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Old Shanghai, China’s Frontier City

Old Shanghai was a wild place, dangerous and full of intrigue; it was a frontier city. East met the West, North met the South, and good and evil mixed together on the seedy streets of this “Paris of the East.” The city was full of pretty women and treacherous gangsters; the pungent smell of opium […]

05·17·2010

Old Shanghai, China’s Frontier City

Old Shanghai was a wild place, dangerous and full of intrigue; it was a frontier city. East met the West, North met the South, and good and evil mixed together on the seedy streets of this “Paris of the East.” The city was full of pretty women and treacherous gangsters; the pungent smell of opium […]

05·17·2010

Old Shanghai was a wild place, dangerous and full of intrigue; it was a frontier city. East met the West, North met the South, and good and evil mixed together on the seedy streets of this “Paris of the East.” The city was full of pretty women and treacherous gangsters; the pungent smell of opium was thick in the air. Take a trip into this Shanghai of yesteryear—with TWOC.

Old Shanghai was a wild place, dangerous and full of intrigue; it was a frontier city. East met the West, North met the South, and good and evil mixed together on the seedy streets of this “Paris of the East.” The city was full of pretty women and treacherous gangsters; the pungent smell of opium was thick in the air. Take a trip into this Shanghai of yesteryear—with TWOC.

THE GANGSTER!

Du Yuesheng was the name he was born with in 1887, but Shanghai’s most famous gang-leader had a more colorful, well-known, and feared alias—”Big-Eared Du.” He was the superstitious and feared Godfather of the Green Gang, who controlled the streets of Shanghai with an iron fist, and had dried monkey heads sewn into his long gowns for good luck. He also had big ears.

Du was born poor in the countryside, and orphaned at an early age. At 14, he made his way to Shanghai looking for a better life, but the work as a sweet potato vendor didn’t sate his thirst. The lure of the street life was too great for adolescent Du, so he joined the infamous Green Gang (Qing Bang) crime syndicate, and quickly rose through the ranks. “He was a sinewy and murderous youth, with narrow shoulders, unusually long arms, large yellow teeth, and the eyes of a successful rat,” Sterling Seagrave wrote in his gaudy history, The Soong Dynasty. And, as befits a rat-eyed man, Du soon became the young leader of the Green Gang, the boss of Shanghai’s underworld.

The Europeans had forced opium into the Shanghai ports, and once it hit the streets, Du ran the trade. He developed strong ties with the city’s Chinese and French authorities, allowing him to operate uncounted opium dens unhindered in the French Concession. In addition to the opium trade, he ran gambling shacks and prostitution rings, feeding the vices of this crime-ridden port city.

“You have my word,” was one of Du’s famous sayings. And his word was rarely friendly. He’d often open business transactions by sending an ornate coffin to his potential partner’s home. Now that was a word to fear.

While every great city boasts a ruthless gangster, it was Du’s extra-curriculars that really made him a figure of note. He was a Shanghai celebrity of distinction—he had ties in the highest levels of Chinese government, and was considered a close friend of Chiang Kai-Shek. Chiang even borrowed his army of thugs for the 1927 Shanghai Purge, when prominent communists were ambushed and executed by the KMT.

But this cold-hearted murderer was also known as a generous humanitarian, hosting charity banquets and China’s first ever swimsuit contest. Like all of Shanghai, he was a paradox, doing both good and evil in the same day.

But the evil was always done in style. Du was described in 1938 by W.H. Auden and Christopher Underwood as “a Chinese version of the Sphinx. Peculiarly and inexplicably terrifying were his feet, in their silk socks and smart pointed European boots, emerging from beneath the long silken gown. Perhaps the Sphinx, too, would be even more frightening if it wore a modern top-hat.” The swank uniform wasn’t just for Du; he demanded that his underlings also dress more like gentlemen than unkempt gangsters. They had an image to keep up.

Despite his former alliance with Chiang Kai-Shek, when the Japanese invaded Shanghai in 1937, Du smuggled weapons from occupied Chinese territories to the Anti-Japanese Backing Society. Though he later fled to Hong Kong, he continued to support the anti-Japanese war from afar.

Because of the enemies that he made throughout his life, Du was always on guard. He never trusted his tailors—he thought that they might slip a knife into his back while his measurements were being taken. And though Du lived in the most lavish mansions full of marble staircases and ornate doors, he never felt entirely safe. He always made sure that he had a secret trap door, just in case he needed a quick getaway.

THE DIVA!

Zhou Xuan—singer, actress, and China’s first true gramophone celebrity—was the “Golden Voice” (金嗓子jīn sǎngzi) of Old Shanghai. Her legendary beauty and on-screen charisma delivered starring roles in 43 films, and her breathy, sensuous, yet girly singing can be heard in over 200 songs. She was the Chinese Marilyn Monroe. But, like so many celebrities, her off-screen life—out of the public gaze—was far less glamorous.

Zhou was born Su Pu in 1918, and orphaned at the tender age of three. Life on the streets was rough, so she found a home in a brothel, where she was groomed to enter a life of prostitution. But before that happened, a family found her, was charmed—as the rest of China soon would be—and adopted her away from the cruel life it could have been.

Even as a child, she sang beautifully, entering competitions and quickly winning acclaim. But her old persona had to be shed; at the age of 13, in line with the exploding patriotic verve that was taking over the nation, Su reinvented herself with a name cribbed from the popular resistance anthem, “zhou xuan yu sha chang zhi shang” (fighting the enemy on the battlefield). Su Pu was reborn as Zhou Xuan, “fight the enemy.”

Her pop songs were a hit, and played on radios across Shanghai. Listening to them today, like “Wandering Singer” (天涯歌女 Tiānyá Gēnǚ), “When Will You Come Back” (何日君再来 Hérì Jūn Zài Lái) or “Shanghai at Night” (夜上海 Yè Shànghǎi), it’s hard not to envision wooden birdcages, giggling girls in qipaos, and slick gangsters in long black scarves. When Zhou tried her hand at acting, it turned out she was good at that too; audiences loved her. Singing her own songs in the lead role of the 1937 film Street Angel, she became a superstar.

But it wasn’t all roses for the Golden Voice. Zhou was emotionally troubled, and prone to bouts of depression. She married twice, to a composer and a businessman, but both fell apart. She miscarried once, and raised the businessman’s son on her own. This all took its toll on her mental health, which tumbled.

By her 30s, Zhou was an idol, a diva, and a complete emotional wreck. She lived in and out of psychiatric institutions, and never fully recovered. After suffering one especially brutal nervous breakdown, she passed away in Shanghai in 1957. She was just 39 years old.

Old Shanghai was a city of contrasts. It was a place where anything was possible, a place of opportunity—where a homeless hoodlum could run a city, and an orphan girl could become a starlet—but also a city of brutal urban depravity. Much like Big-Eared Du, singer and actress Zhou Xuan knew both of these worlds.

THE NIGHTCLUB!

Old Shanghai wasn’t just crowded with longtang alleyways and opium dens; as most everyone knows, it was also full of garishly-lit clubs, where the drinks flowed freely, and the music played into the early morning. The most famous of these late-night hangouts was the Paramount, or in Chinese, Bai Le Men (百乐门), literally “The Gate of 100 Pleasures.” If you wanted high-class debauchery, this was the place to go.

The Paramount was built where the International Settlement met the local quarter. Designed in 1931 by architect Yang Xiliu and financed by businessman Gu Liancheng, the Paramount was three stories tall and included a kitchen, a banquet hall, a ballroom, and an elegant entry hall.

Beautiful rosewood floors in the ballroom were supported by armored plates taken from army trucks; it’s said that the Paramount dance floor could hold over a thousand people at once. In its heyday, the crowd was full of local tycoons, socialites, politicians and the house’s famed international hostesses—beautiful Russian, Japanese, Korean and Chinese dancing girls.

The Paramount was a meeting place of cultures, but it wasn’t always pretty; the seedy underbelly of Shanghai was never too far away.

The ugly side of the city reared its head in 1941, when a Japanese soldier, offended that a woman refused to dance with him, hired a hit-man to restore his honor. When the shot rang out in the ballroom, the crowd ran, screaming. Chen Manli, the Chinese dancer, had been shot and murdered.

After liberation, the ballroom of excess—the most famous in all of Shanghai—saw a series of changes, closing down, becoming a movie theater, and then a nightclub again, and finally a disco. Of all of the dance halls in Shanghai, the Paramount is the only one that is still standing today.

THE WRITER!

Eileen Chang, revered in China as Zhang Ailing, was reciting Tang poems when she was three, and brought the listener down to tears. She wrote her first novel at seven. She was a literary child who had been called “a genius,” and that was how she looked at herself, too.

Her family, which once enjoyed a socially-privileged status in Shanghai, lost all of its power with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1925. Her father became addicted to opium and took on a mistress. Her mother left. Life was cruel; her father beat her regularly, and, when she was 18, actually locked her in a room for six months. When she was finally able to escape, she found refuge in her mother’s arms.

But all this pain didn’t stop her from writing; surely it fueled the fires of creation. She met a famed editor, Shoujuan Zhou, who recognized her blazing talent, and helped launch her career. As a 23-year-old author, she became a star in the literary world of Shanghai. At the heart of Shanghai’s maze of alleyways, family compounds, ball rooms, theaters and opium houses, we find Eileen Chang’s work. Her focus is always on people, their vanity, fear and hatred.

But most of all, her stories are about Shanghai women. They are caught in between bound feet and high heels, matchmakers and loose relationships; they are brought up by dominant, opium-smoking mothers, and struggle to reach the new world outside of their parents’ realm. They receive Western education in schools, and have moments of true love, but end up bitterly surrendering to conformity, money and marriage. Marriage, it seems, is always their first concern. For the heroines of those wartime urban tales, the biggest fear was not starvation, but the disgrace of being an outcast—a spinster, or a concubine with no social status.

“Ah Feng was a tall girl, but she had buck-teeth too, and smiling eyes that were black and bright, in a concave, wok-bottom face. Every day she wore a dress of black-and-red-checked imitation wool, so big it was baggy on her, and a pair of homemade, grey cloth shoes. She had a lot of siblings, so she wouldn’t get any pretty clothes until she had a likely match—but since she didn’t have anything pretty to wear, she couldn’t get a match. She was trapped in a vicious circle, doomed to spend her blooming years in wistful longing: no young woman, no matter how clever, could break her way out of a dress like that.”

Eileen Chang, “In The Waiting Room” (1944)

Even with her newfound literary celebrity, and citywide fame, her adult life was little happier than her childhood. She married a philandering government official (so philandering, in fact, he had another wife when he married her.) Heartbroken, she left China in 1955, for the United States, where she intermittently worked at colleges and universities, but continued to write nostalgically about her hometown, Old Shanghai. She never returned, and died at 75 in utter seclusion, her body only discovered several days later.

Yesterday’s Shanghai has long since past. It’s no longer the frontier city full of opium, gangsters, starlets and dance halls. It’s probably for the best. Still, the Shanghai of yesteryear will always be a part of China’s fascinating story.

  • gangster
  • hēibāng 黑帮
  • diva
  • tiānhòu 天后
  • nightclub
  • yèdiàn 夜店
  • writer
  • zuòjiā 作家
  • Let’s go to a nightclub tonight.
  • Jīnwǎn zánmen qù yèdiàn wán’r ba. 今晚咱们去夜店玩儿吧。
  • You have my word (muhahah!)
  • Wǒ huì tì nǐ bàn hǎo de (hāhāhā!) 我会替你办好的(哈哈哈!)