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

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By XU JUNQIAN in Shanghai xu­jun­qian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.

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