Shanghai M50 and Leeds Industrial Museum

This article will provide insight into the connections between the influential and diverse cities of Leeds and Shanghai, in particular the creativity and socio-political progression that the textile industries sparked in these two cities and how the industry relates to their contemporary creative output.

But why Shanghai and Leeds you may ask? Although starkly different in many respects, both cities share a history of industrial prestige, as both operated as leading forces in the once booming, global textile industry. The textile industry itself is also widely attributed to have defined the cities, influencing all aspects of how they function today, so in other words, you might say that the industry shaped the fabric of the two cities… (pardon the pun).

Leeds Industrial Museum and Shanghai’s M50 Contemporary Arts Cluster will be the focus of this article. Leeds Industrial Museum, formerly Armley Mills, now exhibits a broad range of historic collections, commemorating Leeds’ rich industrial heritage as a ‘city of 1,000 trades.’ Shanghai’s M50 cluster, which also resides on a historically rich site, the former Chunming Woolen Mill, has also been regenerated to function as a creative hub, attracting both tourists and locals alike to explore both the site’s industrial heritage and the new creative forms emanating from the M50 cluster.

But before we go much further into how these sites function in the present-day, let’s have a brief look at the history of the textile industries in both cities. Leeds, positioned in an opportune space between the Pennines and the agricultural fields of the East Riding, has a long history of involvement with the wool trade. A key figure, who might be donned the founding father of Leeds’ dominant textile industry, is Benjamin Gott. Gott employed over 1800 people at Bean Ings Mill and later, despite numerous complications involving drastic fires, took over Armley Mills in 1804, to become one of the largest employers in Britain.

Etching of Armley Mills, taken from MyLearning website.

During this era, Armley Mills operated as the largest woollen mill in the world, while Leeds was widely regarded as the ‘centre of the cloth trade.’

(Leeds’ history of cloth-making becomes apparent to those able to explore the city, with its numerous cloth halls, which sprung up to facilitate the previously outdoor cloth markets.)

Despite managing to resist the extreme hardship brought on by both world wars, the British wool industry eventually collapsed prompting the closure of Armley Mills in 1969. In seeking to preserve the site’s rich heritage, Leeds City Council purchased the mill and reopened it as Leeds Industrial Museum in 1982.

Comparatively, Shanghai, which is widely regarded China’s largest industrial centre, also had a booming textile industry with 4,500 textile factories in operation prior to the 1950s, and over 500,000, mostly female, textile workers employed up until the early 1990s.[2] Therefore, Shanghai, parallel to Leeds, was positioned as central to the global textile market.

In particular, the area running alongside the Suzhou Creek, on Moganshan Road, saw the development of extensive infrastructure to facilitate textile production. Originally home to many of the migrant textile workers, this area saw immense gentrification and redevelopment following a mass reform scheme implemented in 1994. In an attempt to modernise Shanghai and generate tourism, the scheme saw the redundancy of over 500,000 workers, and their subsequent mass relocation to outer districts of the city.

The once industrial area running adjacent to Suzhou Creek is now comprised of Shanghai’s M50 Contemporary Arts Cluster.

‘M50 Art District’ taken from the Atlas Obscura website.

Therefore, we can see that the textile industry has been a fundamental to formation of both the cities’ infrastructure and socio-political identities. This article has mostly focussed on the history of the specific sites that facilitated production, but in future posts we hope to delve into the history of the working-class community that underpinned this booming industry.

If you wish to find out more about either Shanghai’s M50 Contemporary Arts Cluster or Leeds’ Industrial Museum, please see below links to supporting web-resources.–/89


[2] Haili Ma, The Missing Intangible Cultural Heritage in Shanghai Cultural and Creative Industries, p. 600.