In the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai was notorious worldwide for its vices. While the cabarets and ballroom dance halls that I wrote about in my books were relatively tame, the city abounded with all sorts of establishments catering to the carnal pleasures of men, staffed by women often recruited from the hinterlands. Unlike the hostesses who plied the city's dance halls, these were not "public women" in that the work they performed tended to be done in private rooms or behind curtains. This article highlights two sorts of establishments: massage parlors and "tea rooms." These establishments were cropping up in all quarters of the city, staffed by young or perhaps not-so-young Chinese women and serving mostly but not exclusively Chinese men. People who have lived in Shanghai or in other urban settings in China over the past twenty years or so might recognize these sorts of establishments, which became popular again starting in the 1990s.
Shanghai's "Under-Cover" Vices
(China Weekly ReviewJune 14 1930; China Critic,May 29, 1930)
Shanghai has often been called the Paris of the Orient. This is only half true. Shanghai has all the vices of Paris and more, but boasts of none of its cultural influences. The Municipal Orchestra is uncertain of its future, and the removal of the city library to its new premises has only shattered our hopes for better reading facilities. The Royal Asiatic Society has been denied all support from the Council for the maintenance of its library which is the only center for research in this metropolis. It is, therefore, no wonder that men and women, old or young, poor or rich, turn their minds to mischief and lowly pursuits of pleasure, and the laxity of police regulations has aggravated the situation.
Firstly, the amusement resorts, like the New World and the Great World, are degenerating into scenes of obscenity, now worse than ever. Only recently at one of these resorts, beer was offered free to all visitors on a Sunday afternoon. If we were informed correctly, at least 5,000 bottles of beer were opened in a short time, and children under 10 years of age were seen drinking from the bottles. The shows inside were not fit for words, and yet they were open to children. We do not begrudge the public innocent pastimes but degeneracy, if allowed to perpetuate itself, will suck the vitality of our manhood. It is as easy to provide wholesome fun and make money as it is to offer obscene entertainments at the risk of polluting the public mind. The visitors are, of course, Chinese, and the situation affects the foreign community so little that our City Fathers can well afford to overlook it. We wonder if their sense of moral responsibility has not been dulled by other considerations.
Secondly, the massage establishments are simply scandalous. One has only to read their Chinese Advertisements to know what they are for. Both Avenue Joffre and Range Road are thronging with these establishments. Formerly this seemed to be an exclusive Russian enterprise, but of late Chinese girls have invaded this field, apparently with success. Massage in itself is a desirable thing for certain physical ailments, but this is not a service that can be rendered by an inexperienced person. We presume that such establishments are run with licenses issued by the municipal authorities concerned. The public is certainly entitled to know the qualifications of the masseuse and the test she has to pass before being given a license. If no license were required, then it is high time that the municipal authorities should require each etablishment to secure a license. If licenses are at present required, then we may be pardoned for saying that such licenses must have been issued at random without the slightest regard to public well-being. Apparently the authorities are anxious to secure more revenue at all cost.
Thirdly, the Chinese authorities are responsible for the spread of buffet and tea rooms along North Szechuan Road. Here all customers are waited upon by young Chinese girls who are practically hostesses of the most accommodating sort. The rooms have small compartments with curtains which can be easily drawn together to secure privacy, The income of each waitress is as flexible all her conscience is elastic. All moral fibres are torn asunder and man and woman debase themselves beyond description. On the same street are cafes and cabarets which remain open almost till day-break. The cabarets in the International Settlement and the French Concession close at two o'clock except Saturday nights, and we can see no reason why the Chinese authorities should not enforce the same closing hours. The additional revenue for all-night cabarets is incidental especially when one considers the harm such late hours work on the girls. Even from a pure business standpoint, the difference in closing hours works against the cafes outside of Chinese territory, and for this reason alone, equal treatment of all cafes is only fair.
Vice Under Cover Most Dangerous
There are other vices which are common knowledge to all. We do not believe that the authorities are ignorant of their existence. That such vices continue to increase is proof enough that the authorities are either indifferent to public welfare or powerless to control certain gangs which are behind such organized vices. It is our belief that, if the authorities are really desirous of cleaning this metropolis of all vices, they may succeed without great difficulties. When there is a will, there is a way. We are by no means prudish or moralists. We recognize, as all sane and normal people do, the inevitable craze for the flesh among mankind. There are "red light" districts m Shanghai which are more or less under supervision. Though the conditions are far from satisfactory, yet periodic inspection may perhaps help to minimize or reduce the chances for the spread of diseases. In the massage establishments, buffet and tea rooms and amusement resorts, many an unwary person may find himself exposed to the most serious diseases. Everyone reads a danger signal in the public houses, but in these private establishments, one may easily be an innocent victim. It is commonplace to say that prostitution is as old as history, but it is significant to note that prostitution under cover is the worst enemy of mankind. If we must have vices, then let us have them as unadulterated vices, and not as something which they are not. It is a crime to permit vices, but it is a double crime to permit them under cover.