Understanding the Messy Urbanism of Shanghai Through Ursula Bacon’s Memoir

People played out their lives in the lanes… but it was the first hour after dawn that disturbed us… the residents… placed their honey pots in a neat row outside their house… soon… the unbelievably strange, guttural, grunting-groaning sound [of] … the two-wheel pushcart [came] for the collection of human faeces… As soon as he departed… women charged on the scene… soon came the rhythmic noise from swishing the bundle of sticks around inside the family toilet.1

This passage, from Ursula Bacon’s memoir From Hitler’s Hate to War-Torn China, describes a daily ritual that unfolded in the labyrinthine lanes of Shanghai. Residents meticulously arranged ‘honey pots’ (or otherwise known as wooden night stools, or family toilets) in rows outside their houses, heralding the arrival of the ‘two-wheel pushcart’ (or alternatively known as night stool cart) which was accompanied by strange guttural sounds – a peculiar yet particular urban orchestra responsible for collecting human waste.

As a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany, Bacon’s memoir helps to overcome the paucity of knowledge of the Jewish experience in Shanghai during the years 1939 to 1947. Throughout, Bacons depicts that upon disembarking from their ships, the refugees were met, not by the idyllic portrayal of China found in storybooks but rather with the stark reality of unfamiliar smells, sounds, crowds, heat and humidity. Bacon was overwhelmed by the nature of her new environment and at multiple points throughout her memoir she voices expression of disturbance at the city’s informal structures of practices – often dismissed as underdeveloped or messy. Indeed, Bacon’s memoir becomes a distinct articulation of the lives of the Chinese population living in Shanghai, which she saw as a ‘messy’ urban fabric.2

Jeffrey Hou and Manish Chalana in their chapter ‘Untangling the “Messy” Asian City,’ introduce the concept of ‘messy urbanism.’ This term encapsulates conditions and processes that diverge from institutionalised or culturally prescribed notions of order.3 Their chapter highlights the importance of looking at the often hidden, disguised, under appreciated, or dismissed compositions (such as disposal of waste) to help uncover the nuances of urban life. The author suggest that the layers of actors and actions revealed by the concept of ‘messy urbanism’ allow us to view urban life from a diverse, rather than hierarchical perspective. In this context, the seeming disorder of messiness conceals multiple layers of order and meaning that are readily decipherable to the communities that create and use them.4

In navigating her dual roles as both a foreigner and a refugee, Ursula Bacon also embraces the identity of a newcomer to Shanghai. This multifaceted positioning adds layers of complexity to her perspective, allowing her to engage with the urban landscape as someone simultaneously discovering and adapting to new surroundings. This nuanced perspective becomes a constant negotiation in her text, as she strives to portray the urban conditions without imposing the gaze of a foreigner who might misunderstand the complexity of the city. Bacon’s unique positioning contributes significant value to the representation of ‘messy urbanism,’ capturing the intricate dynamics of her experience in the lanes of Shanghai. Her words link the city’s ‘messiness’ to issues of poverty and a departed from the old hierarchical vision of Shanghai in the 1930s. Shanghai had established itself as the Paris of the East, yet Bacon’s initial impression reflects a nuanced perspective: ‘well, this is Shanghai, after all. It’s not Paris, London, Rome or Home.’5 Her use of a nostalgic tone serves to illuminate the everyday practices she encounters while traversing Shanghai to shed light on the broader patterns of urban order, characterising the messy urban fabric of Shanghai in the 1930s.

The work of Hanchao Lu’s Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century, helps to neatly outline this sentiment. Lu’s work is one of the most original contributions to our understanding of Shanghai and is a valued source. Lu does well to detail to the indispensable role of the ‘nightsoil’ collectors who ‘repeat these actions hundreds of times every morning.’6 Lu’s articulation, in conversation with Bacon’s memoir, reminds the readership that within the perceived disorder there lies hidden layers or order and meaning. Whilst to a foreigner it may be seen as a disturbing routine, it was a ‘daily necessity.’7

Contemplating on John de Monacahuc’s assertion that ‘cities are messy places, and on the whole, they word well because of the messiness’ encourages a nuanced perspective when engaging with these sources. 8 To truly appreciate the underlying order, one must delve into the divers patterns, recognising that, although they may seem intricate, they are the very elements that contribute to the effective functioning of the city.

In essence, this exploration of messy urbanism in Shanghai highlights an unconventional order, resilience and the vibrant pulse of everyday life. Beneath the ‘messy,’ there exists a clear order – a dynamic interplay of practices and structures that shape the city’s identity. The seemingly disorder elements contribute to a rich urban fabric that reflect the adaptive ingenuity of Shanghai’s diverse communities

  1.  Ursula Bacon, Shanghai Diary: A Young Girl’s Journey from Hitler’s Hate to War-Torn China, (2004) []
  2. Bacon, Shanghai Diary.  []
  3. Jeffrey Hou and Manish Chalana, ‘Untangling the “Messy” Asian City,’ in Manish Chalana (ed.) Messy Urbanism: Understanding the “Other” Cities of Asia, (2016), p. 4. []
  4. Hou and Chalana, ‘Untangling the “Messy” Asian City,’ p. 4.  []
  5. Bacon, Shanghai Diary.   []
  6. Hanchao Lu’s Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century, (2023), p. 189. []
  7.   Lu’s Beyond the Neon Lights, p. 190 []
  8. Hou and Chalana, ‘Untangling the “Messy” Asian City,’ p. 5 []