上海大世界 Re-Tooling Shanghai's Great World for the Urban Masses (1953)

Twenty years or more ago, I was cruising the outdoor antique market in the old part of Shanghai around Fangbang Road near the City God Temple, and found a set of posters that I still have today. One of them shows the Bund at night. The other is of the Great World or da shijie 大世界, an amusement center famous in Shanghai since the 1930s, when it was a notorious playhouse for gangsters and petty criminals. Today the Great World still stands on the corner of Xizang Road and Yan’an Road where it has been since the 1920s. Recently, as I wrote in a blog last year, the Great World was reopened after extensive renovations, and is now a fun spot to take youngsters. It features opera and other performances, folk arts, and local dishes. This article reveals the transformation of the Great World in the early 1950s under the Communist Party, from a notorious funhouse featuring gambling, prostitution and other vices, into an exemplary cultural palace with CCP-approved entertainment for the masses. Reading this article explains well the imagery that can be found in my poster of the Great World from the 1960s.

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Shanghai’s White Russians (1937)

I found this article while researching what became my first book, Shanghai’s Dancing World. The White Russians played an enormous role in the cultural life of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Marcia Ristaino’s book Port of Last Resort is the best academic study of the Russians in Shanghai. Katya Knyazeva is also working on this fascinating topic. This article contains many fine details about the history of Russian refugees in Shanghai including their growth, their occupations, their social and financial status and earnings, and their status within the hierarchy of Shanghai society. It is a gem of an article rich in information and insights and its prediction at the end is very accurate. Indeed, the settlements were returned to Chinese sovereignty by 1943, and by the late 1940s, the bulk of the city’s Russian refugee population had left the city for other horizons. 

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The Chinese Theatres of Shanghai:  A Universal Art on the Other Side of the Globe (1925)

This article published in the Herald and later in the American journal Living Age provides a welter of details on the theater industry in Shanghai which supported the performance of Chinese regional operas. I confess not to be an expert in this area of urban entertainment but the article is full of rich details on this more traditional side of entertainment culture in Old Shanghai.

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The Americans in Shanghai: Journalist Edgar Snow’s Take on Western Imperialism in China (1930)

This is an extraordinarily rich piece of journalism on the city of Shanghai. The author, Edgar Snow, would later earn great fame for his coverage of the Communist Party in their stronghold in Yan’an, resulting in the classic Red Star Over China. Whether or not one views that work as fatally flawed, obviously Snow was deeply skeptical and critical about the colonial enterprise of the treaty port system in China, and also deeply sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese people

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This article is interesting for many reasons, not least of which is that it covers the origins of the Foreign Y.M.C.A. It also mentions the cleanup of brothels owing to the presence of American women in them, as well as hinting at a potential campaign (which never materialized) to clean up the Russian-staffed cabarets in the outskirts of the city. Above all it shows how Americanization was equated with business efficiency and how the American model of business was outpacing and replacing the sleepy European colonial model where the compradores did all the work and the taipans lazed and dazed about with their gin and tonics at the Shanghai Club. The article precipitates another which I will post, by the famous journalist Edgar Snow.

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The Rise and Fall of Jack aka "Jackpot" Riley in Shanghai's Gambling World (1941)

This piece appeared in Time Magazine soon after the Jack Riley trial ended in 1941. It gives a nice brief summary account of the rise and fall of "Jackpot Riley" in the gambling world of Shanghai in the 1930s. Of course you have to read Paul French's book City of Devils for a more detailed, if somewhat speculative historical account of his rise and his relationship with dance impresario Joe Farren.

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A Good Summary Account of Shanghai’s Dance Hall Industry in 1937

This is another article I discovered during my earliest phase of research in English-language magazines and newspapers of the 1930s about Shanghai’s dance craze. It accurately summarizes the history of the dance hall industry starting with Russians and then moving to Chinese dance halls and hostesses after 1926. It also offers some interesting insights such as men taking their wives to the dance halls and the consumption habits of Chinese customers. 


Shanghai dance hostesses from a dance hall magazine of the 1930s

Shanghai dance hostesses from a dance hall magazine of the 1930s

(Current History Oct. 1937 p. 100-101)

Of the many evidences of Western influence to be found in Shanghai nothing is more remarkable than the dancing craze, which in the past few years has won an increasingly large number of followers amongst Chinese of all ages and of all stations except the very lowest.  Shanghai has more than one hundred dance halls and cabarets, large and small, which provide employment for some five thousand professional dance partners, and the most popular of these establishments are crowded night after night. Some are open for business during the afternoons and even in one or more cases during the luncheon interval.

Nowadays the largest proportion by far of the dance partners are Chinese girls whose ages range from fifteen to twenty-five; most of them are in their late teens. This is a relatively new development, for ten years ago the partners to be found in Shanghai's dance halls, then much fewer in number and less pretentious in appearance, were virtually all Russian girls, coming for the most part from Harbin. About 1926, however, the first Chinese-owned dance hall, known as the Peach Blossom Place, was established with Chinese girls as partners, and since then numerous Chinese dance halls have come into existence. The latest addition, which, with a swimming pool and restaurant, covers several acres of ground, has more than one hundred dance partners, chiefly Chinese, but with a sprinkling of Russians and Eurasians.

All of the dance halls work on much the same basis, the girls receiving a fixed commission on dance tickets and drinks. In the better-class halls, which usually offer an occasional vaudeville turn between dances, a dollar will not buy more than two or three dance tickets, whereas in the "dives" of Hongkew it can be stretched to buy ten. Usually the management allows the girls to keep half of their earnings in the matter of dance tickets, paying a rather lower commission on drinks consumed either by the customer or by the girl at the customer's expense. In most of the better-class Chinese establishments, however, little liquor is consumed, the majority of the patrons limiting their indulgence to tea or some variety of soft drink. These places are usually conducted with a degree of decorum which would do credit to a church social.  Family parties, ranging from toothless old grandmothers tottering along on bound feet to infants asleep in their mothers' arms, occupy tables by the hour, sipping tea and munching sweetmeats as they watch the dancing. 

Although elegantly gowned and groomed and unquestionably attractive, a good 80 percent of the Chinese dancing partners are illiterate. Yet many who can neither write nor read their own language often speak English remarkably well and reveal a surprising amount of general knowledge, picked up in the course of conversation with their clients.

Most of the girls come from poor families in the hinterland of Shanghai, and in some cases have either been bought body and soul or else temporarily acquired under contract by older women, to whom they are obliged to give their earnings in return for food, clothes and lodging.  The majority earn barely enough to live, but a few who enjoy the patronage of wealthy Chinese are said to make as much as £100 a month. In the larger dance halls the average girl probably earns about £10, the minimum anywhere about £2 a month, which is considerably higher than the average wage paid to factory girls. However, it must be remembered that a dancing girl is obliged to spend a considerable proportion of her earnings on cosmetics, clothes, and other feminine allurements.

The jazz craze has brought with it a number of social problems which are giving the Chinese authorities in Shanghai some cause for uneasiness. Many of the less reputable dance halls make a special point of catering to high school and university students, who tend increasingly to spend their leisure as well as their pocket money in these resorts. But it is not only the younger generation that is affected. Middle-aged fathers of families are to be found in the dance halls, and home life is apt to suffer in consequence. Occasionally this particular aspect of the problem is solved in a rather piquant fashion by the husband taking his wife with him when goes to the dance hall. It is now not uncommon, states a Shanghai newspaper, to see wives "patiently sitting on the sidelines whilst their husbands disport themselves upon the classy dance floors of Shanghai's palaces of pleasure. In order to pass the time more pleasantly some wives bring along books or other reading material, nor is knitting taboo in such cases." 

-The Manchester Guardian