Island of Mystery

The back story

Photo: Steven Cherry

Sharron Lovell in an organic greenhouse on Chongming Island.

Arriving in Shanghai last January, Senior Associate Editor Steven Cherry soon found himself on a quest. He was set to visit Dongtan, on Chongming Island, the site where Shanghai is now building a ”city within a city” [see ”How to Build a Green City,” in this issue]. But he longed to explore more of Chongming, which is about one-third the size of Long Island, New York.

Then he heard of Sharron Lovell. ”She’s a photographer who’s already been there,” said a mana­ger at the Sino-Italian Cooperation Program for Environmental Protection. ”I think she wants to go back,” he added. She did indeed.

A British expat, Lovell has been in Asia since moving to Taiwan at 18. She has photographed the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, migrant workers in Beijing, and in 2004, the conflict in Afghanistan.

With Lovell getting directions in Mandarin, she got herself and Cherry to Nanmen, the largest city on the island, where she found out about a history museum. Summoning all her language skills, she pieced together bits of the geologic, ethnic, and industrial history of Chongming. An ­alluvial island, it has waxed and waned as the flow of the mighty Yangtze River has changed over time—the island actually disappeared and then reappeared a few centuries ago. Today Nanmen, though unnamed on some maps, has 350 000 people, making it larger than Australia’s capital, Canberra.

And it was on Chongming, the two learned, that the junk ship was invented. One wing of the museum was filled with models of the graceful, iconic ships. ”Without Lovell to translate, I would have had no idea what I was looking at,” Cherry says.

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