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  • Caterina Paiva

From Passenger to Pasajero: When ambiguity in language translates a new eye into Shanghai

Note from the author:All the photos were courteously provided by Nicolas Santa Maria. All copywriting rights are exclusive to Nicolas, and so permission is required. They are original, and no modification was added.

Coming to Shanghai slightly before the Expo 2010

As he is known by his friends, Nico is a Chilean photographer currently residing in Shanghai. Born in Santiago, Chile, he first arrived in Shanghai in 2010 with his family—a Shanghainese lady and their common child. Nonetheless, what was supposed to be a three-month stay turned into a two-year residency. As he arrived during the 2010 Shanghai Expo's preparation, the city’s iconic Huangpu River margins were being rebuilt to host the world's biggest expo.

Thousands of local families were relocated to fulfill the Expo's slogan of a “Better City, Better Life.” This translated into the building of the massive futuristic-led area of Pudong, with skyscrapers that still to this day are the iconic symbol of Shanghai. Almost 10 years later, Nico came back to live in Shanghai. And 10 years later, the promise of a “Better City, Better Life” had had time to be solidified.

Translating meanings

From this context, I proposed Nico to show us what he understood by “passenger.” A question that became infinitely more interesting when Nico faced the ambiguity of the Spanish translation of “passenger”: Pasajero.

Pasajero's meaning is two-fold. It both means a wayfarer, a passenger in the English connotation—a noun—and a fleeting, passing moment—an adjective. According to Nico, Shanghai can be analyzed in both ways. But more importantly, Shanghai is both ways.

Shanghai by two angles

“Shanghai is the vessel by which one travels the journey that Shanghai proposes"—a journey into what China's economic and technological development might lead to, like so many of Shanghai's migrants, foreigners, and tourists know so well—i.e., the passengers.

But Shanghai's own rapid change and never-ending expansion have made the city itself challenging to grasp for a long time. Being a local in Shanghai translates into living in brief moments that build Shanghai over time. Every year buildings are destroyed and rebuilt with new aesthetics, roads are re-paved, and new subway lines are added—at a velocity hardly matched anywhere else in the world. For the locals a fleeting city—Shanghai pasajero.

Shanghai is the city pasajera per excellence. For the residents, an ever-present pasajero. For the city’s pasajeros, a tour into the future. The following photographs are glimpses into it.








About the photographer

Nicolas Santa Maria, born in 1979 in Santiago, Chile, is a photographer, a chef, and a foodie. Trained in culinary arts since young age, he formally studied photography at the Instituto Professional ARCOS in Chile.

Nicolas divides his work between his two photographic passions: the city—its architecture and urban landscape; and food—the world of food and food photography/portraits. Since he returned to settle in Shanghai in 2019, Nicolas has made the Huangpu River his central theme, including the change that the city has had in recent years, its people and neighborhoods, as well as the river itself.


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