Underground Distractions, Shanghai

This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.   Windows on trains and planes are equipped with shades: vertical or horizontal ...

This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.


Windows on trains and planes are equipped with shades: vertical or horizontal, rigid or supple. They modulate the vehicles’ apertures, allowing passengers to frame their gaze on the passing scenery as they please. The scenery available to us underground is less impressive, however, and the design of subway windows acknowledges the dark and charmless world on which they open. Lidless, they glare walleyed at the tunnel, a “landscape” born out of practicality and illuminated in static, artificial light. Windows on subway cars are simply tools to combat claustrophobia. What graffiti or embellishments adorn the concrete tunnels and platforms are mostly afterthoughts, small announcements or courtesies to the people who travel through the city’s grumbling underbelly.

But the tunnels of the Shanghai subway system, built approximately 80 years after those of London, Paris, and New York, offer a different kind of scenery, one comprised of light boxes and LED screens. They are mounted onto the otherwise pitch-black concrete surrounding the train. When the train is at a standstill, the fixed advertisements inside the light boxes line up perfectly with the train’s rectangular windows. But further along the tunnel, the (remotely programmable) LED screens appear. Together, these screens and the train form a zoetrope: with the train’s motion, the individual screens stream by the passengers as one and the images appear to move. This makes the experience of taking the Shanghai subway akin to peering into a View-Master and clicking through its stills at a speed of 50 miles per hour, all while in the company of some of the other seven million daily subway riders.

<i>3-D View-Master</i>. Photograph by Jonas Tana / Flickr

3-D View-Master. Photograph by Jonas Tana / Flickr

The feeling isn’t exactly retro. In this high-tech viewing machine, both time and space are muddled. The Shanghai subway has its lights and darks under control, the way a movie theater does, the better to help you tune out your surroundings and into its projected world. Above ground or below, if you’d materialized inside a cinema or the Shanghai subway, you wouldn’t really know which. This, at least, is the latter’s ambition, and one of the many subtle forms of crowd control in China.

The spotless tiled floor and cool central air that greets the morning commuter offers a sharp contrast to the chaotic, sizzling summer outdoors. Hidden cameras may have every street corner covered, but the traffic remains anarchic. Swarms of scooters, cars, and pedestrians make expedient, and often very risky, moves as they navigate the roads. Pedestrians need to remain vigilant on the sidewalk, too, which they share with vendors who display fish that gleam like beads in white basins, or whose charcoal grills produce smoke so strong it seems to clot in the thick air. Underground, however, the only stimuli are advertisements and signage. A shoulder-height metal railing funnels the passengers toward a security guard working with a scanner. Past the turnstile, large color-coded arrows pasted to the floor point commuters in the direction of the desired line. The station is packed, but habituated subway riders fall in line mechanically: we move as one with the crowd, submit to the timing of the automated trains, wear our backpacks on our stomachs. This allows us to direct our attention elsewhere.

Photograph by the author

Photograph by the author

While a man smears foamless shaving cream onto his already stubble-free cheek on the large, looming screens, a passenger inside the car, of similar age and build, bombs castles on his phone. The woman next to him, approximately twice his age and half his height, is on her phone as well. Almost all of them are: they’re messaging on WeChat, or watching anime or TV shows on YouKu and Iqiyi. The exceptional passenger whose head isn’t bent forward is sitting with his head tilted back and his eyes closed.

In the evening, on the reverse trajectory, the windows display two women jogging side by side, one of them in a latex head mask shaped like a horse’s head. This time, one of the passengers is gazing at the ad. The sequence passes, and the commuting woman’s gaze intensifies. The window, now filled with the darkness of the tunnel, reflects her image; she fiddles with her hair, adjusting her bangs, and gets off at the next stop. The train continues its journey. The passengers concentrate on their individual screens. And a vulture lands on an elephant left for dead by poachers on the ones out the window. icon

Featured image: Photograph by the author