When it was sweaty
A look back at how Shanghai residents dealt with unbearable heat during an era when air conditioners were not yet common
A look back at how the city’s residents dealt with unbearably hot weather before the invention of air conditioning.
The current heat wave in Shanghai has brought more than just scorching temperatures to the city, with residents also hit by a wave of nostalgia as they reminisce about how they survived a similar situation in 1934.
Average temperatures since July 21 this year has been 37 C and the heat wave is expected to continue for another week. But as unbearable as the current heat wave may seem, the current situation still pales in comparison to the one in 1934. Residents back then had to endure 55 days of overwhelming heat as temperatures constantly exceeded 35 C, with the mercury peaking at 40.2 C at one point.
That year also marked the fourth hottest summer in the United States, with 13 states experiencing stifling temperatures of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
The rainy season in Shanghai, which usually lasts for weeks ahead of the onset of the summer heat, lasted just one day that year, according to the Hundred Cases of China’s Severe Disasters in the 20th Century.
The heat wave of 1934 was so serious that on June 26, 61 million gallons of water was used. It was the largest daily consumption volume of water for the year. The heat had also caused the stock market in Shanghai to halt its afternoon trading for the entire month of July.
The municipal government took measures to help people cope with the heat as well — companies and factories were told to let their employees off work at four o’clock, an hour earlier than normal.
The rickshaw pullers’ union also helped their members submit less of their earnings to their bosses so that the latter could buy a pair of shoes to protect their feet from the scorching hot tarred roads.
Over at the 44 air-conditioned cinemas in the city, the movie The Song of Fishermen had an unusually long run of 84 days as it gave residents the opportunity to enjoy two hours of reprieve from the heat for just 50 cents. Because of this incident, a neighborhood was later named after the movie.
Other ways of escaping the heat wave was making a trip to the mountain resorts in the north. For those who could not afford to do so, they resorted to finding a spot in the shade and passed time by exchanging ghost stories, according to local newspapers back then.
The heat had also made the nightlife scene in Shanghai’s iconic shikumens, or lane houses, more vibrant. Right after the sun had set, residents would pour out of their stuffy homes and occupy a spot in the open where it was relatively cooler.
The sound of chopsticks hitting bowls would fill the air as families exchanged food among one another. This was followed by the chattering noise of mahjong tiles as residents entertained themselves through the nights which were too hot for a restful sleep.
The shikumens were also turned into water parks as the lanes were filled with shower basins that children cheerfully splashed around in.
But it wasn’t all fun and games during this period. Local authorities said that 123 people in the international concession suffered from heatstroke and had to be picked up by ambulances in July. The soaring temperatures had also claimed the lives of 52 people, including four foreigners, in this particular area, and this subsequently meant that the funeral parlors across Shanghai became one of the most thriving businesses around.
The heat of summer has made the scenes in Shanghai’s iconic shikumens, or lane houses, more vibrant. People dine, rest and socialize in the public areas to avoid the heat trapped inside their homes.