Until the city’s recent – and spectacular – resurgence, Shanghai’s glory days lay in the 1920s and 30s. Then, it reigned as Asia’s most cosmopolitan metropolis, infamous as a city of both glamour and squalour. It housed now-vanished populations of transient White Russian refugees (mainly in the French concession) and Jews in its “Little Vienna” (where you can still visit the Jewish refugee museum in a former synagogue.) Adjacent to this was the former Hongkou Little Tokyo. In contrast to the Jewish and Russian communities which are no more, the city is still home to the world’s largest Japanese expat population, as well as a substantial Koreatown, with its bars, barbecue restaurants and bath-houses in the districts of Gubei and Hongqiao.
The British and Americans lived in their luxurious International Settlement along the splendid riverside of the Bund, while the French administrators, infamously corrupt, watched over their area where the streets were lined with plane trees and villas and apartments built in chic art deco style, many of which are still remaining around Hengshan Street (formerly Avenue Petain).
The vast majority of the city of course was always Chinese. They lived in surrounding districts, or in the infamously dense and squalid tangle of the Old City, a city-within-a-city which in the last few years has been regrettably mostly destroyed, both the native mercantile Shanghainese and countless immigrants from a country wracked by war, starvation and opium.
With so many different laws, court systems and police – not all of whom co-operated – and a booming trading port, the city was a perfect set-up for the flourishing of organised crime. Prominent among the Shanghai underworld was the Green gang, a secret society which had originally emerged as a guild for transportation workers on the Great canal, before morphing into a shadowy, subversive force opposed to the Qing dynasty. Under its leader in Shanghai, the legendary gangster Du Yuesheng, it operated with the complicity of the French administration in running brothels, opium smuggling and gambing rackets. According to wikipedia’s entry, Ducheng was “a stickler for fine clothing and women … he wore only Chinese silks, surrounded himself with White Russian bodyguards, and frequented the city’s best nightclubs and sing-song houses. Du was also known for having a superstitious streak — he had three small monkey heads, specially imported from Hong Kong, sewn to his clothes at the small of his back.”
On the 12th April in 1927, at the behest of Chiang Kaishek and his Nationalists, the Green Gang launched their White Terror, a day of violence unleashed against Communists and their sympathisers, who had started to organise in the city’s French quarter in 1921. Across China, over 300 thousand people were killed.
The following year, even as blood still flowed on the streets, Shanghai reached its decadent peak with the opening of a lavish palace of pleasure called “the Great World.” This indoor themepark was housed in a splendid baroque-Chinese hybrid building which is still standing and perennially rumored to be re-opening.
One commentator described it in its heyday as follows:
“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, mid-wives, 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, ‘rubber goods’ and a temple filled with ferocious gods and joss sticks. On the top floor and roof of that house of multiple joys a jumble of tight-rope walkers slithered back and forth, and there were seesaws, lottery tickets, and marriage brokers.
All of this came to an end with World War Two, when Shanghai’s lights dimmed. The Great World was bombed by the Japanese with two thousand refugees huddled inside, Du Yuesheng escaped to Hong Kong (where he would live peacefully in exile until his death) and the international settlements were dismantled with their European inhabitants placed in POW camps (among them the young J G Ballard, who would later write about this experience in “Empire of the Sun.”) It was the end of a tumultous, but romantic, era.