Talking Location with author Paul French about Old Shanghai

28th June 2018

#TalkingLocationWith….. with author Paul French, rediscovering Old Shanghai, the setting for City of Devils.

The old treaty port of Shanghai was ever something of an enigma – a piece of foreign-controlled soil in China with an International Settlement and a French Concession. It lasted for nearly a century until the Japanese invaded and occupied the city in World War Two. Not a colony, but a self-governing entity dedicated to nothing much more than making money. Old Shanghai was legendary: the Wild East. It’s a world I’ve sought to recapture in City of Devils.

author Paul French

Shanghai in the 1930s with the foreign concessions – today’s Yanan Road is the former border between the International Settlement and the French Concession

During the 1930s, four million people called the nine square miles of the International Settlement home; it was the world’s fourth largest city (after London, Paris and New York) and the most densely populated. It was a conundrum – the city’s existence was due to conflict and technology, a war lost by China to British gunboats over the pernicious right to sell opium, and an unequal treaty forced on the Chinese at gunpoint. Yet, Shanghai would become a haven for countless Chinese fleeing bandits and warlords as well as endemic poverty and regular natural disaster, a refuge for Russians fleeing the Bolshevik revolution, for European Jews escaping Nazism. Shanghai was the only city in the world that required no passports, no visas, no documents. Anyone who could make it there could stay. And, added to those Chinese and foreigners seeking refuge, were those looking to escape their pasts, dodge justice, start over. With no questions asked – how could Shanghai not have been the wildest town on earth between the wars!

I lived in Shanghai for the first two decades of its second heyday – between the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty first century when the city was allowed to shake loose the shackles of Maoism and prosper once more. In the gold rush of a revived capitalism, the Shanghainese sought to build new lives after the dark years of Maoist uniformity. Plenty of foreigners pitched up too – just like back in the 1930s – to see if they could make their fortunes (including me!). Most people gave little thought to the former city. As foreigners our collective memory of old Shanghai was almost totally erased by time, just vague flickers of images of nightclubs, jazz, gangsters and casinos. The bulldozers speedily replaced much of the built heritage with skyscrapers but, for those willing to look hard enough, there are still some traces of that old Shanghai left – the city inhabited by the characters in City of Devils.

Let’s start on the Bund – Shanghai sojourns always began on the Bund (an old Hindi word meaning raised waterfront – it rhymes with ‘shunned’). This is where the ships arrived and departed. It’s also where you see most clearly that before World War Two, Shanghai was the most up to date, dazzling, architecturally impressive city in all Asia. Hong Kong and Singapore’s rise came later. In the 1930s Shanghai was the apogee of modernity – of jazz, dancehalls, automobiles, elevators and (as you can see all along the Bund) more fantastic art-deco than even New York City.

author Paul French

The Bund facing northwards towards Suzhou Creek in the 1930s – the skyline remains virtually the same though the waterfront has been raised to provide a walkway today

Walk down to the northern end of the Bund – towards the Garden Bridge. Once, in the late 1930s, that bridge was thronged with Chinese refugees flooding down from the Hongkou district seeking sanctuary from the invading Japanese. There were barricades across the bridge then – Japanese troops at one end; British squaddies and American Marines at the other. Walk across it today (no sentries now) and you’ll see the impressive Broadway Mansions apartment complex – in the Shanghai of City of Devils one of those apartments hosts one of the highest stakes card games in the city. Look down the Suzhou Creek and you’ll see the International Post Office (still a post office – you can go in and walk around) and the massive Embankment Building that was briefly, in the late 1930s, a luxury address and then, after the war, home to thousands of Russian and Jewish refugees seeking a new life and new passports.

The Garden Bridge leading across the Suzhou Creek to Hongkou District. To the left of the bridge is the impressive art-deco Broadway Mansions; to the right can be seen the red rooftop of the Astor House Hotel

Head uptown, up the Nanjing West Road – this used to be the more charmingly named Bubbling Well Road (long in the past there really was a bubbling well here). At the northern end is the golden roofed Jing’an Temple, just across the road from the old art-deco Paramount Ballroom. The Paramount was one of the largest dancehalls ever built in Asia, with nightly floor shows and filled with stylish “taxi dancers” – one ticket-one dance.

The Paramount today has been restored to its former glory as one of the most modern ballrooms in Asia

Cross the busy Yan’an Road Expressway and head up the road west. There at Panyu Road you’ll find yourself in what was, in the 1920s, a swish suburb of mostly foreign occupied villas. After the Japanese invasion the area changed completely and became notorious as “the Badlands” with swish nightclubs, casinos, brothels and opium dens (all gone now!).

But you can get a drink at the Radisson Xingguo Hotel (junction of Xingguo Road and Huashan Road). From there you can wander into the streets and lanes of the best preserved parts of the old French Concession – follow your impulses up lanes and down side streets and soak up the atmosphere amid the indigenous Shanghai architecture and the shady streets lined with London plane trees. Here, amid the longtang, the classic narrow lanes of old Shanghai, is the essential nature of the city in all its wonderful cheek-by-jowl density. If such a thing can be said to exist then this is the real old Shanghai.

A typical Shanghai lane in the old French Concession (credit: Sue Anne Tay)

Thank you so much to Paul for the terrific insights into this wonderful city! You can follow Paul on Twitter and Instagram And of course you can buy his book on this link!

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