My Hometown: Artist Ming Ma’s Shanghai
Lots of us look for signs when choosing a place to live. For Ming Ma – a digital artist known for her VR filter designs and fashion installations – that signal came from a cat. “A heartwarming interaction with an orange cat right outside my (now) apartment building actually solidified my decision to move here,” she laughs.
The neighbourhood was Xujiahui, a bustling commercial area in the Xuhui district of Shanghai. It’s known for its large malls and chain restaurants – a far cry from her previous residence in the former French Concession area of Xuhui. “I was born in Sichuan in Southwest China but when I returned to China in 2020 after studying design and technology at the New School in New York, I had a strong desire to experience the ambiance of ‘old’ Shanghai and its traditional Western-style houses,” she says. “The former French Concession is famous for its distinctive architectural style and boutique shops. I enjoyed strolling around and discovering speciality stores and coffee shops. But those older houses are more susceptible to damp, and so I ended up moving.”
The rainy season hasn’t dampened her love for the city. “For me, the uniqueness lies in its ability to preserve both traditional culture and historical architecture while embracing the impact of modernity,” she says. “This fusion of history and modernity creates a distinctive aesthetic – and a charming, vibrant vibe. You can walk the streets of the former French Concession and see elderly people dancing and engaging in traditional cultural activities, then around the corner at the Bund [a protected historical waterfront area along the Huangpu River], the presence of towering skyscrapers is just as captivating.”
Ma also credits the city’s cultural diversity for pulling her here. “It brings together people and cultures from all around the world, creating a city full of vitality and creativity,” she says. “My best experience so far was walking the runway for my friend’s brand Windowsen, where I played the ‘role’ of an alien pretending to be Barbie. It led to me meeting incredible individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community and attending a drag queen competition organised by [ballroom culture platform] Voguing Shanghai, where the energy, creativity and talent was remarkable and really fun.”
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Shanghai is renowned for its modernity and innovation but seeing this rapid development first-hand still surprises Ma. “The city is fast. It’s lively and constantly evolving, with new infrastructure and attractions. Every week there are new shops and restaurants popping up, with so many people eager to try them out. Career-wise, there are many opportunities, as long as you can get noticed. Everyone works very hard and there’s a popular slang word to describe people who work too hard – ‘juǎn’ (卷).”
Her antidote to the pace? “Hiking! I’ll seek out nature or play badminton – Shanghai residents really embrace sports. When I first moved here, I wanted to go out all the time. Now, I’m more into self-care and I can see the change in myself. I’m often happy to be at home with my cat Chi Chi, because this place feels like home.”
Ming Ma’s Top 5 Shanghai’s Recommendations…
- One of my favourite places to visit is the Pudong Art Museum. I loved the Cai Guo-Qiang exhibition, but I’ve found lots of exhibitions deeply moving here.
- There are so many amazing restaurants in Shanghai. Xiaoping Fan Dian offers a local experience, and if you’re after delicious dumplings, Lai Lai Dumpling House is well-known for its authentic Shanghai-style Xiaolongbao. I also love Oriental House for Taizhou cuisine and Ma Ji Meraki for Yunnan cuisine.
- Terminal 69 is a popular vintage shop known for its unique and eclectic clothing, accessories and always a fun shopping experience.
- Yushan National Forest Park in Changshu, about a 90-minute drive from Shanghai, is my favourite hiking place. The scenery is just so beautiful.
- If you’re visiting around Chinese New Year, the Yuyuan Lantern Festival is an annual traditional celebration where Yuyuan Garden, one of Shanghai’s famous attractions, transforms into a dazzling wonderland with beautiful lantern displays, colourful lights, dragon dances and acrobatic shows. It’s a magical atmosphere.
Lisa Harvey is an editor and writer based in London, who has written for titles including Stylist, BBC, The Guardian, Time Out and Glamour
Images: Pudong Art Museum; Xiaolongbao, Lai Lai Dumpling House © Victor Mui; Terminal 69; Yushan National Forest, Alamy; Yuyuan Lantern Festival, Getty; Yuyuan Garden, Alamy