SHANGHAI: THE WAY IT WAS : A glance back at a short, but extraordinary era


Shanghai, known once as the Paris of the Orient, has persisted in the Western imagination as the essence of exoticism, excitement, color and vitality through wars, revolutions and decades of isolation. But vintage Shanghai, the city that epitomized those qualities, actually existed in all its extraordinary variety and complexity for only a very short span of time: during the years between the end of World War I and the capture of the Chinese part of the city by the Japanese in 1937.

In those days, the great port--which lies about 13 miles above the mouth of the Whangpoo River, a small tributary of the mighty Yangtze near its estuary--was a city unlike any other, a place so cosmopolitan that sizable colonies of about 30 nationalities lived and worked there in amiable juxtaposition. Westerners drawn to Shanghai at that time, whether led by fate or by choice, were generally free spirits--adventurous and enterprising--or soon became so in order to survive. The British were the dominant group, although for them Shanghai was a seven-week journey by sea, half the world away from home. But when their ship dropped anchor alongside the Bund, the long, curving waterfront street that was a main thoroughfare of the city, they found much that was familiar in a strange setting. Decades before, under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking, which ended the first Opium War in 1842, British merchants were given permission to set up permanent trading establishments and residences in Shanghai as well as in other Chinese cities. The French and then the Americans followed shortly after the British, and other nationalities were not far behind. Within a few years, Shanghai’s International Settlement, a mere nine square miles and undisputedly unique, came into being.

The International Settlement was almost a city-state. It observed its own code of law; was governed by its own municipal council composed of all resident nationalities; had its own police force of tall, straight-spined, turbaned Sikhs, its own customs authorities, courts, currency, and even its own language--the delightfully flexible, easily acquired Pidgin English. Much of Shanghai’s foreign population (along with numerous wealthy Chinese) maintained spacious, airy, European-style houses set in large, tree-shaded gardens in the French Conces-sion. Here Annamese from the French Colonial Service kept order in place of the Sikhs, and the streets bore such names as Avenue Joffre and Rue Massenet.


But it was the surrounding Chinese city, noisy and noisome, vast and vibrant, filled with teeming life, constant motion, and daily drama, that claimed the heart of every Westerner fortunate enough to know Shanghai in that brief, suspended time between the wars.

I was one of those venturers to vintage Shanghai in the ‘20s. Young and innocent, I arrived on a Japanese freighter after a six-week voyage from Marseilles to find a place where everything was strange, nothing was surprising and anything seemed possible. My limited experience as a journalist in New York and Paris proved sufficient to get me on the staff of the China Press, an American-edited English- language newspaper that ran brisk competition to the staid, 100-year-old, English-edited North China Daily News, sometimes called the Old Lady of the Bund as much for its editorial views as for its location.

The owner of the China Press was a Mesopotamian (he would be called an Iraqi now) who had made an early fortune in the opium trade and then had turned respectable. An indulgent and appreciative man, he rewarded his staff not merely with sturdy salaries but with rent-free lodgings in a large and comfortably appointed house in the French Concession. Thus, the China Press Mess was established, a common living arrangement for the unmarried employees of many Western enterprises. As I was to be the only single woman living there with six male newspaper colleagues, a housekeeper-chaperone was required, and an American woman with long experience in running a household in China was engaged. From her I learned about the elaborate rituals of domestic life in Shanghai, so that when, in several months’ time, I was married to a fellow journalist and we moved into our own home, organizing a domestic staff held no terrors for me. Wages were so low that one could afford a houseful of servants on even the most modest of incomes. And indeed, one was expected to. For there was always Chinese custom to consider: custom born of the pressures of overpopulation and expressed in the saying, “One does not break another man’s rice bowl.” In other words, the available work was extended to provide as many jobs as possible, and the subsequent divisions of responsibility were punctiliously observed.

The standard requirements of a small household of a Westerner then consisted of a No. 1 Boy, a No. 1 Cook (and, if there was to be a lot of entertaining, a Small Cook as well), a Wash Amah, a gardener, a coolie and a jinrikisha (more commonly shortened to rickshaw) coolie, who came complete with his vehicle. That was the minimum. For larger families, assistants proliferated, and where there were children, Baby Amah was installed to wash them, feed them, dress them and take them on outings to the French Park, an enclave of green, shaded gardens surrounding the French Club.

The place of the No. 1 Boy, I soon discovered, corresponded to that of the butler in a large English household. He served as general factotum, ran the rest of the staff and had certain specific additional duties such as serving drinks, waiting table and answering the door. He consulted with “Missy” daily for his marching orders, and he was charged with keeping the household books. At the end of every month there would be a reckoning with “Missy”; she would pay the No. 1 Boy, and he in turn would pay the suppliers. As a matter of course, the No. 1 Boy collected cumshaw, a commission from the shopkeepers for bringing them his household’s business; that sum was built into the prices so scrupulously noted in the ledgers. He also collected a small slice of the wages of each of the servants under him in the household. There was never any protest or complaint, because it was all part of a complex code. More important, it worked.

There was an easy mixing among the nationalities composing Shanghai’s foreign population, and social life involved a great variety of activities. The most common was the dinner party, followed by an evening of dancing at the French Club, the Carlton Cafe, the Cathay or Astor House hotels, or in one of the seemingly hundreds of small nightclubs that stayed open all night all over the city. Dinner, served at 9 o’clock, was, as a rule, a fairly informal meal at which one might encounter any of a number of cuisines, for each national group taught its Chinese cooks all manner of regional specialties. One’s choice of menu as a hostess, however, was not unlimited; it was constrained by primitive refrigeration and the uncertain origin of much that appeared in the markets. Still, ships calling at Shanghai regularly brought lamb and butter from New Zealand and beef and citrus fruit from Australia. The Dollar Line ships from San Francisco and Honolulu were occasional sources of expensive, fresh, green vegetables, bought from the ship’s stores. I recall with painful vividness one of the few times I availed myself of this possibility and paid a dollar (at least $10 in today’s terms) for a head of lettuce. I took it to our cook with an equally expensive bunch of celery and explained that each had to be washed carefully in water that had been boiled and then allowed to cool. Imagine my horror when I stopped by later to find the cook washing the greens in cooled boiled water, all right, but also carefully scrubbing the celery with a toothbrush that had decidedly seen better days.


“No, no!” I exclaimed. “No brush!”

“Maskee (never mind), Missy. No belong yours, belong my!”

It took me no time at all to decide to take the incident in stride, and all ended well. Nobody got sick, and, in fact, it was one of our better dinner parties.

Restaurants have always been a feature of life in any big Chinese city, as much for the Chinese themselves as for foreigners, and Shanghai in those days was no exception. We had a dazzling array of choices, for restaurants abounded and ranged from the elegant formality of the St. Petersburg, owned and managed by a former White Russian cavalry officer, to the small, dark, and steamy noodle shops of the old Chinese walled city. The two leading Chinese department stores, Wing On’s and Sincere’s, specialized in banquets of Chinese food where serving 500 was a commonplace. Their boast was that they could manage to provide for any number up to 2,000, and they occasionally made good on the claim. All the large, luxurious hotels--but notably the Cathay--took justified pride in the quality of their European cuisine. As one might have supposed, however, the finest table in Shanghai, by general agreement, was that of the French Club.

Clubs were the hub of much of our social life and there were, it seemed, an infinite number of them centered on nationalities, sports, professions, hobbies and any number of indeterminate interests. Whereas some of them were sternly exclusive, there was much cross-membership and much reciprocal entertaining. The four annual productions of the Shanghai Amateur Dramatic Club, for example, were invariably sold out; concerts by visiting musical notables were often the occasion for splendid receptions at the appropriate club; and every national holiday from St. Andrew’s Day to the Fourth of July was observed with festive celebrations to which everyone was invited. How else, we joked fondly, could the Scots dispose of all that haggis?

Amid all this conviviality, the all-male Shanghai Club stood staunch and foursquare in an imposing, pillared stone building at No. 1, the Bund. Inside, beyond the spacious, two-story lobby, was the renowned Long Bar. More than 100 feet of dark, polished mahogany, it was said to be the longest in the world. A wide bay window in the barroom overlooked the frenzied harbor traffic. Tables there commonly were reserved for that colorful breed, the Yangtze river pilots, the men who negotiated the tricky passage through shoals and sand bars from the estuary to Shanghai and beyond. Protocol also dictated the locations where others positioned themselves to sip gin slings and down pink gins. By silent agreement, the bank managers sorted themselves out from the trading tycoons, the lawyers from the engineers. And many a deal was made over steak-and-kidney pie at tiffin (luncheon) in the Shanghai Club.

A mile to the north, at the far end of the long sweep of the Bund, stood the British Consulate, set in a handsome square of lawn as carefully cultivated as a golf tee. It was one of the few green spots in the concentration of gray stone and red brick that was the International Settlement, for land was generally too expensive and scarce to give over to gardens or even to trees. Nearby, just across the graceful Garden Bridge, which spanned the Soochow Creek, was the American Consulate. In between those two structures and the Shanghai Club, at the southern end of the Bund, were ranged all the city’s great commercial houses, the offices, the banks and many of the hotels--all with spectacular views of the harbor. To travel the length of the Bund, or even a small section of it, was to encounter Shanghai at its rawest and most vibrant. And no matter how often I did it, it was a trip I never tired of, for there was always something new to see. Traffic was indescribably dense, and the air was thick with bells, horns, shouts and cries. Rickshaws, carts, bicycles, motorcycles and an occasional car or truck fought for space with hurrying coolies--bent under the weight of massive loads balanced in baskets at the ends of bamboo poles--or with others who trotted behind barrows piled with vegetables, furniture, pieces of machinery or mysterious crates.

More orderly, but duplicating the traffic of the Bund in density and noise, was the constant flow of river life, where every kind of vessel made its way and whole families sometimes spent all their lives. Ocean liners and coastal ships were moored at the jetties or stood a little downstream awaiting space; junks--heavily carved and garishly painted--sampans, barges and tenders nosed restlessly among them. The gray bulk of battleships of the Royal Navy or the U.S. Pacific Fleet was constantly visible, and the No. 1 buoy in the Whangpoo by long custom was always occupied by the flagship of whatever contingent of the British navy happened to be in port. (After the end of World War II, in 1946, in a subtle nod to history, the No. 1 buoy was yielded to the flagship of the U.S. 7th Fleet.)

Other fixtures along the Bund, as well as elsewhere in Shanghai, were the professional beggars. They were dispatched daily from the old walled city to ply their trade by the King of the Beggars, who was the rough equivalent of a labor-union boss. He gave them their training, provided food and shelter, settled territorial disputes and commanded a share of their proceeds. Two in particular usually divided the sidewalk outside the Palace Hotel at the intersection of Nanking Road and the Bund. One was known as “Light in the Head” because he appeared to have driven a nail into the top of his shaven skull, a nail that then served as a holder for a candle, the flame of which cast a flickering light over his thin, piteous face. The other, a woman, was called “the Weeping Wonder” for her ability to cry ceaselessly and silently in such quantities that her tears formed small pools around her hunched form. And although tourists might stand and gawk at Shanghai’s professional beggars, those who have lived there regarded even the professionals as painful reminders of a poverty so profound and so prevalent as to seem beyond rational remedy. One did what one could, but realistically, it could never be enough to make a noticeable difference.

The main artery westward from the Bund was Nanking Road; it was also the direct road to the racecourse, where amateur jockeys, young tea traders, and perhaps bankers would race speedy Manchurian ponies while Chinese and foreigners alike would bet on their favorites. So popular was this pastime that, during one period that I recall, the foreign-owned firms would simply close down for a race week every spring and fall.

Nanking Road was also one of Shanghai’s principal shopping streets, lined on both sides by Chinese and foreign-owned stores. The Chinese shops, often open-fronted and always inviting, could be identified by wooden signs inscribed with outsized characters painted in red and gold, by pungent fragrances and by the click-click-click of the abacuses, a sound so distinctive that it could be heard over almost any competing noise. Bargaining was expected in the Chinese shops; for both buyer and seller it was more than half the fun of shopping. Here on Nanking Road stood one of the most famous shops of its day in all Asia, the great silk house of Lao K’ai Fook. Nothing was sold here but silk in every imaginable form, all from bolts stored on shelves that went from floor to ceiling. Dealers in antiques, porcelains, curios, and wood carvings had shops here, too; the British department store of Whiteaway & Laidlaw was nearby; not far was the Chocolate Shop, where, improbably, American ice-cream sodas were a specialty; and farther on at Kelly & Walsh, the bookseller and publisher, almost any current book in English could be bought or ordered.

And what could not be found already made could always be copied. Usually, the copy proved to be better than the original, because the industry, ingenuity and artistry of the Chinese artisans were prodigious. Among these craftsmen, the most talented and versatile was the Shanghai tailor, a formidable and wonderful institution. Each had his specialty, from lingerie and ball gowns for women to linen suits and overcoats for men. The Shanghai tailor could--and did--copy anything requested. Men usually went to the tailor’s shop to select materials and be measured for their clothes. But the tailors who specialized in women’s garments customarily came to a client’s home, often bringing the latest issue of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. After a choice had been made, there might be a fitting or two, and within days, as a rule, the new clothes were delivered, beautifully finished and with a perfect fit. Moreover, because almost no shops stocked Western-style shoes for women, handmade ones were commonplace, made of fine leather or silk with the same meticulous workmanship as that lavished on the clothes.

Work apart--and we did work hard--such was life for the Westerner once privileged to call himself a Shanghailander. Small wonder that for each of us who knew them, those days will always be different from any others in our lives, no matter how full and satisfying those others may have been. As I look back down the corridor of years, it was a time apart, a time when it seemed as though nothing had ever been different and thus never would be. In some measure, that state of mind was induced by China itself. Even though the tremors of approaching violent change were occasionally felt, it seemed that the land was too vast, the civilization, the people and their ways too ancient, for change ever to be successful. And yet, even as we lived those days, somewhere--deep below our consciousness--we sensed that this was a life that would never exist again. Perhaps that, more than anything else, was what made that brief, bright span Shanghai’s vintage years.