Old Shanghai, City of Wealth, Inequality and Vice

Story posted: Wednesday, 18. May 2011 by CPA Media

Pictures From History / Themes / OLD SHANGHAI




Old Shanghai, City of Wealth, Inequality and Vice




Shanghai is a city of superlatives. China’s largest city, with a population of almost 19 million in the municipal area and more than 10 million in the urban core, it is the nation’s richest, most progressive, most stylish and most modern metropolis. It’s also perhaps the least Chinese of cities in China, having been molded and formed since the mid-19th century by decades of close interaction with other nationalities, most notably Europeans, Americans and Japanese.


Originally a sleepy fishing port on the west bank of the Huangpu River, Shanghai – which means ‘on sea’ in Chinese – has always been associated with water. To the east lies the South China Sea, to the north, distant just 15miles (24km), the vast Yangzi River draws a decisive geographic dividing line between North and South China. To the south lie the tidal waters of Hangzhou Bay, while to the west are the scattered canals, lakes and marshlands surrounding Lake Tai. Over the centuries this watery setting has brought Shanghai prosperity as a port, especially after the establishment of the International Settlements in the city following the First Opium War in 1842. Over the same period it has also brought the city serious problems in the form of foreign invaders – Western opium dealers and monopoly capitalists to be sure, but more recently and more disastrously, soldiers of Imperial Japan. Today, after 40 years of austerity under the communists between 1949 and 1990, the city is once again booming, having surpassed Singapore in 2005 to become the largest cargo port in the world.


Shanghai is still very much ‘on sea’, but it is also the motive force behind a massive and increasingly hi-tech industrial complex centered on the city and the neighboring Yangzi River Delta covering – in Chinese terms at least – a relatively small area of 38,650 square miles (100,100 sq km), or just over one per cent of the national territory. Yet the Yangzi Delta is also home to just over 10 per cent of China’s population – some 132 million people – and accounts for in excess of 22 per cent of China’s gross domestic product and around 25 per cent of national revenues, while handling a staggering 28.5 per cent of the country’s import and export volume. Shanghai remains the single major engine driving Chinese economic expansion, while the city’s own economy has continued to expand at double-digit rates for the 15 consecutive years since Beijing gave the green light to unrestricted economic development in 1992. Quite simply, Shanghai today is a Pacific Rim prodigy that rivals, and may soon surpass, Hong Kong and Tokyo.


And of course it shows. Shanghai has long been the most fashionable city in China, even if that stylishness has been tinged with more than a whiff of corruption and decadence, earning the city such unfashionable (yet strangely appealing) sobriquets as ‘The Whore of Asia’ – though no doubt city elders would have preferred something less prejudicial, like the rival ‘Pearl of the Orient’.


No matter. Shanghai’s dubious past disappeared in 1949, when the victorious People’s Liberation Army marched unopposed into the streets and imposed a bleak era of communist austerity on the city that would last for four decades. Foreign (and many Chinese) capitalists shut up shop and fled the city, often for Hong Kong. Dance halls and houses of ill repute were closed, property was nationalized, and the elegant, body-hugging qipao dresses sported by Shanghai women from society hostesses to singsong girls were replaced by a dark tide of identical Mao tunics and peaked caps.


Matters reached a new low in 1966, when the ‘Gang of Four’, including Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, together with three associated Shanghai radicals, made the city their power base and launched the much-vaunted ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’. For the next decade Shanghai, as indeed the rest of the country, had to endure a horrific period of bigotry, persecution, cultural vandalism, starvation and – all-too-frequently – murder. The nightmare did not come to an end until after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, the arrest of the ‘Gang of Four’ soon after, and the emergence of Deng Xiaoping as supreme leader post-1978.


Deng decisively rejected the flawed Maoist maxim: ‘Better Red than Expert’, countering rhetorically with an old adage from his native Sichuan Province: ‘What does it matter whether the cat is black or white? As long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat’. With Deng’s rise to power (1981-92), revolutionary rhetoric went out of the window together with the failed economic policies of State Socialism. Economic pragmatism was to be the new system, and under Deng’s advocacy the watchword became ‘to be rich is glorious’. Although the communist government remained authoritarian and widely unpopular, particularly after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Deng’s new slogan was music to the ears of most Shanghainese.


True to his word, Deng permitted the economic opening of Shanghai in 1990, allowing the municipal authorities to use locally-generated financial revenues to develop the city’s long-neglected infrastructure. At the same time Pudong – the area to the east of the Huangpu River – was declared a Special Economic Zone that was destined to rival and overtake Hong Kong, at the time and until 1997 still a British colonial enclave. Shanghai responded with alacrity and enthusiasm. In 1988 the city’s tallest building, dating from 1934, remained the Park Hotel. By 1993 The Oriental Pearl Tower was completed, changing forever the Pudong skyline and auguring in a new era of high-rise construction. By 1998 Pudong boasted the tallest building in China in the Jinmao Tower and an estimated one quarter of all high-rise construction cranes in the world were busy transforming the Shanghai skyline. Today there are more than 4,000 buildings over 330ft (100m) high, a statistic matched by no other megalopolis on earth. To this may be added such engineering marvels as the Maglev Line, Pudong International Airport, Nanpu Bridge, Lupu Bridge and – more recently and out of town – the massive Hangzhou Bay Bridge, the longest trans-oceanic bridge in the world.


Yet even as Shanghai blazes the way into China’s 21st century, the increasingly affluent middle classes are coming to appreciate the city’s former glories. Buildings that date from colonial times, especially along The Bund and in the Fuxing Park area, are being renovated, Buddhist, Daoist and even Confucian temples are being painstakingly restored, the centre of the Old Town or Nanshi has been carefully recreated in Ming and Qing Dynasty styles, and areas of traditional shikumen housing are now also being preserved and restored, or effectively entirely rebuilt as trendy, up market shopping and restaurant areas, as in Xintiandi. Another notable trend in recent years has been the conversion of numbers of large, old warehouses in the Zhabei area and along Moganshan Road into art galleries and artists’ studios. Meanwhile across town, from Pudong in the east to Xujiahui and Hongqiao in the west, spectacular skyscraper architecture continues to rise on an almost monthly basis, dominating the skyline and offering Shanghai’s increasingly affluent classes access to gigantic, air-conditioned shopping malls, designer clothing, the latest electronic and computer gadgetry (much of it locally made, even if it bears Japanese or Korean trademarks), international cuisine and even German microbreweries.


Clearly, change is sweeping Shanghai perhaps faster than any other city on earth, and ‘Big Ears’ Du with his gangster cohorts from the 1920s would no longer recognize the city they once controlled and called home. Or would they? Certainly the skyline has altered beyond recognition, and the city enjoys a prosperity that could scarcely have been envisaged during the colonial period. But affluence has its negative as well as its positive sides, and with increased political freedom and spiraling wealth, some of the vices of Old Shanghai are, no doubt inevitably, reappearing. Prostitution is making a comeback, and not just among the amoral, relatively affluent diaomazi or ‘fishing girls’ of Maoming Road, seeking the wherewithal to purchase the latest mobile phone or some other desirable fashion accessory. Poor girls from the countryside are once again falling victim to predatory brothel keepers – though the city authorities are indeed anxious to prevent the re-emergence of this once notorious Shanghai institution.


Drugs, more-or-less banished under Mao Zedong, are also back, though it’s much easier to find ecstasy or even cocaine at a downtown disco than it is to find a genuine opium parlor – except, of course, in a museum. Gambling, too, is making a reappearance – and not just mahjong and card games, but more perniciously on-line gambling, giving the authorities a moral reason (as well, no doubt, as a political excuse) to severely limit the number of internet cafes across the city. Then there’s Shanghai’s popular and celebrated Stock Exchange, where the government is concerned that too many locals are racking up serious losses against credit card and other debts. On the other hand, the city is certainly much safer now than it was during colonial times – there is as yet no contemporary equivalent of ‘Blood Alley’, and there seems to be no reason why such low and dangerous dives should reappear. Happily, even the 19th century expression ‘to Shanghai’ (meaning to seize some unfortunate off the street and press them into service at sea) no longer has any currency. The People’s Liberation Army Navy requires only professional sailors, and foreign warships no longer anchor, except by invitation, along The Bund.


At the beginning of the 21st century, Shanghai remains a paradigm, displaying much that is best and most impressive, as well as some things that are less than appealing, about emerging New China. Long the nation’s most go-ahead metropolis, it is thriving, noisy, polluted, overflowing with humanity – and above all a modern, vibrant and exciting destination.





Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA Media 2011.

An extended version of this text may be found in National Geographic Traveler Shanghai


Category:  China

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