I think people romanticize that period and look back on it through rose-tinted glasses.”
This later became codified as the Designated Area for Stateless Refugees when the Japanese ordered an estimated 23,000 Jews and many more Chinese to move into an impoverished 1-square-mile area in Hongkou.
Foreign influence on the city was huge, and many of the financial institutes and other buildings on the Bund have colorful stories to tell from this period, when Shanghai was seen as a “tax haven” in the West.
The Peace Cathay Hotel, now known as the Fairmont Peace Hotel, testifies to the influence of one of the city’s most famous and wealthy immigrants.
Victor Sassoon, a descendent of Iraqi Jews and heir to a vast banking fortune, built a series of luxury hotels and apartment buildings over this 10-year period, some of which remain city landmarks to this day.
Meanwhile, the Americans and French infused the popular culture with jazz orchestras, cabarets and movies, European financial institutions lined the Bund, and Japanese soldiers patrolled the city for subversives and spies.
According to historian Andrew D. Field, “There is a strong continuity from the 1930s till now regarding how foreigners have played an important role in urban culture in Shanghai. This relates to such things as how people consume, and what kind of rituals they engage in.”
“Even though the political and regulatory situation is totally different now, there are still a lot of similar cultural dynamics, especially regarding foreigners and how Chinese look up to and emulate them.”
Qin Yi, something of a national treasure, is considered one of China’s four great dramatic actresses from the 1940s alongside Bai Yang, Shu Xiuwen and Zhang Ruifeng. She married “film emperor” Jin Yan and says she considers Mother (1949) to be her finest work.
We met at the Equatorial Hotel on a Saturday afternoon and she appeared to be in remarkably good health. She still looked beautiful under a layer of white foundation and turned up wearing a blue paisley dress.
She was working on her latest movie, Qinghai Lake. The movie, which she wrote the script for and also appears in, focuses on how two engineers, one Chinese and one from overseas, overcome problems while working together on the QinghaiTibet railway.
The theme of East and West working together seems in some ways to be the story of Shanghai itself.
“The technology and machines used for filmmaking in the old days were definitely not as good as they are today, but the actors and actresses were more devoted to building characters and perfecting their craft than they are today.
“One of the most prestigious places I remember in the 1930s in Shanghai was the Hongqiao Club (or Country Club, near Hongqiao Airport). According to Shanghai writer Eileen Chang, everyone tried to get rich so they could buy some land in the Hongqiao area and build a house there.
“The houses there were mainly for holiday use, and were adjacent to the golf courses. It was where you could find the most villas in the city.
“I was taken to the clubhouse a couple of times, even though I wasn’t a member. (The Country Club house used to be a residence of Victor Sassoon). Activities there like horse riding mostly took place on the weekends.
“I came from a very traditional family, though, so I didn’t socialize a lot or attend all the glamorous parties during that period.
“The Bund was very different from how it looks today, without any of those walls and railings.
“People could actually walk along the riverbank, as though it were a beach. It was also much less touristy. People who hung out in the Bund area were clerks from banks and officials from the consulates.
“The best restaurant at the time was Lvbolang (green wave porch) in Yu Garden. The chefs there made the best xiaolongbao (dumplings) in the city.
“But things went downhill at the restaurant when it was reopened after the cultural revolution (1966-76). The original chefs were all replaced and their traditions and skills lost.
“People back then always had the courtesy to dress well for concerts, with men in suits and women wearing qipao.
“It seems that the trend now is more casual: the more sloppily dressed you are, the more fashionable you appear. In the 1930s and 1940s, the more elegant and fastidious you were about your appearance, the more fashionable you were.
“But overall I prefer Shanghai how it is today, because the good life of the 1930s was only available to a small section of society.
“Most people led miserable lives. It was common to see people starving to death on the street back then. Every time I went out, I would grab some coins to give them to beggars.”
a 94-year-old jazz
Professor Chen was born in 1935 and followed in his father’s footsteps by bringing Chinese music to a new international audience.
His father Chen Gexin penned one of the most famous Chinese songs of all time, Rose, Rose, I Love You (1940), which was later recorded by Frankie Laine and became a chart hit in the United States.
The younger Chen wrote The Butterfly Lovers in 1959 with He Zhanhao. He still serves as a composer at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.
“The 1930s was definitely a golden age for Shanghai. It ranked as the economic, political and cultural center of China. It was the most glamorous city in Asia and probably No 4 or No 5 in the world after London, Paris and New York. I recall the Park Hotel near People’s Square being the tallest building in Asia in the 1930s.
“French culture had the biggest influence on the city. I grew up in the former French concession, which was very different back then: romantic and culture-centric, with lots of theaters and cafes.
“Everything was centered around people’s mental and spiritual life. Now it’s all luxury buildings, big logos and designer shops. Too many.
“Many rich people would hold parties in their homes, but even these didn’t have good facilities inside. We lived in a well-to-do house, but we still had a wooden bucket for a toilet and it had to be poured out every day.
“Power shortages were common and everyone burned coal. Our nanny would complain about my father’s parties because she had to keep firing the coal-burners.
“Shanghai was glamorous in different ways back then. It was famous for its nightlife and banks, whereas now it’s very modern. I remember the first time I traveled to the US after the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76). When I returned to China, everything looked drab and gray, even people’s facial expressions.
“A couple of years ago I went back to San Francisco and it seemed gray. Shanghai has become very colorful.
“The novelist Mao Dun used three words to describe Shanghai — light, energy, heat — and I think those best portray it .
“My father’s song captured the tempo of the city at that time, but when they took it to the West they sped it up, because they still considered it too slow. It has a Chinese melody but a jazz-based rhythm.
“It’s important that both The Butterfly Lovers and my father’s song came out of Shanghai: beautiful flowers need rich and fertile soil.”