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
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.
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
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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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.