woensdag 15 juli 2015

Old Shanghai and all that jazz…

The Shanghai waterfront in the 1930s

Nowadays, Hong Kong is generally viewed as the capitalist bastion in China; the place most friendly to Western interests and economic sensibilities. Back in the day—meaning the period stretching from the 1840s to the early 1940s—that distinction was reserved for Shanghai. The city that would become, for a time, the glamourous and decadent “Paris of the East”. A unique gateway between China and the rest of the world. A turbulent metropolis where East not only met West, but veritably merged with it. Where an old world almost seamlessly transitioned into a new one. More than any other Chinese metropole, Shanghai during this turbulent century drew in businessmen, outlaws, expatriates and adventurers from all over the world. Needless to say, that time and place continue to hold the fond interest of all true romantics.

The origin of Shanghai’s unique status can be traced to the First Opium War. Concluded with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, it lead to the forcible opening of five Chinese cities to British diplomats, merchants, trade agents, and their families. Shanghai was one of these cities, and due to its favourable geographical location, it quickly became the most prominent among them.

Before long, not only British merchants and opportunity-seekers, but also their counterparts from France, the USA, Germany and other foreign powers began to settle in Shanghai. These various foreign powers carved out for themselves sovereign "concessions": zones within the city where they governed themselves, and were not subject to Chinese law.

Before long, a group of Western businessmen joined to form the Shanghai Municipal Council, through which they would organise road repairs, refuse clearance and other such matters. This council was perhaps closer to an association of property owners than a government. In 1863 the American concession officially joined the British Settlement to become the Shanghai International Settlement. Its waterfront became the internationally renowned Bund. By the late 1860s the individual concessions had transferred virtually all their administrative tasks and powers to the Shanghai Municipal Council.

The Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895, which ended the First Sino-Japanese War, saw Japan emerge as an additional foreign power in Shanghai. This Japanese involvement would have great repercussions later on.

The revolution of 1911 gave birth to the Republic of China. Shanghai remained largely under foreign control. No matter what happened in China, the bustling metropolis remained a separate world. Not part of China, nor truly part of the various foreign powers. A free city, always somewhat lawless— but incredibly wealthy and succesful, perhaps thanks to that very lawlessness. Western inventions like electricity and trams were introduced at lightning pace. British and American businessmen made a great deal of money in trade and finance, and Germans used Shanghai as a base for investing in China. Roughly half of China’s foreign trade went through Shanghai. The vast majority of foreign investment in China ended up in this one city.

During the 1920s and 1930s Shanghai became known as "The Paris of the East, the New York of the West". The city's industrial and financial power increased coninually, because the city was entirely controlled by capitalist interests, while the rest of China was divided among feuding warlords. As it turns out, trade leads to prosperity, while war leads to misery. Shocker! (The Chinese communists, unfortunately, never got the memo on that one.)

Jiujiang Road in the late 1920s
By the mid-thirties, Shanghai was one of the largest cities in the world, boasting a population of some three million. Of those, only some 50,000 were of Western European and American origin, but these Western “Shanghailanders” controlled over half the city. The population of this Western half was four times greater than that of the Chinese-controlled half. Many Chinese inhabitants sought out the freedom and opportunities of the Western zone. A new class of Chinese bourgeoisie also emerged, serving as indispensable mediators for the Western companies.

In addition to the Western European and American inhabitants, there were also about 35,000 White Russian emigrées, who had fled the Communist revolution in their homeland, trickling into Shanghai throughout the 1920s. These Shanghai Russians were occasionally regarded poorly by other Westerners, as their general poverty led them to take jobs considered unsuitable for Europeans, including prostitution. However, the Russian population was very layered, and also included many well-to-do members.

In any case, the foreign inhabitants of the city left an indelible mark. Not just economically, but culturally as well. The members of Shanghai's elite—including not only the wealthy Westerners, but also the Chinese bourgeoisie—could be seen walking around in Western fashion, along the streets lined by elegant buildings designed by European architects. Many of the grandest-scale buildings on the Bund were constructed or renovated during the 20s and 30s. The architectural style of the International Settlement was primarily modeled after British and American design. But in both fashion and architecture, Shanghai forged its own identity.

The fashion of the time was unique; in Shanghai, one could find Western styles right alongside traditional Chinese styles— yet even the traditional Chinese garments were often modified by adopting certain Western features and details. Architecturally, the Palladian and Neoclassical buildings of the International Settlement were joined, as of the 1920s, by elegant Art Deco buildings, stretching up into the sky. More importantly, many of these buildings were made truly special by a unique Chinese twist to their designs, through the  addition of Chinese decorative motiffs and other uniquely Chinese flourishings. Shanghai truly created a distinct image that separated it from all other Chinese cities that had come before it.


Shanghai’s opulent and hedonistic nightlife became renowned throughout Asia— and indeed the world. It was a decadent microcosm of businessmen and crime lords, dancing girls and gambling dens. The rich had plenty of opportunities to spend their money in swanky casinos, fine restaurants, new movie theaters, fancy ballrooms and lavish nightclubs. The period from the 1920s through the early 1940s became known as Shanghai’s age of decadence. In many ways, this monniker was not undeserved. Criminal gangs became increasingly powerful— partially because the unstable political climate of the Republic of China gave space to such elements, and partially because the Shanghai Municipal Council itself (inadvertantly) legislated a criminal underground into being.

Opium sales and prostitution had been banned by the council in 1918 and 1920, respectively. Because such things naturally remained in demand, the purveyors of those particular goods and services were forced into criminality. Much like the American prohibition of alcohol made the Mafia powerful by giving it near-exclusive control over the (illegal) distribution of liquor, and just as the present-day prohibition of drugs lends great power to the cartels, the prohibition of opium and prostitution in Shanghai ensured that crime lords could gain control over just those affairs. It made them powerful and immensely wealthy, and was ultimately detrimental to Shanghai’s stability and prosperity.

Regardless of the increasingly infuential crime bosses, Shanghai still prospered greatly. The cosmopolitan metropolis quickly became the main hub for three new art forms: Chinese cinema, Chinese animation and Chinese popular music. Especially in regards to music, a beautiful fusion emerged between the traditional strings and nuanced lyricism of Chinese folk music and the rhythms, rich melodies and improvisational arrangements of American big band jazz. This fusion was named shidaiqu (meaning “songs of the era”), and rapidly emerged to become one of the most exciting music movements of the 1920s and 1930s. There was even a substantial migration—all but forgotten nowadays, it would seem—of African-American players to the Far East. In cities such as Shanghai they enjoyed much greater personal and creative freedom than they could hope for back in the USA.

Shanghai’s flourishing entertainment industry and lassaiz-faire atmosphere had created a fertile ground for the emergence of this style, which was closely connected to the growing Shanghai film industry. The 1930s were the golden era of film in Shanghai, which became known—in addition to being called the Paris of the East and the New York of the West—as the “Oriental Hollywood”. The biggest musical hits of the era were usually theme songs from the movies, performed by famous actresses. (Indeed, Shanghai invented the concept of the singer-actress superstar long before the West ever grasped it.)

Several modern film productions have taken great care to recreate the atmosphere of old Shanghai
Outside Shanghai, in the Republic of China, the decadence of the great metropolis was detested. Shidaiqu was regarded very poorly, which can be partially explained by the fact that this music was mainly played in cabarets and night-clubs: places associated with prostitution, drugs and alcohol. Jazz was automatically identified with a sinful milieu, much as it (initially) was in the West. More generally, the traditionalists despised “corrupting” Western influence, and the communists agitated against the “excesses” of capitalism. (Both brazenly ignored the great wealth and prosperity that Shanghai enjoyed, which far exceeded the rest of China in every single way.)

A far more immediate threat to the great liberty of Shanghai, however, was the ominous shadow cast by Japan. Present in Shanghai ever since 1895, the Japanese had ordered their navy to bombard parts of the city in 1932— nominally to crush Chinese student protests against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. The Chinese fought back in what became known as the January 28 Incident. The two sides fought to a standstill and a ceasefire was brokered in May.

Japan’s designs on China would not be curbed, however. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese-controlled parts of the city fell after the Battle of Shanghai in 1937. The foreign concessions, which remained largely intact, entered what became known as the "Solitary Island" period. The Western zone became an enclave of prosperity, surrounded by war and poverty. With the beginning of the Pacific War, all of the foreign concessions, except for the French, were finally occupied by Japan as well, on December 8th 1941. This state of affairs was conceded by an Anglo-Chinese Friendship Treaty in 1943.

During World War II, the extraterritorial nature of the foreign concessions provided a haven for visa-less European refugees. The foreign population rose exponentially. Japanese rule was not gentle, however, especially not where it concerned foreign nationals from belligerent nations. The British, Americans and Dutch in Shanghai gradually lost their civil rights and had to wear letters—B, A, or N—when walking in public places. Their villas and townhouses were turned into brothels and gambling houses for the Japanese. In 1943, they were finally interned in concentration camps, notably Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center.

Shanghai remained under Japanese occupation until the end of the war, when it was handed over to the Republi of China. The foreign concessions were not restored. The French ceded their privileges in 1946. Shanghai was fully incorporated by the Republic; a free city no more. Still, for a few short years, some of the old glamour persisted. Yet it was somehow dulled. The magic was gone, along with the status aparte. The war had damaged everything, and the Chinese nationalists did not restore the lassaiz-faire status the city had enjoyed before the war. The turmoil of the Republic’s internal conflict between the nationalists and the communists would soon come to divide Shanghai, as well. Another nail in the coffin.

On May 27, 1949, Shanghai fell to the communists. By that point, nearly all foreign firms had already relocated to Hong Kong, knowing what was coming. With that exodus, the last vestiges of the international city had evaporated. And whatever remained of antebellum Shanghai, the communists ruthlessly destroyed. Despite fraudulent communist claims that the city was taken over in a “peaceful” manner, one of the first actions taken by the communist party upo capturing Shanghai was to kill all people they considered “counter-revolutionaries”. Elegant ballrooms were turned into mass execution facilities where thousands were slaughtered. This ugly reality has been largely censored by the Chinese government, despite ample documentation of the atrocities.

Needless to say, the victims of the communist killing spree were the very Chinese businessmen who had thrived in capitalist Shanghai during the 20s and 30s. The ones who had contributed to its wealth, its success and its rich and unique culture. That culture itself also fell victim to the brutality of communism. When the communists came to power, Mao fancied himself the “conductor” of all Chinese cultural affairs. Bombastic revolutionary songs replaced the melodies of shidaiqu, and all popular music was denounced as “pornographic”. Everything “Western” was criminalised. The roaring nightlife of Shanghai came to an end.

The "beautiful fusion" of East and West was uprooted from its birthplace. It spread to other Chinese-speaking parts of the world like Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hong Kong in particular also became the new home for Shanghai's exiled filmmakers, who laid the foundations of the Hong Kong film industry— still one of the largest film exporters in the world today. But Shanghai was so much the poorer for its loss. In Shanghai, as in all of the People’s Republic, the songs about passionate love and living lush that once filled the dance halls of the jazz age had virtually disappeared. The glamourous film productions of the 20s and 30s were gone forever, replaced by the more modern films of Hong Kong. Old Shanghai was dead.

The idea of it still inspires, to this day; tantalizing and alluring. The so-called “age of decadence” is an era that does not cease to amaze, with its countless creative wonders. We may be thankful that its music, at least, is being rediscovered these days. China has gradually loosened its cultural injunctions, allowing younger generations to rediscover shidaiqu. That, at least, is not entirely lost. But the international city, with its unmatched freedom and its culture of beautiful fusion, is sadly gone forever. All that’s left is the jazz.

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