Shanghai in 1942

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The famed Shanghai Bund

Photo: Courtesy of the USHMM Photo
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The famed Shanghai Bund

The End of a Reign

In all eras, in all civilizations there have been cities that mark their time and place in history. For 100 years, Shanghai was such a city.

In the 1930s, this port on the mouth of the Yangtze River boasted some of the most lavishly appointed hotels on Earth. (The lighting fixtures at Victor Sassoon's Cathay Hotel were all Lalique, including those in the bathrooms.) The super-exclusive Shanghai Club boasted the longest bar in the world–"the Long Bar." As a playground of the rich and famous, Shanghai was the port of call for everybody who was anybody.

Silent film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were frequent visitors. In February 1931, Fairbanks told a gathering of Shanghailanders at the Cathay Hotel: "To me there are only five prominent cities in the world and Shanghai in my opinion occupies the limelight as the most colorful, interesting and progressive."

With its occupation by the Japanese in November 1937, the city's luster faded. In Ang Lee's Lust, Caution–set in 1942–we see Shanghai in its twilight. Ruled by collaborators, Shanghai was a tragic city that, like its inhabitants, lost its bearing amidst a world at war.

City of the East

For over a century, from the 1840s through the 1940s, Shanghai was the place where the ideological, cultural and geopolitical struggles of the modern era played out.

In 1842, the British won the First Opium War, which erupted after Britain insisted on importing opium to southern China. By creating a nation of addicts, the crafty Brits insured themselves a market for their opium and thus the ability to redress their large trade deficit with China.

Following its defeat, China became semi-colonial state. The Qing Dynasty ruled, but in China's most important cities the prime real estate was parceled into areas known as "concessions" controlled by colonial powers.

With the Revolution of 1911, which is associated with Sun Yat-sen, the Qing Court was ousted and the country was then ruled by a collection of feuding Chinese nationalists, regional warlords, foreign powers and concession holders. With the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in July 1921, a fourth player entered the fray.

Throughout this period, no city in China was more important than Shanghai, which by the end of the 19th century was the world's third most important banking capital after New York and London, and, as such, the undisputed financial center of East Asia. In essence, Shanghai was two cities, one a Chinese city under the authority of the weak Chinese government, the other an international zone consisting of concessions controlled primarily by the British, Americans, French and, following the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Japanese.

The French concession in Shanghai was a formal part of the French Empire. The Americans and British joined forces in 1854 and jointly ran a concession that became known as the Shanghai International Settlement. The Shanghailanders, as the generations of English and Americans who were born in the city referred to them selves, operated the settlement as an independent state, though one in which Chinese could live.

The state of relations between Shanghailanders and natives is exemplified in a "Memorandum on Naming of the Shanghae Streets." This hilarious memo, written in 1962, by British Consul Walter Henry Medhurst, reads in part:

The foreigners being the dominant portion of the community and charged with the order and security of the Settlement, while the Chinese are but recent immigrants, who have swarmed in for their own conveniences and safety, it follows, that, if either has the right to enforce on the other a system of nomenclature as near as possible adapted to the necessities of both, the foreigners possess that right; and it is one which must be exercised, or the Chinese part of the population, with their usual sagacity for mutual combination, will ever long make the entire settlement a Chinese city, and we shall find such names as, if translated would read, "Virtue and Benevolence Street," Painted Silk Lane," "Justice and Harmony Road" intruding themselves in flaming characters alongside the less modest appellations the Municipal Council has already posted up.

Shanghai's Cathay Hotel

Shanghai's Cathay Hotel

While Chinese were permitted to own land in the Settlement, they were not made to feel at home. In 1889, the Shanghai Municipal Council, the International Settlement's governing body, issued an order allowing "respectable and decently dressed natives" to use the public parks. It then rescinded that permission when too many Chinese took to sleeping on park benches. (It is popularly believed that the gates of the parks bore signs, "Dogs and Chinese Not Admitted," but that's an urban myth.)

It wasn't until 1928 that Chinese were again allowed into the Settlement's public parks. The same year three Chinese men were invited to join the Shanghai Municipal Council, which prior to then had been composed of five Brits, two Americans and two Japanese.

On The Bund

The Westernized downtown area of Shanghai's International Settlement overlooked the western bank of the river, known as The Bund, from the Urdu "band," meaning "embankment." The Bund was the Wall Street of Asia. As the center of trade and finance, it was where West met East. By 1930, Shanghai's census put the population at 2.7 million, making it the world's sixth largest city.

Upon their arrival in Shanghai, Western visitors, who numbered 40,000 per year in the early 1930s, regularly expressed surprise–and disappointment–at not finding themselves in the exotic East. As The American Express Oriental Travelogue observed in 1931, "The average tourist arriving in Shanghai is astonished beyond words that, instead of a Chinese city with perhaps a wall around it . . . he or she finds a great metropolis built entirely on European and American lines."

Some compared Shanghai to the waterfront cities of Nice and Chicago, the latter of which was architecturally very similar. Noel Coward, a frequent denizen of Shanghai in its heyday, quipped in 1929 that the city was a "cross between Huddersfield [Yorkshire] and Brussels." He is said to have written Private Lives while staying at the Cathay in 1931. He later starred in the first production with his infatuation Laurence Olivier, for whom he wrote the play.

Coward was but one of a stream of entertainment personalities who paid regular visits to the Astor House Hotel or the Cathay Hotel. The New Yorker's Emily Hahn, who often visited the Astor House with her pet gibbon, Mr. Mills, became addicted to opium while in Shanghai. "Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict," she later wrote. "I can't claim that as the reason I went to China." She also noted how her good friend Victor Sassoon liked to photograph her naked.

Shanghai entered the popular imagination as a destination of the rich and famous. In Josef von Sternberg's 1932 movie, Shanghai Express, Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) was on her way to that fair city when a warlord commandeered the train she was riding in. (The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.)

A Countess from Hong Kong

Photo: Courtesy Universal Pictures

A Countess from Hong Kong

Charlie Chaplin's first visit to Shanghai in 1931 supposedly inspired his 1967 film, A Countess from Hong Kong, staring Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren and his son, Sydney Chaplin. He returned in March 1936, with Paulette Goddard, his live-in girlfriend and co-star in the just-released Modern Times. The two, the Brad and Angelina of their day, were greeted at the Cathay Hotel by a throng of 30 journalists pursuing rumors of a secret marriage.

Golden Period of film

As a cultural capital of Asia, Shanghai in the 1920s and the 1930s was known as the Paris of the Orient. The city's film industry was particularly influential. In the 1920s, Shanghai produced melodramas and swashbucklers for the Chinese diaspora. In the 1930s, the city's film industry came under the sway of progressive studios, and began making path breaking, socially conscious films with storylines that focused on class struggle, the lives of everyday people and the threat posed by foreign (i.e. Japanese) invaders.

During this time, what is known as the Golden Period of Chinese cinema, Shanghai had silent film stars who rivaled Fairbanks, Pickford and Chaplin in popularity. One of the most wildly popular was, Ruan Lingyu, who has been called "China's Greta Garbo." She starred in Wu Yonggang's The Goddess (1934), about a prostitute who raises a child by herself, and Cai Shushen's New Women (1935), the story of an educated woman who escapes society's disapproval–and China's tabloid press–by committing suicide. Following the release debut of New Women, the Journalist Union protested vigorously at the unflattering portrayal of the press and the studio was forced to re-edit the film.

Ruan, like the heroine in New Women, was mercilessly dissected in the pages of the tabloids, which avidly chronicled her messy divorce. On the eve of International Women's Day, March 8, 1935, the 24-year-old beauty killed herself with an overdose of barbiturates. She left a note that reportedly read in part, "Gossip is a fearful thing." During her funeral procession, which was reported to be as long as three miles long, three women used the occasion to join her in death. Fifty-seven years later, Ruan's tragic life was the subject of Stanley Kwan's Centre Stage (1992), starring Maggie Cheung.

In the 1930s, women's changing social roles challenged a Shanghai that was already riven by battles between Communists, Nationalists and Fascists, and that was facing the rising sun of Imperial Japan.

War comes to Shanghai

As the Japanese advanced on Shanghai, tourism continued unabated. A columnist of the North China Daily News remarked: "The tourist who is not as used to wars as the old resident has proved a very good sport about accepting the annoyances inherent in the situation. She wishes she might have seen Peking, not to mention Korea and Manchuria, but she is kind enough to say that she is glad to have had more time to spend in Shanghai."

More ominously, Austrian Novelist Vicki Baum (whose 1929 novel was adapted for the Academy Award winning 1932 film Grand Hotel, starring Greta Garbo), wrote in her novel Shanghai '37:

The foreigners had sown benefits and crimes in equal quantities over the city, and they had reaped much hate and very little gratitude. The foreigners despised and marveled at the Chinese. The Chinese despised and marveled at the foreigners. The foundations of the city were riddled with rats, conspiracies and secret societies. The warships of many nations lay at anchor in the river; their guns were not concealed but always ready and visible in war rig or in threat.

Would the war come to Shanghai? And if the war came to Shanghai, would the town be able once more to shake it off like a noxious or insignificant insect?

In November 1937, the Japanese occupied the city, following what was known as the Battle of Shanghai. Days later, the Japanese moved up the Yangtse to the Chinese capital at Nanking (now known as Nanjing), which they occupied on December 13. During the following six week period, in what became known as the Rape of Nanking, the Japanese army raped an estimated 20,000 women and girls, and killed in the most gruesome fashion imaginable tens of thousands (some estimates say hundreds of thousands) of civilians. Similar atrocities occurred across China as part of a calculated Japanese campaign to quash resistance, but this massacre is the most famous.

Back in Shanghai, the Japanese occupied the Chinese area of the city, which had a population of about 1.5 million, but the French concession and the International Settlement, with their 1.5 million residents among whom 35,000 foreigners, remained relatively independent.

The Chinese inhabitants of Shanghai resisted the Japanese occupation in a variety of ways. New China, one of Shanghai's three progressive film studios, set up shop in the International Settlement, ushering in what is known as the "Solitary Island" period of Chinese cinema. The best known example of this was Bu Wancan's Mulan Joins the Army (1939), about a young Chinese peasant, Mulan, who fights foreign invaders.

The Chinese resistance also operated from the relative safety of the International Settlement, where they had to contend not only with the Japanese army but the Shanghai Municipal Council's police force that sought to keep public order and quash armed resistance.

Collaborator Jing Waei

Collaborator Jing Waei

Collaborators and Resisters

Some Chinese collaborated with the Japanese, the most famous of whom was the "Chinese Quisling," Wang Jingwei. A rival of Chiang Kai-shek, in 1938, Wang broke with his fellow nationalists and went to Shanghai to negotiate with the Japanese occupation. In March 1940, Wang Jingwei, would rule Japanese-occupied China from Nanking, in the same way and at the same time that Philippe Pétain ruled Vichy France during the Nazi occupation.

As in Vichy France, members of the underground were a varied lot. The French Resistance, however, was not as fractured as their Chinese counterparts.

While Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), and some Communist, partisans in occupied cities like Shanghai were active, the Communist and Nationalist leadership, despite their public united front, expended as much effort fighting each other as fighting the Japanese. As Chiang Kai-shek is quoted as saying: "The Japanese are a disease of the skin. The Communists are a disease of the heart."

As for the Nationalists, merchants in the western city of Chongqing (Chungking), the capital of "Free China," profited throughout the war by carrying on a brisk trade in Western luxury consumer goods with their counterparts in the cities under Japanese occupation. Similarly, many Nationalists defected to the collaborationist governments of Wang Jingwei. O. Edmund Clubb, the U.S. consul to Beijing in 1950, in his book 20th Century China observes that Chiang Kai-shek's resistance fighters were singularly ineffective and had "won no victories in guerrilla operations against the Japanese, for their 'guerillas,' once sent into occupied territory, with lamentable regularity defected to the enemy."

Women at War

During the war, Chinese feminists continued their struggle on two fronts. In 1938, Mao Liying founded the Chinese Career Women's Club in Shanghai, which addressed both their society's gender assumptions and the Japanese occupation.

In Shanghai, where public baths were closed to women, members of the club held "bathing parties," during which they rented a hotel room, and in which they sang, danced and ate, as they took turns taking baths. Club members also bicycled around Shanghai in groups, breaking another cultural taboo.

Student revolt against Japanese occupation

Student revolt against Japanese occupation

Members of the club, career-oriented "new women," sought to differentiate themselves from the so-called "modern girls" who frivolously played mah-jong and bought foreign-made consumer goods. In her essay, "Leisure, Patriotism, and Identity: The Chinese Career Women's Club in Wartime Shanghai," historian Ling-ling Lien writes that in 1930s the "modern girl" had become "a 'national problem' not just because of her extravagant lifestyle but also because of her frivolity: her luxury consumption hurt the 'native goods movement' that was designed to support the national economy and boycott the imperialist powers."

To raise money, the Career Women's Players wrote and then staged sold-out spoken dramas that challenged both gender roles (particularly the practice of concubinage) and the Japanese occupation. In his book, War and Popular Culture: Resistance in Modern China, 1937-1945, historian Chang-tai Hung writes that such plays developed in the early 20th century and were "used more as a pulpit to express radical social views and iconoclastic ideas than as a forum for artistic, theatrical experimentation."

The Chinese Career Women's Club also held political seminars, where they discussed subjects like the betrayal of China by Wang Jingwei. In December 1939, Mao Lying, a Communist, was assassinated by Wang's agents, and the Chinese Career Women's Club went into a steep decline.

The Beginning of the End

In a strange chapter of history, following the Japanese occupation in 1937, Shanghai was the one city in the world to which European Jews were free to immigrate, and thus escape the Nazi death camps. They were welcomed by Russians, many of whom were Jewish, who had fled the following the Bolshevik revolution. Numbering about 20,000, the Russians were the second largest ethnic group in the International Settlement–after the Japanese. The White Countess (2005), their last collaboration between Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, is set in 1937 Shanghai, on the eve of the Japanese occupation, and tells the story of a White Russian aristocratic family, a disillusioned American diplomat (Ralph Fiennes), and a bar, The White Countess.

During World War II, about 20,000 Jewish European refugees were settled in what was known as the Shanghai Ghetto, a 1-square-mile low-rent area of the Hongkou District, a part of the International Settlement controlled by the Japanese.

Life in Shanghai changed on Pearl Harbor Day, December 8 (Shanghai time), 1941. Four years after occupying Shanghai, the Imperial Japanese Army finally occupied the International Settlement. The exclusive Shanghai Club–well-bred Westerners and Japanese welcome but Jews, Chinese, women and English grocers need not apply–was commandeered by the Japanese Navy, who cut down the legs of the club's famous pool tables so they could more easily play billiards.

The Japanese army also took over the Shanghai Municipal Council. And while the citizens of the Allied Powers, the British, Americans and Dutch were forced to wear "B" "A" and "N" armbands, many of the foreigners who ran day-to-day operations in the International Settlement remained at their jobs until after February 1943, when they were marched off to concentration camps and interned.

That same month, Britain officially signed the International Settlement over to Chiang Kai-shek's government, in the Sino-British Friendship Treaty, when the city was still occupied by the Japanese. After V-J Day, Shanghai was once again under the control of the Nationalist government. Yet a civil war continued, with Mao Tse-tung's People's Liberation Army locked in fierce struggle with Chiang Kai-shek's Koumintang. On May 27, 1949, Shanghai fell to the Communists, and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan in December.

A year later in May 1951, as thousands cheered, hundreds of counterrevolutionaries–what Shanghai's Communist mayor termed "imperialists, feudalists and bureaucratic capitalists"–were executed at the Canidrome, the dog track-cum-ballroom in the French Concession, where in the previous decade, Buck Clayton, the black American jazz musician, trumpet in hand, had serenaded Shanghailanders, who at the time danced as if there were no tomorrow.

Joel Bleifuss is a writer who lives in Chicago. He is the editor and publisher of In These Times, a national independent monthly magazine based in Chicago, for which he has worked and written since 1986. He is the author with Steven Freeman of "Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen: Exit Polls, Election Fraud and the Official Count" (Seven Stories, 2006).