Through the Looking Glass of Spatiality:
Spatial Practice, Contact Relation, and the Isis Theater in Shanghai, 1917-1937

By Xuelei Huang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 23, no. 2 (Fall 2011), pp. 1-33

This essay takes the angle of spatiality to look at how power relations and colonial negotiations found discursive historical expressions in the space of a movie house in Republican China: the Isis Theater (Shanghai da xiyuan), which was located near the boundary between Shanghai’s foreign settlement and Chinese-administered territory. Drawing upon the concept of contact zone, this essay argues that space mattered in reshaping apparently asymmetrical relations of power and in fostering new forms of contact relations in the broadly defined colonial history.

The essay begins with an analysis of the geographical location of the Isis, a nearly no man’s land over which neither of the foreign and Chinese authorities could exercise full administrative control. The following sections examine two cases, the screenings of the Hollywood film The Thief of Bagdad (1924), which contains derogatory descriptions of the Chinese, and the exhibition of Soviet films, most of which were forbidden in the foreign concessions. These cases illustrate how the Isis worked as a contact zone and engaged with the competing discourses of colonialism vs. nationalism and bourgeois capitalism vs. socialist ideology.