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

The Great World as it appears on a poster from the 1960s

The Great World as it appears on a poster from the 1960s

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.

The Great World

(China Monthly Review Jun 1, 1953)

ALMOST every Shanghailander knows the Ta Shih Chieh (“The Great World”) amusement center, and knows of its notoriety in the old days. Not so many know that it originally was what might be considered a modern social club catering mainly to what are known in the west as ‘‘tired businessmen.” With a history of nearly 40 years, Ta Shih Chieh was built by Huang Chu-chiu, a local speculator. Huang, a penniless man when he first hit this “adventurers’ paradise,” gradually, with his “intelligence” and connections with foreign officials, amassed a fortune in the form of nearly 100 big shops, banks, and the notorious entertainment center, Ta Shih Chieh.

When first built, Ta Shih Chieh was not open to the general public, being kept as an exclusive playground for a handful of privileged and wealthy men. The guests came in their leisure hours to enjoy themselves and entertain their friends, eating, drinking, attending theaters, etc. However, during the late ‘twenties, Huang faced bankruptcy, and was forced to sell all his enterprises to liquidate his debts. Ta Shih Chieh was sold at auction under the auspices of the French imperialists, who at the time controlled the sector of Shanghai in which it was located, to a top Shanghai gangster.

Through the years Ta Shih Chieh declined from an exclusive rich men’s “club,” until it became, in the last years of the Kuomintang regime, a hangout for prostitutes, pickpockets and other social derelicts.

Then this big building was a daily and nightly scene of cursing, yelling, shouting and quarreling which made it a veritable bedlam. Under the misrule of the Kuomintang, sordid and dirty petty rackets began to raise their heads. Soldiers intruded without tickets, and clashes between soldiers and gangsters were daily incidents. Prostitutes openly solicited prospective customers; pickpockets were everywhere.Most deplorable were the living conditions of tho exploited actors and staff, victims of gang rule. A major part of their wages flowed into the pockets of the gangster owner, and the players, besides being exploited, were victimized by the currency inflation going on at the time. Often, a day's work would hardly buy a meal, and most of the employees were on the verge of starvation.

SINCE liberation, Ta Shih Chich has been in a continuous process of regeneration into a decent recreational center. It is orderly and clean; in the second half of 1951 a complete renovation was made, with the assistance of the municipal government, 

and all the stages of the center's many theaters were rebuilt in accordance with modern design and facilities.

Entertainment is plentiful and varied in this four-story building in downtown Shanghai. With the exception of the ground floor, each story boasts three or four theaters with a seating capacity of 400 or 500 per theater. Almost every type of drama is available— the characteristic opera of Peking and other cities, all differing from each other, in addition to movies and variety shows—acrobatic, magic, juggling, and a host of others.

Ta Shih Chieh has made its mark in theatrical circles. Many of the country’s well-known players, before rising to stardom, gave performances there.

If one is not interested in theaters, he can enjoy himself in the ping-pong room, the billiard room, the ballroom or on the roof garden which overlooks the city. In the summer it boasts a skating rink and open-air movie theater. Many eateries serve delicious snacks and soft drinks at reasonable prices.

For the first time in their lives, Ta Shih Chieh’s 800 employees are earning enough to feed themselves. An outstanding player can earn Y2,000,000 a month, while the lowest salary is about Y100,000. Now, all the super-profits do not go to the owner; some is used to improve service to the public.

Today, these Thespians, who were formerly exploited and oppressed, are able to devote time and energy to the perfection of their technique, and lead a fuller life than ever before. In addition, they participate in study groups as do all Chinese since liberation. The study programs are varied, including current affairs, new laws and regulations, national movements, and international affairs. The programs are sponsored either by their own trade union or other theaters and troupes.

Changes in the drama have also been made. Plays glorifying the old feudal ideology are being discarded in favor of new ones, which emphasize the country’s various new movements. Recently, in the nation-wide movement to publicize the new marriage law, nearly all the theaters in Ta Shih Chieh put on shows dealing with marital problems. A most popular opera is one which depicts how the feudal marriage system victimized two young lovers.

RECENTLY, a new clinic was set up in Ta Shih Chieh—interestingly enough, in a room which once held a Buddhist shrine. The wooden images housed therein were supposed to circumvent evil spirits and guarantee a prosperous business. They were finally moved out during last year’s nationwide housecleaning movement, and the room turned into a clinic. Staffed with both doctors and nurses, the clinic provides free medical treatment for visitors.

Pickpockets and Iadies of the evening have vanished. These unfortunates of the past have been sent to special reformatories for training by the government in its drive to reclaim social derelicts inherited from the old society. All brothels in Shanghai were closed down in November 1951, and the members of the sisterhood who plied their trade in Ta Shih Chieh have now found other work.

Since superstition can no longer deceive the people in new China, a large number of fortune tellers in this center volunteered to change their occupation. But no compulsory measures are taken against those who have real trouble in adjusting to a new occupation. They are permitted to continue their business until able to adopt a new trade. In recent years, their outlook has also changed greatly.

Because of rising wages, admission tickets (Y2,000, equal to less than 10 cents in US currency) are well within the budget of the average man, and nearly every day the place is packed. During the spring festival holidays, the center was visited by more than 45,000 people a day, and the place was forced to close its doors several times in order to relieve congestion. Today, this formerly notorious amusement center is becoming increasingly popular among the people in Shanghai.