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Potted History of Shanghai

Originally a fishing village, its name means ‘on the sea’, which it isn’t these days. By the time of the Qing dynasty (established in 1644), huge mercantile guilds dealing in silk, cotton and tea were in control of the city, with reach across the Yangzi basin to half of China via almost a million kilometres of canals.

The usual pattern in China went thus: weakened dynasty overthrown by rebellion, new feudal dynasty established, with everyone knowing their place in hierarchy. By the eighteenth century, the Qing dynasty had grown conservative and internally embroiled in intrigue. As usual, the Chinese were not bothered by outsiders and aloof to what the rest of the world was up to.

So it was a case of ‘ho hum’ when the ocean barbarians (aka the British East India Company) turned up and began trading in Canton. China was only interested in cash, not reciprocal trade in British manufactures, so it was an unwelcome one-way street for the British exchequer.

The Qing dynasty had banned the use of opium, but that meant nothing to the Brits, and their solution to correcting the trade imbalance was to get the population hooked on their opium, brought in from India. In 1760, 1000 chests, each holding 100lbs were imported, fifty years later the trade was 40,000 chests (approx 20 million kilos), servicing millions of stupefied addicts. In 1832, a couple of canny Scots – William Jardine and James Matheson – set up shop in Canton, with opium as their major profit earner.

By 1839, Emperor Daoguang, fearing a crippled economy, slapped his silk slipper down and declared the trade illegal, then tackled the British ships and hurled the opium cargoes overboard, which rather got up the Brits’ noses. Messrs Jardine and Matheson and the East India chaps raised merry hell and the British navy cruised around the corner, shot the shitter out of Canton and seized Hong Kong, triggering the First Opium War and popping ‘gunboat diplomacy’ into the English vernacular. The Chinese weapon of sending monkeys with fireworks to set enemy ships alight was a tad ineffectual in the circumstances.

In 1842, the Brits ‘negotiated’ the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing, which ceded Hong Kong to Britain and opened Shanghai and four other ports to foreign trade. Shanghai was soon boom-town, so the other rapacious colonists slammed on the after-burners to grab a foothold – France, Belgium, Russia and Norway made their claims, but the Americans were the most influential (not to mention self-righteous), with President Tyler sending an envoy to “save the Chinese from being an exclusive monopoly of England”. The resultant Treaty of Wangxia established the principle of “extra-territoriality” – foreigners resident in treaty ports would be subject to the laws of their own nation, not those of China.

Shanghai was divided up, each trading power claiming a riverside frontage and an area ‘concession’ – a mini-State. The Brits got the Bund, the French the southwest of the city, the Americans tacked their claim onto that of the Brits, who managed to stretch their boundaries several times over. It was annexation in all but name, as there was no mixing between the colonists and the locals, just mutual contempt.

Needless to say, our old mates Jardine and Matheson and their ilk, rode into town and set up godowns (warehouses) along the Huangpu River. Silk, tea and opium were still important but the real money-makers were banking and insurance, although, in total, the foreign population was only about 1000 in 1853. Shanghai’s development was about to be kick-started.

In the hinterland, the locals were fed up with foreign humiliation and the corruption and decadence of their overlords. A delusionary failed scholar, Hong Xiuquan, claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, attracted millions of acolytes with his philosophy and ambition to create a Taiping Tianguo (heavenly kingdom of great peace). The Tiapings stormed across southern China, capturing Nanjing in 1854 and making it their capital and proceeded to abolish slavery, redistribute land, ditch Confucianism and install an heretical form of Christianity.

In Shanghai, a sister mob, the Small Sword Society, took over the Chinese quarter, galvanizing the foreign bodies to join forces with the Qing armies. In the ensuing civil war bloodbath, twenty million died. Hong retired to his harem and the Taiping Rebellion was snuffed out by foreign mercenaries in 1865. The upside for Shanghai was that rich Chinese refugees swarmed into the foreign concessions for safety – any racial scruples held by the colonists dissipated in the face of all that gold and they happily tore down their villas and flogged off their land. Within a decade an acre of land commanded £10,000 (from £70) and the concessions’ population of Chinese jumped from less than 1000 in 1850 to 70,000 in 1870.

Manchu misrule and warlord bastardry combined to make Shanghai and attractive haven under the relatively orderly rule of foreigners. Chinese taxes paid for the city’s gas lighting, electricity, tarmacked roads and a tramline but they had no say in the running of the city. Enter the Japanese who, by the late-nineteenth century had learned every trick in the book from the West, created a modern industrial base and defeated the Qing in the conflict over the vassal state of Korea in 1895. They then extracted the right to manufacture in Shanghai, where coal and electricity were cheap, and labour even cheaper. The Western powers also got in on the act and factories replaced godowns along the Huangpo, transforming Shanghai from a trading port to an industrial powerhouse.

A huge, exploited labour force living in squalid conditions combined with a clique of urban, foreign-educated intellectuals fomented revolution. The imperial order had passed its use-by date and it was time to see off the foreigners. Shanghai stepped centre stage when local boy Sun Yat Sen, as leader of the Nationalists, became President of the Republic of China in 1911. It was a short-lived stint as the warlords were not about to give up their old ways for Sun Yat’s ideologies of nationalism, socialism and sovereignty, so, in the absence of central government, chaos reigned until the 20’s.

The Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai – the Chinese were developing a political consciousness and the first strike by 200,000 took place in 1925 in protest at the indiscriminate killing of protesting students. Sun Yat Sen died of liver cancer that year, and the Grade ‘A’ bastard Chiang Kai Shek took over the leadership of the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party). Shanghai was torn between the warlords, the KMT and their allies the Communists, so Chiang turned on his mates and enlisted his new best friend, the ruthless criminal Du Yuesheng, to launched the White Terror, in which anyone remotely connected to the Communists was slaughtered in cold blood.

But it was the 20’s, after all, and the ‘Paris of the East’ (aka the ‘Whore of the Orient’) continued to party at its decadent best. With neither visa nor passport required for foreigners to enter, it was said that every arrival had something to hide. White Russians fled to Shanghai, but as stateless foreigners, they were subject to Chinese law. Ballerinas and opera singers -‘taxi girls’ – enhanced the art scene, the mistress pool and the brothel numbers. Russian ex-soldiers became bodyguards for Chinese gangsters, puncturing the carefully constructed superiority of the foreign community. The Brits, in their usual style, devised a (failed) plan to ship the whole lot out and dump them on Australia! Thanks, mate.

The 20’s and 30’s were also when the great buildings of the Bund were constructed, including Astor House, and Victor Sassoon’s Art Deco Cathay Hotel (the Claridge’s of the East) where Noel Coward wrote ‘Private Lives’, Sassoon held private and bizarre fancy dress balls – shipwreck and circus theme parties among others. Mary Hayley Bell met John Mills here; Ronald Coleman, Charlie Chaplin (with Paulette Goddard), Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford frequently stopped by. Doris Duke, aged 22, heiress to American Tobacco, spent a slab of her $30 billion fortune at the Cathay during her six months’ honeymoon with her short-lived new soulmate husband, as did George Vanderbilt with his new wife.

Most evenings, Henry Nathan’s All American Dance Orchestra took the stage, while M. Victor Boudard presided over China’s most modern kitchen, his 70 cooks whipping up wonders with Californian peaches, Persian figs, Russian caviar, German hams, Italian cheese, French foie gras, New Zealand lamb and Australian butter.

Further along the Bund, the world’s most famous king-buster, Wallis (like Diana, Kylie, Golda and Hillary, no surname required, although Wallis had a choice of several) spent some time in Shanghai (she fled her abusive first husband, Win Spencer, a wife beater who’d forced her to witness his brothel activities in Beijing). Reputedly, Wallis learned all her best tricks here including the ‘Shanghai Squeeze’, the muscular technique of making ‘a matchstick feel like a cigar’, as well as an erotic massage technique arresting premature ejaculation (say no more)!

Back to politics. In 1928, Chiang attempted to form a National Government, headquartered in Nanjing. He sucked up to the foreigners, who went along with him (despite his open intent to send them packing) and agreed to relax the international zone’s overtly racist policies, so that locals could now have access to public parks. (There’s no evidence that signs “no dogs or Chinese allowed” were ever posted on the gates, but it was true that Chinese amahs had to be accompanied by their employer.)

Chiang married May-Ling Soong, sister of Ching-Li Soong, Sun Yat Sen’s widow – both were educated in the USA. The next fifty years must have made for interesting times if/when the sisters got together – Ching-Li as a person of great influence (and sometimes threat) in Communist China, including being made honorary President late in life; May-Ling being all-powerful in Taiwan. (There’s an apocryphal tale that she had a blazing affair with Wendell Wilkie, pushing him to run for the US Presidency so that ‘between us we will run the world’.) Not to be outdone, third sister Ai-ling married K’ung Hsiang-hsi, direct descendant of Confucius and happily the richest man in China, if not the world.

Despite Chiang’s slaughterhouse tactics, the Communists had regrouped by 1931 – the same year as the Japanese snatched Manchuria. Faced with trouble on two fronts, Chiang figured he was facing defeat from the Communists, so fled to the west of China, whereupon the Japanese zipped in and by 1937 took control of the Yangtze basin and strangled Shanghai’s trading routes. Japanese guards manned the northern bank of Suzhou Creek, while the Brits manned the bridge on the south side. The Japanese tolerated the International zone and its citizens until the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, after which they promptly sank the British gunboat ‘Petrel’ in the river, commandeered every building, bank and asset worth having and tossed the internationals aside. At the (British) Shanghai Club, they had the lower legs of billiards tables sawn off so that they could reach the table to play. It was game over for the Internationals, with Victor Sassoon opining “I gave up on India and China gave up on me”.

Nearly a decade later the country was re-unified under Mao Tse-Tung in classic Chinese dynastic style: peasant revolt headed by charismatic leader who then becomes an all-powerful despot. Despite Communism (the oriental version) being born in the French Concession, the Communists distrusted Shanghai as a centre of imperialism and bourgeois individualism, so they ran the city down and ‘relocated’ the prostitutes and gangster for ‘re-education’. Somehow, Chiang managed to ‘relocate’ the Bank of China’s gold reserves to Taiwan.

But this is a city that always has an eye for the main chance, in this case pleasing Mao who, frustrated by Beijing bureaucracy, chose Shanghai to launch his Cultural Revolution in 1966. Ten years later, following Mao’s death, the Gang of Four planned an unsuccessful coup from here. No problem – the Shanghainese snuck their way into having the city designated a “Special Economic Zone” in 1990. Deng Xioping, pragmatic and alert to Shanghai’s can-do culture, declared “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”, but his dictum that “to get rich is glorious” is the one that Shanghai has made its own.

With 3000 skyscrapers (more than Manhattan) and 2000 more in progress, the city’s new mascot is the crane. Since 1990 the population has doubled to 23 million. Shanghai attracts more capital investment than any country in the world, and a quarter of all investment in China. The city’s attitude to environment is the same as that of the rest of China – we’ll worry about that once the city gets rich. The cost is that the air quality is ghastly and five million tons of untreated sewage and industrial waste are dumped into the Yangtzi every day, and all those skyscrapers are causing the city to sink at a rate of 1cm per year.

On the upside, the glorious buildings of the Bund have been restored from derelict in the space of twelve years. When Australian Michelle Garnaut opened her restaurant, ‘M on the Bund’ in 1998, she had her choice of any building on the Bund – it was a backwater. Now, this May Day, it’s the place to be for Shanghainese, with glittering boutiques and banks populating its length and half a million people strolling its 1.5km riverside promenade. At night, the Bund provides a beautiful lightshow, then all the lights go out at 10:30, with only the navigation lights guiding the perennial stream of barges plying their trade as they have done for hundreds of years.

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