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UCLA Graduate Wins Urban History Association Book Prize

UCLA Graduate Wins Urban History Association Book Prize

Jan. 7, 2002: The Urban History Association names Hanchao Lu's Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Life in Early Twentieth Century Shanghai the best non-North American urban history study published in 1999 or 2000.

Hanchao Lu came to UCLA in 1986 from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. There he had already published a number of pieces, including a biography of Robert Hart, the British head of the Chinese customs service. At UCLA, he received financial support from the Department of History and the Center for Chinese Studies. He studied under Philip Huang, earning his Ph.D. in 1991. His prize-winning book is an extension of his dissertation, The Workers and Neighborhoods of Modern Shanghai, 1911-1949.

After teaching for a couple of years at the State University of New York at Oswego, Lu moved to the Georgia Institute of Technology where he is now an associate professor teaching in the School of History, Technology and Society. He is the editor of the Greenwood Press series The Culture and Customs of Asia and his work has also appeared in the Journal of Asian Studies and the Journal of Urban History.

Beyond the Neon Lights

The story of Shanghai's foreign and Chinese elite has been extensively documented in memoirs and monographs. Lu's work, however, is a breakthrough examination of how ordinary people in Shanghai lived and worked and how they felt about their lives and the great changes underway in early twentieth century China. Through his careful scholarship and fluid writing one visits shikumen neighborhoods (one is pictured above) and learns about living standards and the customs of the age. Lu shares the hopes and norms governing the lives of beggars, rickshaw pullers, and peddlars as well as the growing merchant and professional middle class. Their fears, expectations, and strategies are richly detailed.

For many in Shanghai, life was brutally hard. But as Lu notes in his introduction, even such a life offered more than many were able to find in the Chinese countryside:

"In trying to fathom the depth of the rural-urban gulf, one constantly comes up against the inescapable reality that hundreds of thousands of rural immigrants in urban areas lived a life of bare subsistence yet fiercely stuck to the city. These rural immigrants formed the majority of the urban poor in Shanghai. By virtue of their poverty, they were denied access to most of the facilities and conveniences a modern city offers and suffered social discrimination. Yet all their hardship and disadvantages did not drive them out of the city. On the contrary, where possible they brought their families from the villages to the city."

Lu skillfully draws upon a huge array of period publications, survey data, and interviews in order to describe how, at a pivotal point in China's history, people met their needs, entertained each other, and otherwise spent their time and energy in China's industrial and commercial center.

Here is the January 7, 2002 award announcement:

Urban History Association award for best book published in 1999 or 2000

Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Life in Early Twentieth Century Shanghai (UC Press, 1999)

"Hanchao Lu's well-organized, vivid book deals with an analytical problem fundamental to urban studies since Max Weber: the balance between capitalism, Western influence, and regional history and culture in the molding of modern urban life in different parts of the non-western world. Lu constructs an engaging narrative of how the native residents and rural migrants of China's largest city - the so-called "little urbanites" - lived and made a living during the high point of the city's industrial and commercial influence and of the Western colonial presence there. Beyond the Neon Lights draws upon an impressive range of sources, from literature and folklore to surveys of seven neighborhoods full of long-time residents. Particularly memorable is Lu's portrait of life in Shanghai's distinctive compounds of alley houses known as shikumen. The book demonstrates that Shanghai's urbanism reflected a fusion of attitudes and aspirations that migrants from rural China imported to the city with a mind set and living pattern generated by the city's streets, shops, and houses. In stressing ways that Shanghai's people wove their lives from a variety of Chinese and Western influences, Lu challenges the traditional characterization of this city as mainly a bridgehead into China for Western capitalism and modernity. Lu's book attests to the vibrant state of scholarship on Chinese cities. Scholars of cities around the world will find ideas and techniques in this exemplary work of urban social history."

Interested in reading more? James Carter has reviewed the book for H-Net and Amazon.com offers 43 pages from the work. The book is available from a variety of sources, including UC Press.