The Paris of Asia? Or the Whore of Orient?
Which was it? A city of sophistication, elegance, grace and beautiful buildings? Or one where low-life and vice flourished in all its multifarious forms?
In today’s Shanghai it’s not so easy to flip through the many-layers of this utterly fascinating Asian destination, now the gayest of China’s many mega cities. So let’s start with the analogy to Paris.
From the end of the 19th century through the first decades of the 20th, Shanghai was not merely the financial, most civilized and fashionable hub of China; it was a global capital. Shanghai was the most famous cultural outpost east of Suez and would become home to the country’s publishing, media, film and entertainment industries as well as its performing arts. Those who enjoyed life in the city were a mélange of Europeans, Americans, Russian émigrés, Jews and some increasingly rich and powerful Chinese. To these residents and the thousands who visited, this was indeed the Paris of Asia.
Among those who arrived were Noël Coward, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Christopher Isherwood. In 1938 with Japanese troops on the outskirts, Shanghai still offered an infinite variety of pleasures. Isherwood later wrote: “The tired or lustful businessman will find here everything to gratify his desires. You can attend race meetings, baseball games, football matches . . . If you want girls, or boys, you can have them, at all prices, in the bath houses and the brothels. If you want opium you can smoke it in the best company, served on a tray like afternoon tea.”
So Shanghai enjoyed an equally justifiable reputation as the wickedest city in the world. In its unrefined underbelly, gangs and triads ruled. The most infamous, run by the so-called “Three Shanghai Tycoons”, was the Green Gang Triad whose huge profits through its control of the opium trade were legendary. By the 1920s, Shanghai was the most gangster-riddled city anywhere, Chicago included. Yet the foreign elite barely noticed, living in great style and comfort in their mansions filled with cheap Chinese servants and enjoying their country clubs, bridge nights, cocktails and nocturnal outings to lavish parties, dance clubs and cabarets. By 1936 there were more than 300 cabarets and casinos in the foreign concessions alone.
The concessions were a direct result of the Opium Wars of the 19th century. Shanghai was soon basically several cities in one. Through force of arms, Britain along with the French and Americans opened settlements in Shanghai, each “concession” administered not under Chinese laws but those of their home countries. Not surprisingly, each colonial presence brought with it its own culture, architecture, fashions and societal structure. A few prominent Chinese remained within each concession slowly helping drive the city’s openness to Western influence.
Outside the concessions was another world entirely. Each year 30,000 poverty-striken Chinese simply died on the streets. Isherwood noted how the children in some sweatshops, chained to their machines, “already had blue lines in their gums – a symptom of lead poisoning. Few would survive longer than 18 months.”
Many Chinese spent their days in the opium dens or became prostitutes. High-class brothels offered ‘First Night Virgins’ of both sexes not yet in their teens, all ‘guaranteed’ free from disease. At the other end of the scale were the streetwalkers who offered quickies wherever convenient. With the police in cahoots with the gangs, vice spread its tentacles throughout the community. The special skills and tricks of those Shanghai prostitutes were to become world famous. It has been alleged they were acquired during the year spent in China by Wallis Simpson, the double-divorcée whose marriage to Britain’s King Edward VIII led to the abdication crisis in 1938.
Some of the decadence of the 1930s can be seen in one of my all-time favourite films, “Shanghai Triad” directed by Zhang Yimou. A wonderful movie director, Zhang was later to direct the stunning opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Shanghai retained its “sin city” title even after the Japanese invasion, for the foreign concessions were – for a time – safe. The ongoing struggle between the Nationalists under Chiang Kai Shek and the Communists under Mao was another matter. Chiang had captured Shanghai in 1927. Earlier, through his cunning and trickery, he had succeeded Sun Yat-sen, the Father of the “new” China, as head of the Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang. He had even married Sun’s sister-in-law, the soon-to-be extremely powerful Soong Mei-ling.
With the help of the gangs and triads Chiang beat off the rapidly growing communist movement and retained control until the Japanese troops arrived. He made particularly good use of the Green Gang, frequently hiring them to break up union meetings, end labour strikes and assassinate rivals. The Green Gang even helped finance Chiang’s activities against the Communists.
After Chiang lost the civil war in 1949, he and nearly 2 million of his followers fled to Taiwan. His wife, a Christian speaking fluent English, soon became a regular in Washington as she lobbied editors and Congress to back Chiang against the communist regime in Beijing. With Taiwan a pawn in the Cold War, for years it worked. Then Nixon made his historic trip to Beijing and Madame Chiang became just another speck on the landscape of world history. In the meantime, her sister, Sun Yat Sen’s widow Soong Ching-ling, remained in China where she would become a potent symbol for the new regime.
The Soong family, which included their financier brother T. V. Soong, was one of the great dynasties whose wealth and power dominated pre-revolution China and subsequently American policy towards communist China. Today, tourists can still visit Sun Yat-sen’s villa near Shanghai’s Fuxing Park, set on one of the loveliest streets of the old French concession, then named the Rue Molière.
Following the revolution, Mao promised Shanghai’s business community they could continue as before. After just two years, he reneged on that promise, resulting in many prominent Shanghai businessmen fleeing to Hong Kong. Here they helped develop Britain’s colony into the major business and financial centre that Shanghai had once been.
For the next three decades, Shanghai returned to a being just another sleepy Chinese city struggling to survive under communism, the only remembrance of its more illustrious past being the elegant commercial buildings on the Bund on the west bank of the Huangpu and the mansions of the French concession. In 1980 there was just one medium-sized high rise building, the 22-storey Park Hotel built in 1934, and lamplighters lit up the streetlights at dusk. In her novel “Night in Shanghai”, Nicole Mones describes how in the 1970s and early 1980s Shanghai was just a ghost of a once-great city with little having physically changed from its “glittering heyday”.
How the city was to change so quickly and dramatically and become the one city gays want to relocate to in China is the subject of Part 2.
Been to Shanghai or have a Chinese boyfriend? Please post your comments below
Contributed by Alex Cummings who has been a regular visitor to Shanghai for many years.