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Early beginnings

Up until the 7th century AD, Shànghǎi itself, then known as Shen or Hu Tu (after local bamboo fishing traps; the character hù still refers to Shànghǎi to this day, observable on local car number plates), was simply marshland. In fact, most of eastern modern Shànghǎi didn’t exist until the 17th century, when a complex web of canals was designed to drain the region. The early settlement of Shànghǎi sprung up at the confluence of the Shanghai River (long since vanished) and the Huangpu River (Huángpǔ Jiāng).

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It all started with a little bit of opium

During the early years of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the British East India Company and its later incarnations were quietly trading in the only open port open to the West, Canton (now Guǎngzhōu;), way south of Shànghǎi. British purchases of tea, silk and porcelain far outweighed Chinese purchases of wool and spices, so by the late 18th century the British had decided to balance the books by slipping into India to swap (at a profit) silver for opium with which to purchase Chinese goods. The British passion for tea was increasingly matched by China’s growing craving for opium (yāpiàn), the pernicious drug that would virtual­ly single-handedly create latter-day Shànghǎi and earn the city its bipolar reputation as the splendid ‘Paris of the East’ and infamous ‘Whore of the Orient’.

From a mercantile point of view, the trade in opium – known as ‘foreign mud’ in China – was an astonishing success, rapidly worming its way into every nook and cranny of Chinese society. Highly addictive and widely available thanks to the prolific efforts of British traders, the drug – smoked via a pipe – quickly became the drug of choice for all sections of the Chinese public from the lowliest and most menial upwards. Jardine & Matheson’s highly lucrative trade empire was founded on the opium business.

No other commodity became so uniquely associated with all of Shànghǎi’s spectacular peaks and troughs. Opium became the driving force behind the city’s unstoppable rise, and its descent into debauchery: from Shànghǎi’s affluent taipans and lucrative hongs, its piercing inequalities, its wanton netherworld of prostitution and vice, violent criminal gangs, corrupt police forces and the city’s cartographic constitution of concessions, settlements and Chinese districts.

The Opium War between Great Britain and China was similarly fought in the drug’s name and as a pretext to extract the concessions that British opium traders had sought from China. The Treaty of Nanking that concluded the First Opium War in 1842 was Shànghǎi’s moment of reckoning, for its signing spelt the death of old Shànghǎi and the birth of the wild, lawless and spectacularly prosperous endeavour that would rise up over the Huangpu River.

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The illegitimate birth of Shànghǎi

The Treaty of Nanking stipulated, among other things, peace between China and Britain; security and protection of British persons and property; the opening of Canton, Fúzhōu, Xiàmén, Níngbō and Shànghǎi, as well as residence for foreigners and consulates in those cities (for the purpose of trade); fair import and export tariffs; the possession of Hong Kong, and an indemnity of US$18 million. Ironically enough, the trade of opium, legal or otherwise, never entered into the treaty.

Following Great Britain’s lead, other countries were quick to join in, including the US and France. In 1843 the first British consul moved into a local house in the Old Town, signalling a foreign presence in the city that would last for the next 100 years.

Of the five port cities, Shànghǎi was the most prosperous due to its superb geographical location, capital edge and marginal inter­ference from the Chinese government. Trade and businesses boomed, and by 1850 the foreign settlements housed more than 100 merchants, missionaries and physicians, three-quarters of them British. In 1844, 44 foreign ships made regular trade with China. By 1849, 133 ships lined the shores and by 1855, 437 foreign ships clogged the ports.

Foreigners were divided into three concessions. The original British Concession more than tripled in size between 1846 and 1848. Bishop William Boone set up a mission in Hóngkǒu a few years later, which founded the city’s American Concession, while the French set up their own settlement.

From regulation to sanitation, everything in Shànghǎi was vested in the foreign oligarchies of the Municipal Council and the Conseil d’Administration Municipale, a pattern that was to last as long as the settlements. It was not until the early 1920s that Chinese and Japanese residents (eventually the two largest groups in the settlements) were allowed even limited representation on the council.

From the start, Shànghǎi’s raison d’être was trade. Still sailing to the West were silks, tea and porcelain, and 30, 000 chests of opium were being delivered into China annually. Soon great Hong Kong trading houses like Butterfield & Swire and Jardine & Matheson set up shop, and trade in opium, silk and tea gradually shifted to textiles, real estate, banking, insurance and shipping. Banks in particular boomed; soon all of China’s loans, debts and indemnity payments were funnelled through Shànghǎi. Buying and selling was handled by Chinese middlemen, known as compradors (from the Portuguese), from Canton and Níngbō, who formed a rare link between the Chinese and foreign worlds. The city attracted immigrants and entrepreneurs from across China, and overseas capital and expertise pooled in the burgeoning metropolis.

Foreign ideas were similarly imported. By the 1880s, huge numbers of proselytising American Protestants were saving souls in Shànghǎi, while the erudite Jesuits oversaw a flourishing settlement in Xújiāhuì, called Siccawei (or Zikawei).

Gradually sedan chairs and single-wheeled carts gave way to rickshaws and carriages, the former imported from Japan in 1874. Shànghǎi lurched into the modern age with gaslights (1865), electricity (1882), motorcars (1895), a cinema and an electric tram (1908), and its first bus (1922).

The Manchu in Běijīng gave only cursory glances to the growth of Shànghǎi as all eyes focused on the continued survival of the Qing dynasty, under threat from a barrage of insurgencies that arose from within the rapidly radicalising confines of the Middle Kingdom.

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Shànghǎi’s rebellious youth

Wreathed in opium, sucked dry by local militia, crippled by taxes, bullied by foreign interests and increasingly exposed to Western ideas, Shànghǎi’s population was stirring, and anti-Manchu rebellions began to erupt. The first major rebellion to impact on Shànghǎi was the Taiping (– literally ‘Supreme Peace’), led by the Hakka visionary Hong Xiuquan. The uprising goes down as the bloodiest in human history with a tally of 20 million dead.

A failed would-be official, Hong Xiuquan claimed to have ascended to heaven and received a new set of internal organs by a golden-bearded Jehovah, which he used to battle the evil spirits of the world with his elder brother Jesus Christ. Hong’s distorted Christian ideology dates from his contact with Christian missionaries in Canton and an identification of his surname (, meaning ‘flood’) with the Old Testament deluge. Sensing himself chosen, Hong saw the Manchu as devils to be exterminated and set about recruiting converts to establish a Heavenly Kingdom in China. The rebels burst out of Jīntián village in Guǎngxi in 1851, swept through Guìzhōu and succeeded in taking Nánjīng three years later, where they established their Heavenly Capital (; Tiānjīng).

With the Taiping-inspired Small Swords Society entrenched in the Old Town and fearing the seizure of Shànghǎi, the foreign residents organised the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, a force that would repeatedly protect the interests of foreigners in Shànghǎi.

The Taiping threatened again in 1860 but were beaten back from Shànghǎi by the mercenary armies of Frederick Townsend Ward, an American adventurer hired by the Qing government who was eventually killed in Sōngjiāng in 1862. British and Qing forces joined to defeat the rebels, the Europeans preferring to deal with a corrupt and weak Qing government than with a powerful, united China governed by the Taiping. The Taiping originally banked on the support of the Western powers, but Westerners were ultimately repelled by Hong’s heretical concoction.

As rebellions ravaged the countryside, hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into the safety of Shànghǎi’s concessions, setting up home alongside the foreigners and sparking a real-estate boom that spurred on Shànghǎi’s rapid urbanisation and made the fortunes of many of Shànghǎi’s entrepreneurs.

As imperial control loosened, the encroaching Western powers moved in to pick off China’s colonial ‘possessions’ in Indochina and Korea. National humiliation and a growing xenophobia – partly generated by a distrust of Christian missionaries and their activities – spawned the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion, championed in its later stages by the empress dowager, Cixi.

The Boxers were quelled by Western and Japanese troops – who went on to sack the Summer Palace – in 1900, but not before the legation quarter in Běijīng (; Peking) had been devastated. Empress Cixi and her entourage fled to Xī’ān, but returned to Běijīng to face massive indemnities strapped on the Qing government by the foreign powers.

The weakened state of the country, the death of the empress dowager and the legion of conspiring secret societies marked the end of the tottering Qing dynasty. Shànghǎi renounced the Qing by declaring indepen­dence on the wave of public revolt that swept China in 1911, and all men were instructed to shear off their queues (pigtails that symbolised subjection to Manchu authority). But despite the momentous end to China’s final dynasty – one that had ruled China for almost 250 years – insular Shànghǎi carried out business as usual, relatively unaffected by the fall of the Qing or the upheavals of WWI. As the rest of China descended into a bedlam of fighting warlords and plunged into darkness, Shànghǎi emerged as a modern industrial city.

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The big city peaks

By the first decade of the 20th century, Shànghǎi’s population had swelled to one million. As the most elite and cosmopolitan of China’s cities, Shànghǎi ensnared capitalists and intellec­tuals alike, with literature and cinema thriving in the ferment as Chinese intellectuals began to ponder the fate of a modern China.

The foreigners had effectively plucked out prime locations and, using their ever-increasing wealth, the result of cheap labour, they established exclusive communities designed after their own countries and dovetailing with their needs. Vice and crime continued to flourish, assisted by the absence of a paramount police force. The multiple jurisdictions, each representing the laws of the various settlements and the Chinese city, meant that criminals could simply move from one area to another to elude arrest.

Exploited in workhouse conditions, crippled by hunger and poverty, sold into slavery and excluded from the city’s high life created by the foreigners, the poor of Shànghǎi developed an appetite for resistance. Intellectuals and students, provoked by the startling inequalities between rich and poor, were perfect receptacles for the many outside influences circulating in the concessions. The communist manifesto was translated into Chinese and swiftly caught on among secret societies.

In light of the intense dislike that many Chinese felt for foreigners, it seems ironic that fundamental ideals stemmed from overseas inspirations. Shànghǎi, with its vast proletariat (30, 000 textile workers alone) and student population, had become the communists’ hope for revolution, and the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party, when Mao Zedong was present, was held in July 1921 in a French Concession house. Elsewhere political violence was growing.

In May 1925 resentment spilled over when a Chinese worker was killed in a clash with a Japanese mill manager. In the ensuing demonstrations the British opened fire and 12 Chinese were killed. In protest, 150, 000 workers went on strike, which was later seen as a defining moment marking the decline of Western prestige and power.

Strikes and a curfew paralysed the city as the Kuomintang under Chiang Kaishek (with the help of communist supporters under Zhou Enlai) wrested Shànghǎi from the Chinese warlord Sun Chaofang.

Kaishek’s aim was not focused on the settlements or even the warlords, but rather his erstwhile allies, the communists, whom he then betrayed in an act of breathtaking perfidy. Backed by Shànghǎi bankers and armed by Shànghǎi’s top gangster Du Yuesheng, Chiang Kaishek armed gangsters, suited them up in Kuomintang uniforms and launched a surprise attack on the striking workers’ militia. Du’s machine guns were turned on 100, 000 workers taking to the streets, killing as many as 5000. In the ensuing period, known as the White Terror, 12, 000 communists were executed in three weeks. Zhou Enlai and other communists fled to Wǔhàn, leaving Shànghǎi in the hands of the warlords, the wealthy and the Kuomintang.

Nestled away safely in a world of selectively structured law and cruel capitalism, by the 1930s Shànghǎi had reached its economic zenith and was soon to begin its fatal downwards slide. Shànghǎi had become a modern city equipped with Art Deco cinemas and apartment blocks, the hottest bands and the latest fashions – a place of great energy where ‘two cultures met and neither prevailed’. Chinese magazines carried ads for Quaker Oats, Colgate and Kodak, while Chinese girls, dressed in traditional qípáo (Chinese-style dresses), advertised American cigarettes. Shànghǎi’s modernity was symbolised by the Bund, Shànghǎi’s Wall Street, a place of feverish trading and an unabashed playground for Western business sophisticates. To this day the strip alongside the Huangpu River remains the city’s most eloquent reminder that Shànghǎi is a very foreign invention.

The ‘Paris of the East’ and ‘Whore of the Orient’ became an increasingly exotic port of call. Flush with foreign cash and requiring neither visa nor passport for entrance, Shànghǎi became home to the movers and the shakers, the down-and-out and on-the-run. It offered a place of refuge and a fresh start and rejected no-one. Everyone who came to Shànghǎi, it was said, had something to hide.

By 1934 the world’s fifth-largest city was home to the tallest buildings in Asia, boasting more cars in one city than the rest of China put together, and providing a haven for more than 70, 000 foreigners among a population of three million. The city had become three times as crowded as London, and the cosmopolitan mix of people was unequalled anywhere in the world. Between 1931 and 1941, 20, 000 Jews took refuge in Shànghǎi, only to be forced into Japanese war ghettos, and to flee again in 1949. Adding to the mix was a huge influx of Russians seeking sanctuary from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In 1895 the Japanese had gained treaty rights and by 1915 had become Shànghǎi’s largest non-Chinese group, turning Hóngkǒu into a de-facto Japanese Concession.

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The death of old Shànghǎi

Following Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, with anti-Japanese sentiment inflamed and Chinese nationalistic fervour on the rise, the Japanese seized the opportunity to protect their interests. Warships brought 20,000 Japanese troops, who proceeded to take on the ragtag Chinese 19th Route army in Zhapei. The Japanese conducted an arbitrary aerial-bombing campaign against the district, levelling most of its buildings.

After Japan’s full-scale invasion of China in 1937, Chiang Kaishek took a rare stand in Shànghǎi and the city bled for it. The Japanese lost 40,000 men, the Chinese anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000.

The International Settlements were not immune to the fighting, and after Chinese aircraft accidentally bombed the Bund and Nanjing Rd, most foreign residents reacted not by fighting, as they would have done for a colony, but by evacuation. Four million Chinese refugees were not so lucky.

After intense house-to-house fighting, the Japanese invaders finally subdued Shànghǎi in November, allowing their soldiers to proceed to Sūzhōu before advancing on Nánjīng for their infamous occupation of the city. Under Japanese rule the easy glamour of Shànghǎi’s heyday was replaced by a dark cloud of political assassinations, abductions, gunrunning and fear. Espionage by the Japanese, the nationalists, the British and the Americans for wartime information was rife. The rich were abducted and fleeced. Japanese racketeers set up opium halls in the so-called Badlands in the western outskirts of the city, and violent gangs ran rabid.

By December 1941 the hostilities between Japan and the allied powers had intensified abroad, giving the Japanese incentive to take over the foreign settlements in Shànghǎi. Suspect foreigners were taken off for interrogation and torture in notorious prisons such as the Bridgehouse, where JB Powell, editor of the China Weekly Review, lost all 10 toes to gangrene. Prisoners were forced to sit for hours in the cold, with heads lowered, facing Tokyo.

The British and American troops had abandoned Shànghǎi in 1942 to concentrate their ener­gies elsewhere, and the British and American governments, unable to overtake the Japanese, signed over their rights of the foreign settlements to Chiang Kaishek in Chóngqìng in 1943, bringing to a close a century of foreign influence.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a few foreigners, released from their internment, tried to sweep out their Tudor homes and carry on as before, but priorities and politics had shifted. The gangs, con men, dignitaries, merchants, and anyone who could, had already made their escape to Hong Kong. Those who remained had to cope with biting inflation of 1100%.

By 1948 the Kuomintang was on the edge of defeat in their civil war with the communists, and hundreds of thousands of Kuomintang troops joined sides with Mao Zedong’s forces. In May, Chen Yi led the Red Army troops into Shànghǎi, and by October all the major cities in southern China had fallen to the communists.

In Běijīng on 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, announced that the Chinese people had stood up, and proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chiang Kaishek then fled to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), taking with him what was left of his air force and navy, to set up the Republic of China (ROC), naming his new capital Taipei.

The People’s Republic

The birth of the PRC marked the end of 105 years of ‘the paradise for adventurers’. The PRC dried up 200,000 opium addicts, shut down Shànghǎi’s infamous brothels and ‘reeducated’ 30, 000 prostitutes, eradicated the slums, slowed inflation and eliminated child labour – no easy task. The state took over Shànghǎi’s faltering businesses, the racecourse became the obligatory People’s Park (Renmin Park), and Shànghǎi fell uniformly into step with the rest of China. Under Běijīng’s stern hand, the decadence disappeared, but the splendour similarly faded.

Yet the communists, essentially a peasant regime, remained suspicious of Shànghǎi. The group lacked the experience necessary to run a big city and they resented Shànghǎi’s former leadership, which they always regarded as a den of foreign imperialist-inspired iniquity, a constant reminder of national humiliation and the former headquarters of the Kuomintang.

Perhaps because of this, Shànghǎi, in its determination to prove communist loyalty, became a hotbed of political extremism and played a major role in the Cultural Revolution, the decade of political turmoil that lasted from 1966 to 1976 (although its most ferocious period ended in 1969). Sidelined in Běijīng, it was to Shànghǎi that Mao turned in an attempt to reinvigorate the revolution and claw his way back into power. For most of a decade the city was the power base of the prime movers of the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four: Wang Hongwen; Yao Wenyuan (editor of Shanghai Liberation Army Daily); Zhang Chunqiao (Shànghǎi’s Director of Propaganda); and Jiang Qing, wife of Mao (and failed Shànghǎi movie actress formerly known as Lan Ping, who used her position to exact revenge on former colleagues at Shànghǎi Film Studios).

Encouraged by Mao, a rally of a million Red Guards marched through Renmin Square, a force of anarchy that resulted in the ousting of the mayor. Competing Red Guards tried to outdo each other in revolutionary fervour – Shanghainese who had any contacts with foreigners (and who didn’t?) were criticised, forced to wear dunce caps, denounced and sometimes killed.

Most extraordinarily, in 1966 a People’s Commune, modelled on the Paris Commune of the 19th century, was set up in Shànghǎi. (The Paris Commune was set up in 1871 and controlled Paris for two months. It planned to introduce socialist reforms such as turning over management of factories to workers’ associations.) The Shanghai Commune, headed by Zhang Chunqiao from headquarters in the Peace Hotel, lasted just three weeks before Mao, sensing that the anarchy had gone too far, ordered the army to put an end to it.

As the Cultural Revolution unfolded, between 1966 and 1970, one million of Shànghǎi’s youth were sent to the countryside. Shànghǎi’s industries closed. The Bund was renamed Revolution Blvd and the road opposite the closed Soviet consulate became Anti-Revisionist St. At one point there was even a plan to change the revolutionary red of the city’s traffic lights to mean ‘go’.

In the revolutionary chaos and a bid to destroy the ‘four olds’ (old customs, old habits, old culture and old thinking), Chinese religion was devastated. Temples were destroyed or converted to factories, priests were conscripted to make umbrellas, monks were sent to labour in the countryside where they often perished, and believers were prohibited from worship. Posters of Chairman Mao were posted over the doors of the Jing’an Temple to stop Red Guards bursting in, and an image of Mao was even added to the St Nicholas Church on Gaolan Rd. Amid all the chaos, Shànghǎi’s concession architecture stood largely preserved, their wealthy occupants merely fading memories of a vanished era.

In 1976, after the death of Mao, the Gang of Four was overthrown and imprisoned. Accused of everything from forging Mao’s statements to hindering earthquake relief efforts, the gang’s members were arrested on 6 October 1976 and tried in 1980. Jiang Qing remained unrepentant, hurling abuse at her judges and holding famously to the line that she ‘was Chairman Mao’s dog – whoever he told me to bite, I bit’. Jiang Qing’s death sentence was commuted and she lived under house arrest until 1991, when she committed suicide by hanging.

When the Cultural Revolution lost steam, pragmatists like Zhou Enlai began to look for ways to restore normalcy. In 1972 US president Richard Nixon signed the Shanghai Communiqué at the Jinjiang Hotel. The agreement provided a foundation for increased trade between the US and China, and marked a turning point in China’s foreign relations. With the doors of China finally reopened to the West in 1979, and with Deng Xiaoping at the helm, China set a course of pragmatic reforms towards economic reconstruction, which would result in consistently strong annual growth rates.

In communist China, however, the rush of economic reform has generated very little in the way of political reform. Corruption and inflation have between them led to widespread social unrest, which in 1989 resulted in the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

The demonstrations overtaking Běijīng’s Tiananmen Square spread to Shànghǎi. While students and workers demonstrated, students based at Fudan University constructed their own ‘statue of liberty’. The city was threatened with martial law and four days after the massacre in Běijīng on 4 June, tanks arrived in Shànghǎi’s Renmin Square. Mayor Zhu Rongji intervened and the momentum petered out after a week or so. Recriminations were swift and several demonstrators were publicly shot.

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The recent past

Speeding on cruise control along a highway of its own making, Shànghǎi has effortlessly outstripped every other city in China, bar celebrated rival Hong Kong. Popping Shànghǎi into any conversation abroad prompts a flood of superlatives, agitated adjectives and breathless hyperbole. Reading the international papers, Shànghǎi can do no wrong. Wherever you look, the smart money is flooding into Shànghǎi, to help it pen the next chapter in Shànghǎi’s dazzling chronicle.

The government has declared its aim to make Shànghǎi the financial centre of Asia. Nothing would satisfy the central government more than for Shànghǎi to replace Hong Kong as China’s frontier of the future, swinging the spotlight of attention from the ex-colony on to a home-grown success story. The Shànghǎi Chinese love to compare themselves with Hong Kong; the Huangpu River city is still several years behind its southern rival but is catching up at breathtaking speed.

In 1990 the central government began pouring money into Shànghǎi. By the mid-1990s more than a quarter (some sources say half) of the world’s high-rise cranes were looming over Shànghǎi. As the 20th century drew to a close, the city had built two metro lines, a light-railway system, a US$2 billion international airport in Pǔdōng, a US$2 billion elevated highway, several convention centres, two giant bridges, several underground tunnels and a whole new city (Pǔdōng).

Served by two airports and the world’s first MagLev train – designed to sum up Shànghǎi as an ultramodern path-breaker – Shànghǎi’s denizens now command the highest salaries in China. Runaway property prices have furnished a new class with money to burn, despite a nationwide property tax launched in 2005 to hit speculators. Swelling numbers of residents now dwell in gated villa communities, rewarding a life of hard graft with an enviably middle-class standard of living.

Having grown faster than virtually any other Chinese city in the past two decades, Shànghǎi remains the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for China’s swarming migrant workers, who now constitute almost four million of the city’s total population of over 20 million. In 2005 the number of cars roaming the streets of Shànghǎi looking for a parking space topped two million. The Shànghǎi of even the late 1980s is now a nostalgic vision of a vanished city of yore.

In recent years, a gradual Disneyfication of Shànghǎi has also crept in. Xīntiāndì can come across as a fancy epitaph to the city’s once ubiquitous shíkùmén (stone-gate house) housing. Aimed squarely at the Shànghǎi nouveau riche, the recently constructed towns in the suburbs – each modelled on cities in England, Germany, Spain, Italy etc – are by definition inauthentic. Pǔdōng will always look like what developers thought Shànghǎi should look like.

Pundits recently warned that the race skywards, which defined the 1990s and much of the current decade, may have to stop. With Shànghǎi sinking into its marshy morass under the weight of its skyscrapers, architects are turning to the suburbs where a further cluster of new towns will house the swelling population.

The winds of change have long billowed down Nanjing Rd. For all its economic triumphs and the eager speculation of the past decade Shànghǎi is not immune to the historical forces that buffet modern China. Visitors like to see Shànghǎi as a fledgling Singapore or even a Hong Kong, a city-state construct somehow doing its own thing. The future of Shànghǎi, however, is closely enmeshed with nationwide trends way beyond its control. Shànghǎi is rich, but this has been of little consolation to the land’s 750-million-strong peasantry. With a population of 39 million, Guìzhōu province in China’s southwest has a GDP a mere one 10th of Shànghǎi’s. The Communist Party has continued to hunt for a system that can protect the underprivileged and impoverished while encouraging those with ambition to realise their dreams.

Perhaps alarmed by Shànghǎi’s economic supremacy, Běijīng has made attempts to curb the city’s influence. In March 2007, Xi Jinping was chosen as the new Shanghai Communist Party secretary after Chen Liangyu was dismissed from his post on corruption charges the previous year. The choice of Shanxi-born Xi Jinping is seen by many as a victory for President Hu Jintao in replacing members of the Jiang Zemin–allied Shànghǎi clique with officials loyal to his tenure.

Shànghǎi has been busy recasting itself as a global city, but it still lacks the bon vivant romantic allure of Paris, the multicultural vibrancy of London or the creative zest of New York. At times spectacular, Shànghǎi can seem like the latest thing, a city about the here-and-now and a future in the making, but also a work in progress, if not a metropolitan-sized construction site. Shànghǎi’s triumphant skyline is certainly something to write home about, but the city’s creative flatline and aversion to spontaneity still guarantee that many expats arrive to make money, and move on.

It does not really matter whether Shànghǎi has the biggest or the best, as the city has charted its own successful path – due to its unique history, location and sense of purpose – while other parts of China have simply looked on. But behind the percentile leaps and glittering statistics are questions about Shànghǎi’s ultimate destination. Besides solutions to problems such as transport infrastructure or how to build the world’s largest Ferris wheel, the city should be considering how to become a true exemplar for the 21st century. As long as China remains authoritarian and uncompromising in its politics, Shànghǎi will remain a city that can certainly dazzle, but struggles to illuminate.

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History books

§Shanghai, Harriet Sergeant. A portrait of the city in its heyday, efficiently combining first-hand accounts with extensive spade work and lively reconstruction.

§Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City 1842-1949, Stella Dong. Thoroughly researched, rip-roaring profile of the city’s good-old bad-old days, but Dong’s fondness for transcribing Chinese in old-fashioned Wade-Giles Romanisation over Pinyin transliteration can be a drag.

§In Search of Old Shanghai, Lynn Pan/Pan Ling. A rundown on who was who and what was what back in the bad-old days. At 140 pages, it’s an easy read and an excellent intro to the city’s murky past.

§Shanghai: Crucible of Modern China, Betty Peh-T’i Wei. This is a more detailed history of the city until 1943. Old Shanghai, by the same author, is a shorter, easier read.

§Secret War in Shanghai, Bernard Wasserstein. A denser, sometimes heavy-going look at ‘treachery, subversion and collaboration in the Second World War’. The real joy of the book is its fascinating cast of characters, such as ‘abortionist, brothel-owner and sexual extortionist’ Dr Albert Miorini; ‘monkey expert, narcotics dealer and friend of Errol Flynn’ Hermann Erben; the British gunrunner General ‘One-Arm’ Sutton; and ‘journalist, aviator and pimp’ Hilaire du Berrier.

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