From Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s to Beirut in the 1960s, a handful of cities have been compared to Paris. Whether in the architecture and streetscape, Parisian influences seemed to have found their way into every nook and cranny of these cities. Think magnificent Belle Époque buildings and the array of elegant French-style cafes lining the streets of these cosmopolitan cities. The periods in which these cities were nicknamed Paris of the East were critical turning points in their history. Why did these places earn such a name for themselves and how have they proven themselves to be comparable to the iconic City of Light? This article delves into the history of Paris-influenced cities.
Paris of the East: Is Paris Really a Moveable Feast?
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Famed American writer Ernest Hemingway once referred to the City of Light as a moveable feast. Later used as the title of his memoir on his life in 1920s Paris, the term has since immortalized Paris as a destination for dreamers and merrymakers. As Hemingway espoused, Paris is so captivating that the memories of it will stay with you even long after you have left the city. The same intensity of influence could be said of the following cities which embodied the zeitgeist of the French capital in their own ways and in their own time. Here are five cities that have been called the Paris of the East at one point or another.
1. Bucharest, Romania (late 19th century–early 20th century)
Bucharest was known as the Paris of the East during the 1920s and the 1930s. However, it was the rapid urban developments in the second half of the 19th century that laid the solid foundations for Bucharest’s golden age. In the 1840s and 1850s, major urban development was underway as water supply networks were built concurrently with several other public works. The Great Fire of Bucharest in March 1847 also did much to necessitate more construction as the devastating inferno claimed over 2,000 buildings.
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During the Belle Époque period, Bucharest was introduced to gas lighting, electricity, a horsecar tram system, and boulevards among other urban inventions. This coincided with the extensive construction of public infrastructure that borrowed heavily from French influences as Romanian architects returned home after graduating from the Ècole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Many of these Paris-inspired buildings could be found at the Calea Victoriei, a major avenue in central Bucharest. Apart from being home to iconic Beaux-Arts style buildings such as the Cantacuzino Palace, the CEC Palace, and the Central University Library of Bucharest, the Calea Victoriei is also a key tourist attraction and shopping district today.
On top of French-inspired architecture, a slice of Parisian life had made its way into Bucharest, especially during the turn of the 20th century. French was more widely spoken than any other language and the Romanian people were frequenting cafes and boutiques like their French counterparts. While the rest of Romania was still pastoral, Bucharest embraced the momentum of a busy, cosmopolitan city brimming with life and modernity. All over the city, there was no lack of cinemas, automobiles, and more importantly, people. By 1930, this Paris of the East was home to over 639,040 inhabitants, a stark increase from what was just 383,000 by the end of World War I. As war loomed over Europe from the late 1930s, the shine of Bucharest dimmed.
2. Shanghai, China (the 1920s–1930s)
In what would be called a Century of Humiliation, the mid-19th century saw China embroiled in widespread socio-political unrest. As a result of its defeat in the First Opium War (1839–1842), the city of Shanghai was forced to open to foreign trade under the Treaty of Nanking. This turning point in the city’s history saw several Western powers such as the United States, Britain, and France setting up foreign concessions which ran independent of Chinese law. Against the backdrop of Western influences, entertainment establishments such as nightclubs, cabarets, and brothels flourished, cementing Shanghai’s reputation as the Paris of the East.
At the same time, crime and vice marred the city that never slept, as gangs and triads battled for control. The Green Gang, under the leadership of mob boss Du Yuesheng, controlled the bulk of the city’s criminal activities, focusing on gambling, sex work, and opium. In particular, opium flourished with the opening of the trading port and the presence of a different jurisdiction in the foreign concessions. At its height, the Green Gang was powerful enough to privately fund the careers of leading politicians such as Nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek. Undoubtedly a cosmopolitan city that stood at the crossroads of influences, Shanghai in the 1930s was a great melting pot of cultures and people. While local Shanghailanders encountered and interacted with foreigners almost on a daily basis, Qipao-clad cabaret dancers were rubbing shoulders with gangsters disguised as businessmen and vice-versa. Nonetheless, as with their Bucharest counterparts, Shanghai’s golden age came to an end with the dawn of communist rule in 1949.
3. Beirut, Lebanon (1955–1975)
More affectionately known as the Paris of the Middle East, Beirut in the 1960s was at the height of its popularity among locals and tourists. Echoing a unique East-West fusion, Beirut’s golden age ran from 1955 to 1975 until the outbreak of civil strife in Lebanon. Its reputation as a jet-set playground for the rich and famous took off in the 1950s. This was due to the sudden influx of capital which paved the way for more five-star hotels, nightclubs, and other tourist establishments. But French influences had long been entrenched in Lebanon following the Mandate for Syria and Lebanon (1923–1946) where the French administration took over the country.
The best example of a French-influenced landmark is the iconic Saint Georges Hotel, the brainchild of Parisian architect Auguste Perret and his mentee at the École des Beaux-Arts, Antun Tabet. Built in 1934, the hotel was the place where high-profile people would congregate and socialize in the 1960s. Some of the biggest names in Hollywood like Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor were spotted sipping cocktails and rubbing shoulders with politicians, tycoons, and even spies here.
Elsewhere in the city, French influences continued to spread. In the Hamra District, an intellectual café society began to take root in the 1960s. Students, writers, artists, and poets deeply engaged in discussions on all things intellectual gathered in the dozens of Parisian-style cafes here. In the spirit of promoting knowledge and new ideas, the area was filled with bookshops, cinemas, boutiques, and fashion houses. Hamra was a cosmopolitan cultural hotspot during Beirut’s golden age in the 1960s, until it, too, succumbed to the ravages of war in 1975.
4. Pondicherry, India (1674–1954)
Offering a little slice of Paris in India, Pondicherry is a city located in the southern part of the country. A French colony from the late 17th century up until 1954, Pondicherry was once known as the French Riviera of the East. The efforts of the French East India Company to develop Pondicherry’s trade persisted, though it was at times disrupted by rivaling European powers such as the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. A typical divide-and-rule policy, the French colonial masters separated European inhabitants from the natives, creating the White Town and the Black Town respectively. As French culture overtook the city, French was the official language and was taught in schools, while French holidays were celebrated. The houses in the White Town were laid out in a grid pattern much like how it was in Paris.
Despite the heavy French influence, a unique blend of Franco-Indian culture emerged as a local community of Franco-Pondicherrians grew. This was most prevalent in the Creole cuisine in Pondicherry which demonstrated a special mix of Indian recipes and French cooking methods. Creole cuisine also incorporated influences from Vietnam which was once under French control. This cross-pollination was a result of the trade and movement of people in the region. Although Pondicherry and other French territories were handed over to India officially in November 1954, the spirit of French culture is very much alive today. On top of the many French-style colonial infrastructures, restaurants offering traditional Creole cuisine still stand in the White Town today. The residents of Pondicherry, too, continued the tradition of celebrating Bastille Day every July. A popular tourist attraction today, foreigners and locals alike visit Pondicherry for a taste of France from a bygone colonial era.
5. Hanoi, Vietnam (1887–1954)
Historically, Vietnam has had a complicated relationship with France. Over 60 years of colonial rule had brought about exploitation, war, and hardship for the locals. During this period, French rule in Vietnam saw widespread attempts at Parisification, particularly in areas of urban planning in the capital city of Hanoi. As a result of French urbanization policies, the infrastructural styles in Hanoi borrowed heavily from their French counterparts. As opposed to the disorderly built environment which developed naturally prior to the colonial era, the French rulers envisioned a different kind of city. Like what French official Baron Haussmann did for the City of Light, urban planning in colonial Vietnam emphasized wider, neater paths, public squares, and tree-lined boulevards. Several landmarks in Hanoi bore resemblances to iconic ones in Paris. For example, the grandeur of the Hanoi Opera House which is nestled within the French Quarter takes inspiration from the Palais Garnier in Paris.
Overall, the grandiose built environment not only gave the city an air of Parisian romance and sensibilities but also carved its reputation as the Paris of the East during the French colonial period. While the locals were more than happy to remove French imperialism in 1954, there were few attempts to destroy French-style buildings in the city thereafter. This was said to be because the Vietnamese did genuinely feel that the French had done a good job where urban planning was concerned. The elegant architectural style continues to charm locals as several of the colonial-era buildings in Hanoi have since been converted into cafes, restaurants, and boutiques.
Paris of the East as an Enduring Legacy
Throughout history, several other cities such as Baku, Manila, or Istanbul have had the reputation of being a Paris of the East. The five cities discussed in detail in this article are examples that are best remembered as such. Some of these examples were a result of direct French colonial rule, while others were mere vessels of French cultural influences. Nonetheless, a common thread in these examples points to the cosmopolitan nature of these cities during which they were referred to as Paris of the East. This bears testament to the fluid movement of people, ideas, cultures, and influences, reinforcing how globalization is not just a contemporary concept. Above all, it is proof that Paris is the epitome of French culture and remains in popular imagination a city that evokes timeless elegance, romance, and sensuality.