Shanghai in the 1930s


In the 1930s Shanghai was the stuff of legend. It was a thriving commercial center, but also known for every kind of vice. The boom ended in 1937, when Japan invaded.

While the rest of the world grappled with the Great Depression, Shanghai entered its most prosperous era. In 1930 its population was around 3 million souls, ranking it fifth among the world’s great cities in population. As the city grew in wealth and sophistication, it became known as the “Paris of the Orient,” a mecca for the rich and famous of the era.

Shanghai Enters Its Golden Age

The metropolis on the Whangpoo (now Huangpu) River was divided into three distinct political spheres: the International Settlement, the French Concession, and Greater Shanghai. The International Settlement was largely dominated by the British, while the French Concession was a colony ruled by a Governor General appointed by Paris. Greater Shanghai, which surrounded the foreign enclaves like a giant cocoon, was administered by the Chinese central government.

Skyscrapers, Art Deco, and Capitalism

Shanghai’s wealth created a building boom of unprecedented proportions. There were more skyscrapers in Shanghai than in any other place outside of North America. Art Deco was all the rage, and soon the city’s skyline was festooned with such streamlined masterpieces as the Paramount Ballroom, the Grand Theater, and Sir Victor Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel.

Nanking (now Nanjing) Road was the city’s commercial heart, where great department stores like Wing On and Sincere offered goods from China and all over the world

Shanghai as Sin City

The pursuit of pleasure was second only to the pursuit of wealth. Both foreigners and Chinese patronized nightclubs, movie theaters, and dance halls. Thousands flocked to the Shanghai Jockey Club’s great race course in the center of town, eagerly betting on the strange little Mongolian ponies shipped in for the purpose.

But there were other, more sinful pastimes to be had as well. Opium was readily available, and thousands of prostitutes plied their trade. A criminal entrepreneur named “Big Eared” Du presided over a vice empire that included brothels, gambling, and drugs. In an ironic twist, Du was appointed the head of the anti-drug Opium Suppression Bureau. Du’s Green Gang, a criminal organization some 20,000 members strong, had political ties to China’s ruling elite.

It was a common saying that if God allowed Shanghai to endure, He owed an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah. Bernard Wasserstein’s Secret War in Shanghai quotes a Chinese journalist as saying it was “a city with forty-eight storey skyscrapers built upon twenty-eight layers of hell.”

A Sanctuary for Refugees

After the Russian Revolution anti- Communist White Russians were forced to flee their homeland. Stateless, without passports, they came to Shanghai because it was one of the few places that would accept them. Many were upper- class aristocrats forced to do menial labor. The men often became bodyguards, the prettier women dance hall hostesses.

In the late 1930s a second wave of refugees poured into Shanghai. This time it was European Jews, fleeing from the Nazis. Most settled in the Honkew (now Hongkou) district, poor but happy to be alive and free of persecution.

The Japanese Invasion of 1937

The boom times ended in August, 1937, when the Sino-Japanese War broke out. The Chinese made a stand at Shanghai, but were forced to retreat after a heroic three-month struggle. The foreign enclaves were relatively unscathed but trade and commerce were adversely affected. From 1937 to 1941 The International Settlement was called the “lonely island.” a neutral zone surrounded by Japanese-occupied territory.

Shanghai’s golden age formally ended on December 8, 1941, when Japanese forces occupied the Settlement shortly after Pearl Harbor. British, American and Dutch civilians were rounded up and interned. When the war ended in 1945, China plunged into a civil war, ending only with the victory of Mao Zedong’s Communists by the end of the decade. The glory days became a cherished memory.