problem for your peers?
A: I think it is a general challenge in big cities. I also know a lot of Chinese girls who have no boyfriends, they are already over 30, super attractive and independent, but they have no boyfriends.
Q: So, do you think that you will go back to Germany to find a guy?
A: I don’t know. I never thought about limiting my stay here. I am very happy here and I am very happy with my life, with my friends, with my work, I am independent but so far I cannot find a partner — it is very difficult for me, so I might need to go to Europe or somewhere to fulfill my personal life. Still as I am home here, I don’t want to upset myself with the thinking that I have to leave. I try to keep open.
Q: What are your parents’ opinions?
A: No opinion. It is so funny, because when it comes to boyfriends or starting a family, I am totally free — no pressure from my parents.
In German education, parents are thought to have done a successful job if their children can live independently. The responsibility of parents is to help you grow up. Then they leave you.
But in China I get a lot of pressures: “Don’t think too much, don’t have high requirements, just marry and give birth to a baby…”
So, you see, there is no pressure from my family — the pressure is more from myself because I would love to have a family.
Q: Would your parents like you to go back home to take care of them?
A: I’m the oldest child in my family. We don’t have this kind of generation concept, so I don’t need to take care of my parents. Our social system makes it possible. But of course, everyone certainly tries to look after their parents as they grow older. I will do everything I can to support them.