Friday Noir: Old Shanghai


Gangsters, gamblers, dealers and thieves.

It’s all there in old Shanghai.

A cool breeze blows in off the Bund, just blocks away.

Fog arises, breathes, permeates….

Like smoke from a nearby opium den.

Shadows fall on the skikumen apartments.

Keep your eyes open for the Small Sword Society.

And the dames.

Always, the dames.

The only way to stay out of trouble is to grow old.

Concentrate on that.

It’s easy to get lost on Jiangxi Road.

Gamblers, grifters, sinners and saints.

You’ll need more than luck in old Shanghai.


Another little different look to Friday Noir here at JSP.

Here’s the backstory to this one. A few weeks ago, my friend out in Port Townsend, Washington, Ray Ketcham, contacted me. He and his team at Rear Curtain were working on a special issue of their magazine, one that focuses specifically on a trip Ray and Sabrina Henry took to Thailand last year. As Sabrina said in a post on the RC website, the issue special “Not so much because two of the stories are from RC team members but because all of the stories have a personal connection to the storytellers in some way.”

So, Ray sent me a note and asked if I could furnish a noir piece to go along with theme of this issue. First, of course, I was excited he had asked. Then, however, my excitment turned to some stomach-churning. I knew the RC team was on deadline, I knew I either had to come up with a concept quick or…or…or something.

I knew, a bit, about what the special issue entailed. What I didn’t want to do, however easy it would have been, was to just prop The Man In The Fedora outside a local Chinese take-out joint and call that noir.

What I decided to do instead – and with Ray’s blessing – was to go back through the images I shot while on a couple of trips to China. To Beijing and Shanghai, specifically. While doing that, I further decided to focus on Shanghai.

We’ve all heard the phrase The Mysteries of The Orient. When I was in Shanghai, even more so than Beijing, I felt those mysteries around me. Perhaps it was because of all the research I did on the city.

I read about all the junks and cargo ships that entered the Shanghai waterways back in the ’20s and ’30s.

I read Empire Of The Sun, JG Ballards account of his time as child in Shanghai circa 1941.

I read about all the brothels and opium dens that existed on the shadowy backstreets and alleyways just off the opulent Bund.

I read about the Small Swords Society.

The Atlantic even did an interesting feature on Shanghai Noir.

So, while it wasn’t Thailand, I did revisit my image folders from my trip to Shanghai to see if there was something in there that perhaps I shot that could be connotated to noir.

Turning an image into B&W doesn’t make it noir. It’s not that easy, I don’t think.. There still has to be some type of element about a scene, at least for me, to think Ah yes, I can see something happening here.

I had that feeling in Chicago.

I had that feeling in Cincinnati. Ah…Twice.

So, maybe Shanghai. The image I selected just felt right to me. It had the look and feel I was going for. I wouldn’t have fedoras or femme fatales as geisha girls, but the noir genre is more than that. It’s sometimes a feeling about a certain time, place or thing.

As background, I remember it being early evening when I shot this, one of our last days in Shanghai. The team was done for the day and we wanted to experience the community and city lights down at the waterfront. The taxi dropped us off on Jiangxi Road in an older part of downtown Shanghai.

The lights weren’t all up yet. People on rickshaws peddled past us. Dinner smells came from open apartment windows. The gathering evening was descending on the city but not there quiet yet. It was that time when the day was ending and the night was about to begin.

I remember liking what I saw in this scene, the Chinese storefront letter, the old man strolling along. The time of day.

No telling what he was walking in front of or what was behind the doors by us. Gambling? Opium dens? House of ill-repute? Maybe nothing. Still, Shanghai is an opulent city and where there is opulence there is vice.

Just the setting for some Shanghai noir….

It seems the Rear Curtain team thought so as well, as they included it in their lastest Special Edition – a double-truck spread to close out the issues.

(c) JerseyStyle_Photography_Rear Curtain_Old Shanghai_2013

A big thanks to the entire RC team for letting me part of their special issue.

If you love great visual storytelling, quality print workmanship, to have the feel of the nice magazine in your hands, I encourage you to go order this copy, or all the copies of Rear Curtain here. At 96 pages and a plethora of visual treats that look great in hand or an a device, it’s worth it!

© Mark V. Krajnak | JerseyStyle Photography | All rights Reserved 2013

One thought on “Friday Noir: Old Shanghai

  1. Thank you Mark! We loved your Shanghai Noir and are so happy you were able to squeeze us into your busy schedule. Ray and I have often said that no issue would be complete without you in it 😉

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