1930s Shanghai: Why Was it Called the Paris of the East?

Undisputedly the most modern and technologically-advanced Chinese city in the 1930s, Shanghai was a seductive concoction of glamor and sin, prompting some to call it the Paris of the East.

Apr 14, 2023By Ching Yee Lin, BA (Hons) History

shanghai 1930s why is it called paris of the east


As a result of China’s defeat in the First Opium War (1839–1842), Shanghai was forced to open to international interaction. Several Western powers such as the United States, Britain, and France clamored for a piece of the pie, setting up foreign concessions which ran independently of Chinese law. With increasing western influences came the flourishing of entertainment establishments such as nightclubs, dance halls, theatres, and brothels, effectively cementing Shanghai’s reputation as the Paris of the East. This article delves into the making of Shanghai in the 1930s and uncovers what truly lay beneath its glitzy and glamorous façade.


The Origins of the Paris of the East

paris of the east shanghai the bund 1856
Artwork of The Bund, Shanghai, 1856, via Vacher-Hilditch Collection, Historical Photographs of China


Situated on the southern estuary of the Yangtze River, Shanghai sits on a highly favorable port location. As a result of this strategic position, the former fishing village became one of five cities open to foreign trade after the First Opium War. A key turning point, the signing of the Treaty of Nanking initiated what the Chinese termed the Century of Humiliation.


commercial map china treaty ports 1899
Commercial map of China: showing treaty ports, ports of foreign control, railways, telegraphs, waterways, etc., 1899, via Digital Commonwealth


On top of the indemnity to be paid to Britain, the unequal treaty forced China to end the Canton System in favor of creating treaty ports in Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo, Foochow, and Amoy. Hong Kong was also ceded to the British in perpetuity. Against the backdrop of tense political developments, the cosmopolitan and vibrant port city of Shanghai opened its arms to foreign trade and influence.


Creation of Foreign Concessions

shanghai the bund french bridge decorated 1890
The Bund was decorated to welcome the Duke and Duchess of Connaught to Shanghai in April 1890, via Billie Love Historical Collection, Historical Photographs of China

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With the opening of the port city, Shanghai was thrust into the international spotlight as a favorable location for trade. Treaties similar to the Treaty of Nanking were soon signed with other Western nations, allowing them to set up foreign concessions in Shanghai. Between 1845 to 1849, the British, Americans, and French set up their respective concessions that were not subject to Chinese laws. In 1863, the Shanghai International Settlement was formed after the Americans and the British merged their concessions. In these spaces where legal boundaries were effectively blurred, the Westerners enjoyed extraterritorial rights and took charge of their own court system and law enforcement. These promising conditions attracted people from all over the world to come and settle in Shanghai, establishing businesses and engaging with the increasingly cosmopolitan society.


An Era of Change

taiping rebellion battle scenes chinese school 1864 painting
The Taiping Rebellion – A Set of Ten Battle Scenes by the Chinese School, after 1864, via Christie’s


In the late Qing era, the Chinese government was increasingly bogged down by political strife and foreign incursions. Reeling from the devastating impacts of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) and the Second Opium War (1856–1860), the late Qing Dynasty was confronted with unprecedented turmoil. Increased instances of warfare such as the Sino-French War (1884–1885) and the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) also dealt a huge blow to the ailing empire. Against such a backdrop, more and more revolutionary voices were campaigning for change on multiple levels in society. This included ground-up movements pushing for democracy, women’s rights, and literacy.


traffic old chinese city french concession 1890 1900
Pedestrian and vehicular traffic near a junction between the Old Chinese City and the French Concession, 1890–1900, via Charles Wheeler Collection, Historical Photographs of China


By 1911, the Qing empire had officially collapsed, paving the way for widespread socio-political changes in China. From the mid-1910s, there had been a wave of social revolutions advocating for an overhaul in the way things were traditionally run in China. The most prominent of all was the May Fourth Movement from 1917 to 1921.


student demonstration may fourth movement tiananmen 1919
A student demonstration in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, during the May Fourth Movement, 1919, via South China Morning Post


Aimed at achieving national independence and individual emancipation, the movement strove to destroy traditional Confucianism in favor of Western ideals of liberalism, pragmatism, and nationalism. This period saw widespread experimentation with new ideas and beliefs that would impact how Chinese society subsequently developed. More significantly, the collective intellectual and cultural ferment would set the stage for Shanghai’s emergence as the Paris of the East in the 1930s.


Enter Glitz and Glamour

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A guide map by the Sun Sun Company for American marines showing all the entertainment establishments in Shanghai, 1930, via Geographicus


Shanghai nights, Shanghai nights, 

You are a city that never sleeps,

Bright lights, sounds of cars, singing and dancing


Shanghai Nights (1937) by Zhou Xuan, one of China’s Seven Great Singing Stars


Standing at the crossroads of influences from the east and the west, Shanghai in the 1930s was best remembered because of its vibrant nightlife. In this city that never slept, there were hundreds of cabarets, nightclubs, and elite ballrooms. Perhaps the most famous of all was The Paramount, an elite nightclub that attracted Shanghai’s rich and famous. Built in 1933, the Art Deco landmark was the biggest ballroom in the city situated at the iconic Bubbling Well Road. While its English name paid tribute to its colossal size, its transliterated name in Mandarin read as Bai Le Men, meaning Gateway to 100 Pleasures.


paris of the east shanghai ciros nightclub 1937
Ciro’s nightclub in Shanghai, 1937 via Malcolm Rosholt Collection, Historical Photographs of China


Hosting night after night of dances, cabarets, and dinners, The Paramount was frequented by starlets, gangsters, businessmen, and politicians alike. A stone’s throw away from The Paramount was Ciro’s, another high-end elite nightclub for the wealthy constructed in 1936 by real estate magnate Victor Sassoon. Complete with a lavish garden, a fountain, and a fishpond, the entertainment establishment rivaled The Paramount as the only dance club boasting central air-conditioning.


A Cultural Renaissance

cycle brand cigarettes beautiful girls advertisement 1930s
Cycle brand cigarettes advertising poster, the 1930s, via The Little Museum of Foreign Brand Advertising in the ROC


Just like Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai too was experiencing a renaissance of its own. An East-West fusion, the birth of the Haipai culture, also known as Shanghai-style culture, lay at the heart of this renaissance. Referring to how receptive Shanghai was to foreign influences, the essence of Haipai was found in arts, fashion, culture, literature, film, and even cuisine. Though the term was originally a derogatory one used by traditional Beijing dwellers who scoffed at Shanghai’s perceived regional superiority and the wholesale embrace of Western values, Haipai soon defined the zeitgeist of the city in the 1930s.


paris of the east departmental stores nanking road 1927
Aerial view of department stores on Nanking Road in Shanghai, 1927, via Jack Ephgrave Collection, Historical Photographs of China


In the spirit of innovation, inclusiveness, and commercialism, being Haipai included embracing new forms of Western-style consumerism and mass entertainment. Unlike their more conservative comrades in other parts of China, Shanghailanders were known to enjoy urban life and all that it had to offer. They frequented department stores, enjoyed reading novels and magazines, and reinvented traditional opera performances. Therefore, they became the main target audience of mass advertising.


Sex and the Chinese City

Blood Alley in Shanghai, 1937 via Malcolm Rosholt Collection, Historical Photographs of China


Echoing the proliferation of mass entertainment and the flourishing nightlife, Shanghai’s reputation as a sin city began gaining widespread attention. Activities such as sex work and organized crime took center stage in the gang-controlled treaty port. There were at least 100,000 unlicensed sex workers in Shanghai during the 1930s and 1940s. The largest group consisted of sex workers working on the street known as yeji which was a derogatory term meaning wild chicken. Known for their cheap prices and accessibility, some of these women were in fact victims of kidnapping and human trafficking. There were plenty of brothels in Shanghai, with Blood Alley in the French Concession being the most notorious red-light district. Also known as Rue Chu Pao San, the street was best remembered as a haven for foreign sailors and soldiers to solicit paid sex.


Gangs of Shanghai

duyuesheng gangster shanghai paris of the east 1930s
Du Yuesheng (right), the godfather of the underworld in 1930s Shanghai, via China.org


A magnet for criminal activity, the prosperous treaty port of Shanghai was dominated by gangsters and triads. It was said that by the 1930s, there were over 100,000 gangsters in the city, making up about 3% of the overall population. Perhaps the most prominent of all would be the Green Gang, a Chinese crime syndicate whose history was believed to be dated to the 18th century. Powerful and corrupt, the Green Gang was headed by a fearsome trio consisting of Du Yuesheng, Huang Jinrong, and Zhang Xiaolin. Essentially mob bosses who sometimes doubled as politicians and detectives, the trio, also known as the Three Tycoons, controlled the entire city’s opium, gambling, and prostitution operations. The Gang-owned Sanxin Company primarily traded opium and its profits were on par with one-third of the city government’s overall income at its height.


The Curtain Falls on the Paris of the East

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Cathay Hotel bombing in Shanghai, 1937 via Archibald Lang Collection Historical Photographs of China


When the Japanese forces invaded China in 1937, the light dimmed in the glitzy and glamorous Shanghai city. In its place were years of hardship, uncertainty, and poverty. During World War II, the foreign concessions in Shanghai remained intact for a period and provided a safe haven for European refugees. By merit of its extraterritoriality, Shanghai was one of the few places on earth open to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe. Despite this, the Japanese were harsh on British, Dutch, and American nationals, often confiscating their properties. After the Pearl Harbour attack in December 1941, the Japanese ended all foreign concessions (except French) in Shanghai.


After World War II China was embroiled in a civil war until 1949 when the communists emerged victorious. Under the control of the communists, there was widespread censorship and a crackdown on gambling, sex work, and all the other things that once made Shanghai. With communist restrictions ending foreign trade, Shanghai’s glory days as the Paris of the East were done as well. Almost a century has passed since Shanghai’s golden age of the 1930s and today China stands at the forefront of economic prosperity. The allure of Old Shanghai continues to capture the popular imagination in numerous contemporary films, music, dramas, and literary works, evoking a lasting nostalgia for a charming bygone era.

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By Ching Yee LinBA (Hons) HistoryBased in Singapore, Ching Yee is a copywriter who focuses on the historical and contemporary issues concerning the Singapore society. She holds a BA (Hons) in History from the National University of Singapore and is passionate about topics related to social and cultural history of Asian societies. In her spare time, she enjoys pottery and watching films.