An illustrative portrait of rapidly changing Shanghai by Jeffrey Hsueh
Made during a three-month trip which turned into three years and counting, Jeffrey Hsueh's work authentically documents the bustling city and its ways of life.
- Jyni Ong
- 8 June 2021
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
Around three years ago, the illustrator Jeffrey Hsueh moved to Shanghai by accident. What was meant to be a three-month visit, soon turned into three years and counting. Born and raised in Riverside, California, the Rhode Island School of Design graduate has been recording his time in the bustling Chinese city through illustration. Journalistic in its rich documentation of his surrounding environment, Jeffrey has found solace in observational drawing, an exercise which has allowed him to digest and appreciate the scenes around him, “especially in a fast-paced city like Shanghai,” he tells us.
“I try to preserve the scenes and my interpretations as authentically as possible, so I approach the line making and colour choices more intuitively,” says Jeffrey. Using colour as a way to embody the energy of the scenes around him, it’s important to the illustrator not to repeat any same colour twice. In this way, Jeffrey’s work vibrates with texture and a sense of depth. His illustrations feel as if they are moving and the viewer can imagine the scene unfreezing before them, the characters moving on with their everyday lives while the light shifts with the shadows of passers-by.
Jeffrey describes Shanghai as a “sensory overload”; the noise, the colours, the people and the overall atmosphere create a highly unique expression of culture. For the illustrator, part of why the city is exciting is because it’s constantly evolving. “My mum, who’s Shanghainese, revisited the city after a decade and didn’t recognise almost anything. In a way, these illustrations help me archive those parts of the city and perhaps even the culture.” Acting as a time capsule of sorts, Jeffrey’s illustrations document Shanghai now, scenes which might be a distant memory to generations down the line too.
His favourite places to observe and draw from are workplaces. “A cramped, disorganised office in a temple, a makeshift hair salon on the sidewalk, a resting dock for local fisherman,” he cites for example. All these places have one thing in common: they are incredibly raw, lived-in, rich spaces that intertwine personal stories with them. Through drawing, Jeffrey unpicks these details and pulls out storylines from the core. He adds on his process, “I’m very lucky to be able to travel around the country and experience these intimate scenes as they ultimately inform my perspectives as an Asian American.”
He talks us through a couple of particular illustrations, pointing out how he resonates more with situations he encounters more frequently. In one scene that he captures, for instance, he depicts a small window in his neighbourhood. Through that window, a lady sells food to late night drinkers. “Every time I walked by, she was in the exact same spot, wearing the exact same puffy red coat,” says Jeffrey. He recalls the way she pinches a cigarette perfectly still between her lips, and the way she furiously tosses her wok. “I was obsessed with her,” he adds. And sadly, since then, the shop has been demolished, so Jeffrey is even more thankful he could document it while it was still there.
Elsewhere, he points to an illustration showing a topless man carrying a wicker chair across the street. This is a scene from the summer, “you see the elders (usually half naked) carrying chairs throughout the bustling streets to find a nice shady spot to lounge for the day,” says Jeffrey. He thinks of these scenes as a “good representation of the nonchalant attitude” in Shanghai that “we should all strive for.”
As the series continues to grow and as Jeffrey continues to gather delicate memories as expressed through beautiful illustration, the illustrator is starting to “re-digest these pieces more holistically.” One day, he hopes to compile the illustrations into something more physical, a zine perhaps, where he can experiment with a coherent narrative, and see what comes out of it. After that, who knows, the illustrations could be transformed using motion. “Animation will give that visceral dimension this city and country is so rich in. The process is taking a while, but I think it’ll be worth it.”
GalleryJeffrey Hsueh: Shanghai (Copyright © Jeffrey Hsueh, 2021)
Jeffrey Hsueh: Shanghai, Carnival Game (Copyright © Jeffrey Hsueh, 2021)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.