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Portraits of Shanghai ladies in an old lane
By Ruby Gao

SINCE 1998, photographer He Zhaoya has focused on Shanghai ladies in black and white and her current exhibition features 25 portraits of ordinary women living in an old, upper-class lane.

Over the past 40 years, He has photographed more than 200 Shanghai women — she refers to them all as “ladies.” At first she was interested in celebrities, but for the past year she had turned her attention to the daily lives of ordinary women, which she said reflect “a purer and more genuine expression of female beauty.”

She said she chooses black and white because “although ladies are gorgeous and colorful, black and white shows their essence more directly.”

Her solo exhibition is titled “Women from Yiyuan,” the name of a tranquil lane built in 1931 in the former French concession. He has lived there for many years.

Of the 25 portraits, subjects range in age from 20 to 80 years. They are workers, a middle school teacher, professor, editor, civil servants and others.

In an interview with Shanghai Daily last week, she said the women must be “authentically Shanghai ladies.” Authentic refers to a “distinctive femininity ... implicit pride nourished by her environment and husband.”

The environment of Yiyuan Lane (懿园)  on Jianguo Road nurtures women who are distinctively quiet and peaceful in nature, the photographer said.

“Their pride, involving a subtly spoiled character is partly due to their Shanghai husbands, who are gentle and doting,” she said.

Her works present the relationship between people and their environment, harmonious or otherwise, she said. Some pictures contrast young women and the old lane. One young woman with short hair looks through a window; the glass reflects the building opposite.

In addition to portraits, around 20 pictures depict the same lane featuring Art Deco architecture, as well as Spanish revival and English country house style.

“Although I have lived in this lane for dozens of years, by using an infrared filter, I saw a new world, dreamy and poetic, where bright green tree leaves turn silver white,” the photographer said.

A graduate of the Shanghai Theatre Academy in stage design, she said she turned to photographer because she was “disappointed in love after graduation.” She called photography the best outlet for her emotion. She started to develop her own aesthetics, with an emphasis on emotion and delicacy, not realism.

Today she is president of the Shanghai Female Photographers Association.

She said she was inspired by the fiction of Eileen Chang (1920-95) known for portraying Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s, and by Shanghai writer Wang Anyi who wrote “Everlasting Regret” about a Shanghainese girl from the 1940s until her death.

Both writers “integrate characters with artistic conception, mixing ambience, environment and light. That’s my pursuit of art,” He elaborated.

She cites the 1930s calendar pictures of Shanghai ladies wearing snug qipao, with wavy hair and arched eyebrows “the distillation of Shanghai ladies.”



Date: March 9-23
Venue: Club 1911
Address: 38 Shaoxing Rd


“I’ve been living here for 58 years and am deeply impressed by the fact that a good neighbor is better than a brother far off. The harmony of neighbors makes friendship last for ever,” Lou Wuhai claims.

“This is where I spent my childhood. The courtyard is gorgeous. Everywhere behind the curtains show the owners’pursuit of fine life,” Xiao Aoshuang says.

“In the bustling metropolis nestles this unique lane. The birds chirp in dewy morning and tweedle flows at night, making it a retreat away from the turmoil,” Ji Yanshuang says.

“I like to live in the tranquility of Yiyuan and among the lingering aroma of osmanthus,” Zheng Yinglun says.

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