Life itself. Nothing more intensely living can be imagined.
Aldous Huxley, describing the city of Shanghai
Shanghai is an anomaly. The child of Western imperialism and the youngest of China’s major cities, it is by far the largest, the most lively, the most productive, with one-eighth of China’s total industrial output and almost a quarter of its exports coming from its factories. Above all, Shanghai is the only one of China’s cities that really feels like a city: it hums like a metropolis should. Much of this is a holdover from the old days when Shanghai was the adventurers’ paradise. It is still running on the vitality and momentum it built up when it was the greatest city in Asia. Shanghai was to the first half of this century what Hong Kong has been to the second an international crossroads, a magnet drawing poor people from the Chinese hinterland, a place to get rich quick and lose it all just as fast. There are differences, of course. Even at its most risque, Hong Kong cannot hope to match the sleaziness and decadence that was an integral part of life in Shanghai, and the extremes of rich and poor are less far apart in modern-day Hong Kong than they were in the old Shanghai.
The heart of the city is much as it was when the foreign magnates of the old China trade left it in 1949. The old banks lining the Bund, Shanghai’s most famous street, facing on to the Huangpu River, and the department stores along Nanking Road are looking a little frayed now, but they are still the sturdiest structures in Shanghai. Around the central core of the city, housing has been built since 1949 to accommodate the huge influx of people that has made the city one of the world’s most populous. But the endless housing estates look jerry-built and forlorn with many a cracked concrete wall and broken window. All over the city, fading political slogans from forgotten campaigns are still to be faintly seen, left to decay at nature’s own pace. No one seems to care about the shabbiness. But it is all relative. The housing estates are at least better than the slums in which so many people lived in the old days.
Housing conditions can be appallingly cramped, but the Shanghainese still enjoy the highest standard of living in China. Their restaurants are excellent, their shops reasonably well-stocked. Prices are generally higher than in other parts of China, but then so are the wages. It is the dream of tens of millions of people in China to be allowed to move to Shanghai to live and work.
Before the foreigners came, Shanghai was just another fishing town near the Yangtse River. When the British moved in after the first Opium War in 1842, they created the basis for what quickly became the most important commercial centre in China, and its economic strength attracted hundreds of thousands of Chinese from other poorer rural areas of east China. The central city area was divided into the British-dominated International Settlement and the French Con- cession, and for many decades they were ruled entirely by the foreigners who even enjoyed ‘extra-territoriality’ -freedom from prosecution under Chinese law. During the Second World War, Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese, and in 1945, the Western powers agreed to dismantle the International Settlement and hand the administration of the city over to the Nationalist government. In May 1949, the Communist army marched into Shanghai and ended the rule of both foreigners and Nationalists.
The old pre-Communist Shanghai was really two worlds-the glitter and wealth of the upper crust, and the grinding poverty of the lower classes. The foreign Shanghai residents lived like royalty , as their sumptuous mansions, now proletarianised, attest. Meanwhile, in 1937 for example, the authorities in the International Settlement collected from its streets the bodies of 20000 people who had died , there of hunger and cold. To be fair, 1937 was a bad year, and the poverty of Shanghai was more a reflection of the conditions else- where in China than the fault of the city itself. But life there was cheap. In some textile mills, children were chained to their machines; gangland murders were as common as they are in Sicily today; prostitution was a major industry. The science fiction writer, J. G. Ballard, who grew up in old Shanghai, recalled going to the opening night of the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame and finding hundreds of hunchbacks outside the cinema, employed by the film’s promotors to add atmosphere.
At the top of the Shanghai social scale were some of the great robber barons of the twentieth century .There was Victor Sassoon, born into a Jewish Indian family which became immensely rich after moving to Shanghai. Sassoon had a great passion for horse racing: ‘There is only one race greater than the Jews, and that is the Derby ” he was once quoted as saying. There were gangland bosses such as Du Yuesheng, leader of the notorious Green Gang, who made millions out of opium, gambling, prostitution and extortion, and covered himself by establishing close ties with the Nationalists. There was a small but significant Chinese bourgeoisie, intent on learning Western ways and discarding any Chinese traditions which stood in the way. And below, there were the poor, the ordinary people struggling to get by.
At one stroke, the Communists killed the old Shanghai, exorcised the foreigners (who were either deported or else placed in a special camp for stateless persons) and began to transform the city. Opium dens were closed and the addicts weaned from their habit; the prostitutes were given medical treatment and taught a new trade. The worst of the slums were slowly cleared away. At first, the Communists promised those capitalists who stayed that their property would not be confiscated, a promise that was not kept -all factories were nationalised in 1953. Nevertheless, the transformation has not been total. Wailing through the main downtown area, one could be in any one of a dozen Western cities. Only the ubiquitous Mao jackets and streams of bicycles remind you that this is China. The Shanghai people, too, have retained a cosmopolitan air and a disdain for the ‘country bumpkins’ from other parts of the country. Theyare also noted for their efficiency and a sense of style which surely has something to do with the city’s decadent past. The Shanghai of pre-1949 was full of colour and stories, but there was another Old Shanghai as well, that of the 1960s and early 197OS when Shanghai was the centre of radical Maoism, the base from which Mao began the Cultural Revolution and from where the leading radicals, later known as the ‘Gang of Four’ rose to prominence. How Shanghai could be both the most bourgeois place in China and, a few years later, the most radical, is something of an enigma. Probably the best explanation is that the Shanghainese are good at spotting a trend and leaping to its forefront.
With the Peking press firmly under the control of his opponents, Chairman Mao had to go to Shanghai in 1966 to get his Cultural Revolution moving, and he published the first articles of the campaign in the Shanghai newspaper Wen Hui Bao. The Red Guards, those millions of young people who believed they were fighting to uphold Chairman Mao’s ‘Correct Revolutionary Line’, were quickly roused, and in August 1966, thousands of them from all over the country besieged the Shanghai City Hall, the old Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation headquarters. The mayor declared the Red Guards to be counter-revolutionaries and mobilised workers to ward off the siege, which they did after several days of fighting.
By the end of the year, students and workers in the city were gathering into mass organisations of up to one million people each, some leftist, some rightist, and clashes between the two became more frequent and bloody. The climax came at the beginning of 1967 with what was called the ‘January Storm’ when city life was virtually brought to a standstill. By the middle of the month, the leftist ‘rebels’ had taken control of the administration, and early the following month, the Shanghai Commune, modelled on the Paris Commune of the 1870S, was established, although it lasted only 18 days before being replaced by the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee. Shanghai was the first place in which the Maoists tried to take power, and their methods were repeated all over the country as the old guard was attacked by the Red Guards and replaced by radicals.
Once the new radical leadership was installed, they no longer needed the idealistic Red Guards, so millions of these young people j were forcibly shipped off into the countryside, many of them to j Xinjiang (Sinkiang) Autonomous Region in the far northwest. There have been constant problems over the years with exiled Shanghai youth wanting to return to the city , and these problems still continue. I In 1980, an estimated 20000 of them illegally returned from Xinjiang, although most were eventually shipped back to that largely barren jregIon.
Right at the end of the Maoist period in 1976, Shanghai once more 1 played a crucial political role. Mao died in September, and a struggle for the succession began between the radicals and the moderates. Shanghai was the base of the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ radicals, then commonly known as the Shanghai Gang, and plans were worked out for a military uprising in the city if the radical leaders in Peking, including Mao’s widow Jiang Qing, were seized. Seized they were in early October but, for reasons never satisfactorily explained, the Shanghai uprising never took place .
Moving with the times as usual, Shanghai is now flirting once more , with bourgeois pleasures. Most of the signboards along Nanking Road which used to bear quotations from Chairman Mao’s Thoughts, now display advertisements for sony tape recorders and the like. A local newspaper recently complained that some young female workers refuse to do menial tasks on the grounds that it might ruin their fingernails.
To get a feel for Shanghai, you have to walk its streets. Start from the SHANGHAI MANSIONS, a huge hotel (known in the old days as Broadway Mansions) just over the bridge at the north end of the Bund. Take the lift to the top floor and walk out on to the balcony to get a stunning view of the whole inner city area. Just outside is the iron-girder bridge spanning Suzhou Creek, once called Garden Bridge, but now known as Waibaidu (outer ferry) Bridge. On the left bank is a large grey building which was formerly the Russian consulate, and now houses the Shanghai seamen’s hostel. Straight ahead is the former BRITISH CONSULATE, a suitably imperial building set among green lawns. The main consulate building is now used by the shanghai Foreign Trade Department, while one of the side buildings has been turned into the local Friendship Store. Opposite the British Consulate beside the river is Huangpu Park, formerly the public gardens of the old International Settlement. The regulations posted outside the park used to state (in separate provisions) that dogs and Chinese were not allowed in. After angry protests, the rules were changed to allow ‘respectable’ Chinese to enter but the ordinary natives were, naturally, still barred.
Further down the Bund, the present China Textiles Export corporation was once owned by Jardin Matheson’s, one of the original opium-trading companies. Just to the north of the Peace Hotel, the building now occupied by the People’s Bank of China used to be the Bank of China, as operated by the Nationalist government. This bank was under the control of T. V. Soong and H. H. Kung, two relatives by marriage of Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek who, by their devious financial dealings, were largely responsible for the waves of inflation which swept through Shanghai in the late 1940s, fatally weakening the Nationalist government.
Next is the PEACE HOTEL, opened in 1930 as Sassoon House after the family which built it. It contained the Cathay Hotel, in its day one of the grandest hotels in the Far East. Noel Coward is supposed to have finished off his play Private Lives while staying there. The silver milk jugs and toast trays used in the Peace Hotel’s splendid restaurant still bear the emblem of the Cathay. On the other side of the street is the south wing of the Peace Hotel which used to be the Palace Hotel.
Further down, topped by a tall clock tower, is the old Customs House, the headquarters of the foreign-run administration which collected China’s customs duties on the grounds that the Chinese government was not efficient enough to do it itself. Next door is the SHANGHAI COMMUNIST PARTY HEADQUARTERS (city hall), built in 1921 as the headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. The two large bronze, very British lions which used to sit outside the bank’s entrance have been replaced by a People’s Liberation Army guard, but the lions reportedly still exist. A bank employee told me that they re-appeared one day a few years ago when a film was being made about old Shanghai.
A little further down is the DONGFENG HOTEL, which in the old days was the Shanghai Club, a re-creation of the exclusive London club atmosphere which British colonials all over the world seemed to need so badly. The club claimed to have the longest bar in the world; this still exists, although it has been partitioned into three sections. The building is now used mostly for wedding receptions, and the old bar, where once British bankers lingered over their port undisturbed by the teeming masses outside, is now a public cafe. Walk back north to the Peace Hotel, and turn west into NANKING ROAD, the premier shopping street of old (and new) Shanghai. The Wing On and Sincere Department Stores, both of which still maintain shops in Hong Kong, were among the most splendid shops in Asia. Wing On is now the NO.10 Department Store; Sincere is the Shanghai Oothing Store. (There are still beggars to be seen in this area, far fewer than in the old days, but they are there nevertheless.)
Just south of Nanking Road on Jiujiang Road is the PEIGUANG MIDDLE SCHOOL, which in the old days was the Laozha police station. In 1925, this was the scene of an incident which caused massive strikes and boycotts of foreign goods right across China. A Chinese worker was killed in a fight with the management of a Japanese-run textile factory and a demonstration was organised to protest. The police arrested 23 students and took them to the Laozha police station outside which crowds gathered, demanding their release. The situation turned ugly and the British officer in command ordered his men to fire on the demonstrators. Dozens were killed and injured. One block south of Nanking Road is FUZHOU ROAD, once famous for its brothels and ‘sing-song girl’ teahouses, as well as its second-hand bookshops. The brothels disappeared in 1949 when the Communists came, and although the bookshops lasted a bit longer, they too were closed during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Most of the books were probably pulped to produce copies of the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao’s thoughts. (A couple of bookshops are still open, but there are few books of interest on offer. ) On the corner of Fuzhou Road and Henan Road stands a large building which used to be the headquarters of the International Settlement Municipal Council, de- scribed by one writer as ‘the citidal of Western, and particularly British, power in Shanghai’ . Further along Nanking Road, you come upon the PARK HOTEL, formerly the International Hotel, which overlooks an area once occupied by the Shanghai race track. Half of the race course is now People’s Square, a vast expanse of concrete; the other half has been turned into People’s Park. The race course club house, with its impressive clock tower, is now the municipal library .The grandstand also still exists and is sometimes used for meetings.
The street south of Fuzhou Road, YANAN ROAD, marked the dividing line between the International Settlement and the French Concession. Huaihai Road, formerly called Avenue Joffre, was full of interesting little cafes and was known for its tailors’ shops. The French authorities generally maintained a tolerant attitude towards shady political activities, and in a building just off the old Avenue Joffre (at 76 Xingye Lu), the Chinese Communist Party was established in 1921. Mao Tse-tung didn’t attend; he said he couldn’t find the address.
The old French Club, now the JINJIANG CLUB, is a magnificent art deco structure built in the early 192OS. The club was opened for tourists in 1979 and has a very good restaurant. Above the room now used for video games is a vast ballroom, while at the end of the corridor is a beautiful, well-preserved indoor swimming pool. The club was reportedly used by Chairman Mao as his Shanghai residence for many years.
Directly across the road is the JINJIANG HOTEL, consisting of blocks of luxury apartments built by the French. In the one-storey block in the centre of the compound, President Nixon and Premier Chou Enlai signed the Shanghai Communiqu¨¦ in 1972 in which the Americans agreed that there was only one China. (It was another eight years before they further agreed that the capital of that China was Peking and not Taipei.)
Diagonally across the intersection from the old French Club is the Shanghai Art Theatre, opened in 1931 as the Lyceum, home of the Shanghai Amateur Dramatic Club.
Back to the Bund, walk south from Yanan Road and you will come to the oldest part of town, the CHINESE CITY. Renmin and Zhonghua Roads now mark where the old, roughly circular city wall once stood. The narrow lanes, usually crowded with pedestrians, are pleasant to walk through and contain some interesting specialist shops selling items such as chopsticks. The best area is the northeast section of the old city , where there is a market, and an old-fashioned teahouse set in a tepid pool. Nearby is the YU YUAN, an extremely cluttered garden built in 1577 which is popular with both locals and tourists.
On the comer of Yanan and Henen Roads, just north of the Chinese City , is the SHANGHAI ART AND HISTORY MUSEUM, one of the best in China. Two or three intersections further west, on the comer of Tibet Road and Yanan Road and marked by a tall white pagoda rising from its entrance, is the SHANGHAI YOUTH PALACE, once a pleasure house known as the Great World. The writer Pan Ling, in her excellent book In Search of Old Shanghai, quotes at length from a description of the place written by a 193oS Hollywood director who visited it:
The establishment had six floors to provide distraction for the milling crowd, six floors that seethed with life and all the commotion and noise that go with it, studded with every variety of entertainment Chinese ingenuity had contrived. On the first floor were gambling tables, sing-song girls, magicians, pick-pockets, slot machines, fireworks, bird cages, fans, stick incense, acrobats and ginger. One flight up were the restaurants, a dozen different groups of actors, crickets in cages, pimps, midwives, barbers and earwax extractors. The third floor had jugglers, herb medicines, ice cream parlours, photographers, a new bevy of girls, their high-collared gowns slit to reveal their hips, in case one had passed up the more modest ones below who merely flashed their thighs. The fourth floor was crowded with shooting galleries, fantan tables, massage benches…the fifth floor featured girls whose dresses were slit to the armpits, a stuffed whale, story tellers, balloons, peep shows, a mirror maze, two love letter booths with scribes who guaranteed results…
Because it is such a young city , Shanghai has few of the temples and towers which form the bulk of the tourist attractions in other cities in China. One of the few Buddhist temples which are still open is the JADE BUDDHA TEMPLE (Yufosi) on Changshou Road to the northwest of the city centre. The temple contains two exquisite jade statues of the Buddha, one seated, the other lying, which were brought from Burma in the early years of the century .
In the Hongkou district to the north of the city is the HOME OF LU XUN, one of modem China’s greatest writers, who died in the 1930s. The Communists’ have adopted him as their own, but my favourite quote of Lu Xun’s is a damning indictment of the vast bulk of the so-called literature produced in China since 1949: ‘To my mind, any kind of literature that can be used for the goal of political propaganda is devoid of persuasive force. Good literature always refuses to be ordered from outside, it never cares about practical considerations, it spontaneously springs from the heart.’
Any foreigner walking along the Bund usually attracts at least a couple of young Chinese wanting to practise their English. But if you want more of the same, there is a place in the People’s Park where people go on Sunday mornings to practise: in the ‘English corner’ , only English is spoken.
A haircut and massage can be an interesting experience, and prices for the service are cheap. Try Mr Ti in his salon in the Peace Hotel, who gives a haircut and wash followed by a brisk head and neck massage for only 3.20 yuan. Alternatively, just round the corner there is the Xinxin barber on East Nanking road where it is even cheaper.
The Huangpu River plays a vital part in Shanghai life, and a ferry trip is a good way to see it. There are public ferries running from the Bund across to the east bank, a largely uninteresting industrial area. China Travel Service also operates cruises which go down to the mouth of the Yangtse River which pass by warships of the East China Fleet as well as the usual ferries, tugs and barges.
Pumpkin Lane, a former slum area, is interesting to visit, although it has to be arranged through China Travel to be really worthwhile. In a corner of the post-1949 model housing estate stand a group of mud huts preserved in their pristine ramshackle state to prove how bad things were in the ‘bad old days’ before the Communist Party came. This little museum of poverty is kept hidden behind iron gates, and is only shown to foreigners who specifically ask to see it. Old residents are wheeled out to describe in gory detail how dreadful things were. ‘I was a beggar for 15 years and a rickshaw puller for 27 years before that,’ said one old man who acts as a sort of custodian. He pointed at the small huts, perhaps four feet (1.2 metres) wide, six feet (1.8 metres) long and covered with a bamboo mat. ‘It was not easy to find a place like this in the old days in Shanghai. You had to bribe the local tyrants who controlled the land before they let you move in.’ ‘Dead babies,’ added an old woman who also lived in the infamous Pumpkin Lane. ‘There were children’s bodies everywhere in the old days. When your baby died, you just rolled it up irl straw and threw it away.’
Shanghai is full of factories, and a visit to one of them is not hard to arrange through the China Travel Service. One interesting one, I think, is the Shanghai toothpaste factory , a tiny place which chums out one quarter of China’s total toothpaste supplies. The key question, of course, was: How many people in China brush their teeth? ‘My own personal estimate,’ said the vice-director, ‘is that about one-third of China’s population brush their teeth.’
Shanghai cuisine is recognised as one of the great schools of Chinese cooking, and Shanghai’s restaurants are among the best in China. The seafood and European food are particularly good.
Probably the most authentic Shanghai cooking is available at the Rongshun Restaurant (242 Fuyou Lu, not far from the Yu Garden in the Chinese City), also known as the Shanghai Lao Fandian the ‘old Shanghai restaurant’ .For Cantonese food, try the Xinya Restaurant, a famous three storey place (719 Nanking Road). Another Shanghai style restaurant is the Yangzhou Restaurant (306 Nanking Road). For European food, try any of the major hotels, or else the Red House (37 Shanxi Road, near the Jinjiang Hotel) which, before the communist take-over, was called Chez Louis. The baked Alaska is excellent.
Nightlife The coffee bars at the Peace Hotel and Shanghai Mansions both used to feature jazz bands composed of musicians from the dance bands of the 194os, pulled out of retirement to play those old Glenn Miller tunes once again, this time for the benefit of the Four Modemisations. Then in mid-1982, with a mounting campaign against so-called ‘bourgeois liberalism’ sweeping the land, the bands were forced to stop. Hopefully they will be allowed to strike up the music again soon. It was so nice to sit amidst the 193oS decor of the Peace Hotel coffee shop, sipping an Irish whiskey and listening to the scratch band in the comer play ‘I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now’, just slightly out of tune. Real atmosphere. Hotels The Peace Hotel, conveniently located on the Bund, is expensive but well worth the price. Everything from the lobby to the plumbing recalls another era. Visitors may find they are woken early by the honking of cars and the hooting of ships, but in Shanghai you should get up early anyway. Some rooms now feature colour television sets and awful video movies. Such is progress. (Take a No.65 bus from the railway station.)
The Jinjiang Hotel is the largest in Shanghai and the most luxurious. Heads of state visiting the city usually stay in one of the suites in the south block. It’s quieter than the Peace Hotel and close to the Jinjiang Club and the Red House, two good restaurants, but it is rather isolated from the main action down on the Bund. The main block has a dormitory, although it can be hard to get a bed. (Take a No.41 bus from the railway station.)
Most budget travellers stay at the Pujiang Hotel, close to the Shanghai Mansions, where dorm beds cost five yuan. (Take a No.65 bus from the station, get off at Nanking Road, cross the bridge over Suzhou Creek and turn right past Seamen’s Hostel. ) Another budget hotel is the Sang Chiang Hotel (740 Hankow Road).