Today Shanghai is the largest city in China and one of the most populated metropolitan areas in the world, with over 20 million people. But did you know that this glamerous metropolis had an ignoble beginning as a fishing village? It certainly has come a long way to become what it is known as today—the Paris of the Orient.
Historians trace its earliest beginnings to a wall built around its vicinity in 1553 AD to protect the people from Japanese pirates. Until the 19th century, around the time of the First Opium War between the United Kingdom and the Qing Dynasty, Shanghai was considered as a fishing and textile town.
Shanghai later became important due to its favorable location as a port and opened its door to foreign trade after the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. It prospered as a commerce center between East and West since then, and by the 1930’s became the hub of international business and finance. Shanghai continues to be the center of commerce and finance in China, with one of the world’s fastest growing economy.
With its fast-changing skylines with futuristic modern buildings, it’s impossible to imagine that Shanghai had been a little fishing village, but her beginning was an humble one.
China undoubtedly had one of the most sophisicated ancient civilization, proven by ist inventions of paper and explosives, as well as its intellectual heritage in philsophy and literature.
Among many things to be proud of, Chinese consider the Four Great Classical Novels as the pinnacle of China’s achievement in literature, influencing the creation of many stories, plays and movies throught East Asia, including China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
The original concept of the Four Great Classical Novels was already formed by the Late-Ming, Early-Quing Dynasties. In the original concept, Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Lotus) had been listed, but Dream of the Red Chamber replaced it after its publication during the Qing Dynasty.
The Four Great Classics in chronological order are:
1. The Three Kingdoms Period by Luo Guanzhong : 14th century historical novel of an era of disunity called the Six Dynasties after the fall of Han Dynasty.
2. Water Margin by Shi Naian : a 14th century novel about historical outlaw Song Jians and his 36 companions.
3. Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en : a 16th century fictionalised account of the mythologized legends around a Buddhist monk’s pilgrimage to india.
4. Dream of the Red Chamber by Tsao Hsueh-chin : a 18th century masterpiece, believed to be semi-autobiographical, mirroring hte fate of the autor’s own family.
Did you know Shanghai was home to a large Jewish Community during the 1930’s and 40’s? Many Jewish people who had fled the Nazi Germany came to Shanghai since it was the only place that would take them in during the war. For over two decades, a vibrant Jewish community was formed on the banks of Huangpu River in old Shanghai. The unique enclave of Jewish population in China disappeared quickly, however, when most of them left to the United States after the State of Israel was declared in 1948.
Many Shanghai Jewish people made a mark on China, the region or the world. Below are some of the famous Shanghai Jewish:
The Kadoories - This family made its fortune in Shanghai and Hong Kong real estate and utilities; their Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotel chain (including the Peninsula) is among the finest in the world.
Morris Cohen - He served as bodyguard and aide-de-camp to Sun Yat-sen, eventually becoming a Chinese general.
Dr. Jakob Rosenfeld - An Austrian who spent nine years overseeing health care for the Communist army.
Michael Medavoy - Lived in Shanghai until age 7, he went onto a career as Hollywood mogul at Columbia, Orion and TriStar Pictures.
W. Mike Blumenthal - Became U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Jimmy Carter from 1977-1979.
Eric Halpern - With other Shanghai Jews, he founded the Far Eastern Economic Review, and was its first editor.
Present day Shanghai is a showcase of stark contrasts between old and new. The futuristic builidngs and fashionable young urban Shanghainese who work in fast-paced society co-exist with a slow, old world of push carts, bicycle traffic, and back alleys where elder citizens play Chinese chess and ma-jong.
In the old days, people used to keep it cool by sitting out on the breezy streets, wearing their sandals and light clothing. But with the increasing number of air conditioners at homes in Shanghai, the old way of keeping it cool is disappearing as fast as its narrow streets in old neighborhood.
Another old way that will disappear soon in Shanghai is the clothing lines, as the city government banned hanging clothes in public area, in an attempt to achieve more modern and cleaner image of Shanghai before the world Expo in May 2010.
Traditionally Shanghainese have been drying their laundry on clothing lines, often outside their windows, balconies or even the narrow gap between the buildings. When clothes are hung on the lines, they look like multiple flags of different nations, so Shanghainese affectionately refer them as the International Flags.
By the time many nations’ flags fly at the World Expo, the International Flags of Shanghai might be nowhere to be found.
After the Opium war, Westerners began expanding their businesses and trade in Shanghai. Living and working here naturally meant establishing lines to supply the necessities and creature comforts from home, and bringing in expert tailors was no exception.
It is a little known fact that during the years immediately following the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, there was a wave of Jewish immigrants into Shanghai, mostly from Baghdad and Bombay, among them many skilled tailors, joining a small group of British master tailors in Shanghai.
When these master tailors from West became too old to work, they began to recruit young boys from the nearby province of Zhejiang. These boys were the sons of farmers and Chinese dressmakers. They were used to a bitter life of hard work, their hands were small and well-suited to the craft, and their economic situations were such that the prospect of moving to the big city to apprentice under a master tailor from West was a fine opportunity.
These young boys from Zhejiang became the first Chinese Western suit makers in the 1920’s. At the height of Shanghai's Grand Days when it was known as "The Paris of the East" practically all of the tailors in Shanghai were Chinese. It was during this time that Shanghai tailors truly acquired the international reputation as world-class tailors for Chinese prices.
After the revolution in 1949, attitudes towards the West as well as ideas about fashion, conformity, and virtually everything else underwent huge changes. Most of the tailors that could, left for Hong Kong or Taiwan; the majority of those who stayed in Shanghai eventually stopped practicing their trade all together.
Many of the tailors who went to Hong Kong or Taiwan set up shop and took on new apprentices there. Taiwan never achieved the kind of status for tailoring that Shanghai had once had, and although Hong Kong enjoyed a similar reputation for cheap prices and quality work, the Chinese tailors there have since been largely supplanted by Indian suit makers. Neither of these places ever truly replaced old Shanghai for quality.
Today not many would link Shanghai to Art Deco designs. Yet during the Shanghai's first great decade of economic boom in the 1930s, many landmark Art Deco building erected and there were over 100 furniture factories, turning out art deco and post-Bauhaus modern designs, satisfying the needs of both the Westerners the new generation of Chinese who wanted to associate only with the new.
Ladislaus Hudec, a Czech architect from Budapest who was sent to Siberia by the Russians, ended up in Shanghai and designed high-rises such as the 22-storey Park Hotel in 1934, at the time the tallest building in Asia. Another Czech architect, C H Gonda, built the Capitol Cinema, now government offices, and the Cathay, later known as The Peace Hotel.
The years in between war, Cultural Revolution, the sudden reopening to the West have been traumatic for Shanghai cityscape, for much of the architectural reliquary had been demolished. So many beautiful buildings have been knocked down without careful considerations, and many are pessimistic about the outlook for protecting historical buildings.
The Peace Hotel, a historic landmark on the bund, is under restoration, to be reborn as Fairmont Peace Hotel in 2010. It was once the Cathay Hotel, the most exclusive address in Shanghai. Some might remember this building from the movie Empire of the Sun: the young boy, Jim, watched the start of the Second World War, witnessing a bomb dropped near the Cathay Hotel.
Once one of the most extensive Art Deco landscape in the world, would Shanghai be able to keep its soul of the bygone era?
If you want to see old Shanghai, it might be best to focus on the shikumen residences, which is an Eastern/Western fusion style of housing that first appeared in the 1860s.
Shikumen houses are two or three-story townhouses, with the front yard surrounded by a high brick wall. Each residence is connected and arranged in alleys, known as a lòng-tang. The shikumen or 'stone gate’ residences were named after the elaborately decorated stone arches that adorned the top of the front doors. Developers favored the shikumen style as they could pack large numbers of tenants in a small space, and the courtyard--although small--suited the Chinese taste.
During and after World War II, many shikumen houses were subdivided due to the massive increase in population. Once the spacious living room was divided into multiple rooms, then lent out to different families. These cramped conditions continue to exist in many of the shikumen districts that have survived recent development.
Xintiandi is the most famous development, but to see how badly a shikumen residences can deteriorate, you don't need to walk far from Xintiandi. In Shangxianfang Qu, a shikumen development that has seen nothing but the ravages of time, with its narrow alleys and overhanging arches in eternal gloom. One of the city’s best-maintained shikumen streets is Cité Bourgogne, where you can get lost in times long gone by.
The Double Seventh Day, on the 7th of the 7th lunar month, is a traditional festival of romance; in essence the Chinese Valentine's day.
On this night, when the sky is dotted with stars, people can see the Milky Way spanning across the sky, and with it lies a beautiful Chinese love story.
Long ago, there was an honest cowhand named Niu Lang. His parents died when he was young so he lived by himself herding an ox and farming. One day, a fairy from Heaven named Zhi Nu fell in love with Niu Lang. She secretly came down to Earth and married him. They lived a happy life and had two children.
Unfortunately, the Goddess of Heaven soon found out that her fairy had married a mortal man. She ordered the Goddess of the Western Heavens to bring Zhi Nu back.
With the help of his ox, Niu Lang flew to heaven with his children to look for his wife. The Queen Mother heard of Niu Lang’s search, and in anger scratched a raging river (the Milky Way) in the sky with her hairpin. Niu Lang and Zhi Nu were separated on the either side of the river. Niu Lang would spend eternity on one side taking care of their children, while Zhi Nu would forever sit on the other side weaving her loom.
Their loyalty to love and their marriage touched many. Even the Goddess of Heaven was moved and allowed them to meet each other once a year. On the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, tens of thousands of magpies come and build a bridge for the Cowhand (Niu Lang) and Weaver Maid (Zhi Nu) to meet each other. Hence, their meeting date being called "Qi Xi" (Double Seventh).
Huaihai Road, the lifeline of the French Concession, has been known by many names.
The street was laid in 1901, shortly after a westward expansion by the French, which more than doubled the size of the French concession,. It was first christened as Avenue Paul Brunat, after an important French community leader who proposed the creation of a road extending into the countryside.
The name was changed into Avenue Joffre after WW1 for the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army and the hero of the Battle of Marne, Joseph Jacques Cesaire Joffre. Joffre would later visit his own street while touring the Far East in 1922.
In the 1920s, the road took on one of its more memorable monikers: 'Little Moscow'.
Today’s Huaihai Road is named after the site of a major People’s Liberation Army victory over the Kuomintang.
It was summertime on the Bund in 1980's Shanghai. At nightfall, young couples would line the chest-high embankment along the 1000-meter riverside from Waibaidu Bridge to the ferry wharf near Yan'an road.
The lovers whispered into each other's ears, as the water sparkled before them. This meeting place for young lovers was popular for more than 10 years, from the early 1980s to the early 1990s.
At that time, it was common for two or three generations to share an ordinary-sized flat, meaning there was no place for them to be intimate with each other. Parks were closed and there were no bars or cafés at that time, so the Bund was a safe place. Supporting themselves on the embankment railing and facing the river, no one would ever know who they were.
Nowadays, the lovers' wall has faded away, but a new kind of wall is now forming. The difference being that this wall is no longer made up of young lovers only, but also of old couples, families, groups of students and foreign tourists; all coming to enjoy the beautiful night scene across the river.
The Four Beauties or Four Great Beauties are four ancient Chinese women, renowned for their beauty. Three of these women were genuine historical figures, but the scarcity of historical records concerning them meant that much of what is known of them today has been greatly embellished by legend. They gained their reputation from the influence they exercised over kings and emperors, and consequently, the way their actions impacted Chinese history. Three of the Four Great Beauties brought kingdoms to their knees, and the lives of all four ended in tragic or under mysterious circumstances.
Xi Shi ,said to be so entrancingly beautiful that fish would forget how to swim and sink away from the surface when she walked by.
Wang Zhaojun , said to be so beautiful that her appearance would entice birds in flight to fall from the sky.
Diao Chan , said to be so luminously lovely that the moon itself would shy away in embarrassment when compared to her face.
Yang Guifei , said to have a face that put all flowers to shame.