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'Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City' by Stella Dong

Take pleasure in Shanghai's sins

Sunday, November 12, 2000

By Michael Helfand


Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City

By Stella Dong



The subtitle of Stella Dong’s popular history makes clear what she wants her readers to imagine about this extraordinary city. And if we miss it, she writes on the first page, “At the peak of its spectacular career, the swamp-ridden metropolis surely ranked as the most pleasure-mad, rapacious, corrupt, strife-ridden, licentious, squalid and decadent city of the world.”

One might mention New York, Chicago and Berlin in the 1920s as comparable (if not superior) in these qualities.

But judiciousness is not Dong’s strong point. She uses a broad brush to paint in primary colors. As a result, much of this book reads like lifestyles of the rich and infamous.

Her history is long on anecdote and fact but short on the larger implications of Shanghai’s history. It is by turns horrific and farcical, but certainly fascinating, as tales of greed, intrigue and the various deadly sins often are.

We learn, for instance, that Sun Yatsen, leader of China’s first republic, had a bodyguard named “Two-Gun” Cohen; and that heads of the most powerful criminal mobs were appointed by Western authorities to be chiefs of the Chinese police forces in the French and international concessions of the city.

These appointments must have given Chiang Kai-shek, the head of the Nationalist forces, and later the country, and others some self-help ideas. A Shanghai racketeer named Tu-Yuehsen (nicknamed “Big-Eared Tu”) had risen from poverty to control most of the opium trade that passed through the port city (after British trading companies gave it up). He offered men and money to Chiang to put down, quite violently, leftist and labor unrest in the city.

The Western community hailed Tu as a hero, and he became a local political power. After Chiang gained control of the government, he named Tu chief of the Opium Suppression Bureau in the city, a position he used to drive his competition out of business. Tu continued to support Chiang using unorthodox but effective methods (blackmail, kidnapping and incarceration) to raise funds for the government from wealthy Chinese.

Dong takes the high road in her descriptions of the notorious night life and sex trades that flourished in the city. Prostitutes, both female and male, of various races served customers of all races and various interests.

Clubs featuring elaborate floor shows and cabarets that hired women as erotic dancers were also common. The large influx of penniless but elegant women, refugees from the new Soviet Union, shook the foundations of family life of Western residents. A British judge attributed a dramatic increase in divorces among the foreign community to these fascinating Russians.

The more respectable social life of the city was not so tolerant or inclusive. Western clubs and organizations, with few exceptions, were segregated. There is no question that the foreign communities, primarily the British, American and French, came to the city to make money.

Forcing the Qing dynasty to give legal control of various treaty ports, foreigners were immune from Chinese laws and law enforcers. While this tactic allowed foreign entrepreneurs to establish trading and industrial empires that exploited Chinese labor, it also enabled radical foreign and Chinese critics to publish and work with less fear of Chinese government intervention.

In fact, as a collision point of several cultures, Shanghai was a source of intellectual, social and political ferment.

Much of the horrific material in the book deals with Shanghai’s crucial part in the wars and revolutions that occurred in China in the 20th century. Because of its location, its wealth and its modern technological infrastructure, Shanghai was a prize for anyone who wanted to control the country.

It was the scene of bloody battles between Chinese factions and between Japanese and Chinese troops in 1937 and after. It also was one of the very few places that would accept Jews fleeing Germany after Hitler gained power. More than 20,000 European Jews immigrated during the 1930s and ’40s, more than doubling the foreign population of the city.

Radicals first organized industrial laborers in the city, and the Chinese Communist Party had its first meetings there. Dong describes this history in some detail, as well as the experiences of the small numbers of foreign radicals who were sympathetic to Chinese democratic and anticolonial aspirations.

The conditions of Chinese life in the city also could be described as horrific. Ironically, we hear less about that than we should, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people in the city were always Chinese. Perhaps this oversight is because Dong used almost entirely English-language sources, but it is a significant distortion in a book that sets out to be an inclusive history.

The book has some errors that are howlers. Dong writes, for instance, that civilian casualties from an accidental bombing in Shanghai in 1937 were the largest in World War II to that date. Elsewhere, she remarks that those same casualties were the largest in the world. There are also a number of typographical errors that suggest haste or carelessness.

For all that, the book is extraordinarily interesting. Shanghai was certainly decadent, but it was much, much more than that. It was crucial to the development of world history during the years Dong describes. And in case you haven’t noticed, it is fast becoming just as important today.

Michael Helfand teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh.

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