The English name “Canidrome” is a composition of cani- (dog) and drome (race course). The Canidrome was also bylined the “Rendezvous for Shanghai’s Elite”. Yet the Chinese pronunciation of the word “Canidrome” can be understood as “to see you become poor” since at that time, a lot of people in Shanghai lost all their money gambling at the dog races.
Located on Rue Lafayette (now Fuxing Zhong Lu) it occupied a large portion of the block formed by what are today Jianguo Lu, Shaanxi Lu, Fuxing Lu and Maoming Lu in the former French Concession.
The venue with multiple facilities including a stadium and ballroom, was built in 1928 and the stadium could seat 50,000 spectators. The entire site was under French jurisdiction in the French Concession, its stadium was the largest of 3 stadiums in Shanghai, It was largely financed by Henry E. Morris, Jr., proprietor of the North China Daily News.
Often regarded to as one of the largest dance floors in Asia, the Canidrome’s open-air ballroom was mostly a facility limited to elitist Westerners. The ability for Shanghai’s elite citizens to get their foot in the door of the Canidrome was a symbol of their social status.
The timing was good. African-American musicians after World War 1 were flourishing in Paris. But in June 1933 France enacted the so-called “10% law”. Enacted in the wake of the onset of the Great Depression in Europe the law restricted the number of foreign musicians employed by an establishment to 10%. This caused a lot of unemployment and many musicians found themselves unemployed which encouraged African-American entertainers to travel to Shanghai.
The Canidrome ballroom headlined many African-American acts, mostly in the dance and jazz music genres, including opening with members of the old Jack Carter band forming the nucleus of was considered the best dance orchestra in the Orient. This band included African-American Teddy Weatherford, Shanghai’s most popular pianist; Jimmy Carson, “That Croonin’ Saxophonist,” and Mendex Lewis, the trumpeter who can play tears into the eyes of anyone.
Later in 1931, Waldmar Volsky and his Midnight Frolics headlined with music by Teddy Wetherford and his Twelve Singing Syncopators along with vocal refrains by Al Baldwin. (he worked in Shanghai shows for 6 years)
In 1933, the Midge Williams and her “Williams Quartette” performed at the Canidrome. Other headline acts included Bob and Teddy Drinkard.
In 1334, the ballroom engaged American jazz all-black band Buck Clayton’s Harlem Gentlemen. The venue offered plenty of variety— a castanet dance, a tiller dance, a hornpipe, a hula, a prize fight pantomime, songs, an eccentric jazz dance and an ensemble strut, the latter by the Six Hollywood Blonds and young singer and dancer, Kenneth Willmarth accompanied Buck Claytons orchestra.
Buck Claytons contract was terminated in 1937 after a fisticuff brawl with local ex-American sailor, then Shanghai gambling mobster Jack Riley. A new, white American band— Nathan Rabin’s Champions replaced Buck Clayton. Buck Clayton’s Harlem Gentlemen stayed n Shanghai and opened his show at the Ladow’s Casanova Cabaret.
Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Soong Mei-ling (宋美齡) and her sister Soong Ai-ling (宋蔼龄), were regulars at the Canidrome.
The outbreak of the Pacific War and the occupation of the French Concession by the Japanese in December 1941 led to the Canidrome ceasing operation.
During the Japanese occupation, the grounds were used to stable horses by the Imperial Japanese Army.
At the end of the war, in 1945, the nationalist government that resumed control of Shanghai did not permit greyhound racing to resume, but the Canidrome was used for sporting and entertainment purposes.
For many years, boxing tournaments were presented.
Soccer matches were also staged. On March 15, 1941 a game between the Shanghai Municipal Police and a Chinese team turned into a riot, causing 20,000 Chinese spectators to flood the field and numerous injuries reported.
School sports meets and rugby games between Shanghai and Hong Kong were held there. The US military based in Shanghai played lots of American football games there.
On December 1, 1945, the Shanghai Stars and Stripes paper sponsored football teams drawn from the United States Army and Navy to play a game at the Canidrome, billed as the “China Bowl” before 10,000 wildly enthusiastic GI’s. Preparation training on the race course the day prior was abandoned since the city government were executing criminals that day on the field. Military uniforms were mandatory dress code. About 20,000 hot dogs and doughnuts were passed out by the Red Cross. Navy won by a score of 12-0.
The festivities that day included a “Derby Race” of 19 women posing as jockeys in flower decorated rickshaws, pulled by local Chinese (coolies) from the bund’s Navy jetty, down Nanking Lu to Seymour Lu to the finishing line in the Canidrome about 30 minutes later (~ 3½ miles), with a crown of “Miss Ricksha of 1945” and “Queen of the Army-Navy Game” along with a silver cup and prize money of CRB $2,000,000 (~ about USD $400 today). Won by June Nergaard and ‘Coolie’ Paavo-Nurmi Wong. Estimates of spectator crowd size reached about 1,5 million in the streets
, famed Broadway composer of major musical hits such as Cabaret
was stationed in Shanghai with the United States Merchant Marine Cadet Corps in 1945 until January 1946, and told me that he attended the Canidrome ‘China Bowl’ and associated Derby, along with other events there. John also played piano in a Russian brothel in Shanghai for 3 days — “it was the warmest place in Shanghai because there were no radiators and everybody aboard his ship was there
” he said.
In 1949, the name was changed to the Shanghai Cultural Square.
From 1949–1976 it was used as a political meeting hall and a mass execution facility. Public trial meetings held in the Canidrome were referred to as “The Shanghai Enlarged Joint Meeting of People’s Representatives’ Conference“. During the Cultural Revolution, the site became a venue for public meetings, where Red Guards and other agitators denounced “class enemies” and figures of authority. Political rallies, and Mao himself would take to the stage
The Canidrome and race course were places where mass executions took place in the hands of the Communist Party, killing hundreds each day. In April 1951, more than 3,000 people were arrested and herded to the Canidrome. On May 1, for example, 500 executions were announced. The city police, helped by communist political police, in a single night arrested an estimated 24,000 Chinese, and dragged them off to camps in Shanghai’s outskirts.
Among the arrested were former Kuomintang officials, school-teachers, religious leaders, non-communist union leaders, property owners, newspaper workers, factory managers, and students.
Those to be executed were selected by a committee of 24 communist-appointed “civic leaders”. The Xinhua News Agency reported that Shanghai high-school students marched beside the prisoners on their way to execution beating gongs and drums, and chanting: “Kill nice! Kill them well! Kill all of them!“. At the time 10,000 people gathered and demanded the death of the accused in a unanimous roar.
The Communist government purchased the grounds in 1952 and re-constructed the Canidrome. The entire race-course was converted into an indoor venue with a capacity of 15,000 people in 1954, along with a semi-open convention space for political assembly. From 1954 to 1966, over 600 conventions (mainly government rallies) were held involving more than 2 million citizens. The existing grandstand, including its auditorium, was retained. Part of the site became the Shanghai Chinese Opera School.
In 1969, during the chaos of the early Cultural Revolution, the site was largely destroyed by a massive fire that could be seen throughout the city, in which 14 people lost their lives, and destroyed many of the buildings at the Cultural Plaza. Much of it was reconstructed in 1970 when former Premier Zhou Enlai made a handwritten instruction to rebuild the Cultural Square. The reconstruction was completed after 83 days. With a floor space of 5,700 square meters, the indoor auditorium was erected without a single floor column. The main auditorium was known for a vast unobstructed space and had huge electric fans to keep the air moving
For the 20 years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Cultural Plaza served a number of purposes. Its auditorium was used as performance space for films and theatre. The North Korean opera, Flower Girl from Pyongyang and the ballets, Swan Lake performed by the Panasonic Theater from Japan and repertoire from Moscow National Theater Ballet were the popular shows during this time.
The large covered space built over the former Canidrome also served as a versatile exhibition space with a conference venue, often housing political conferences and meetings.
Beginning from the 1980s, the Shanghai Municipal Government began discussing the redevelopment of the Cultural Plaza area. Decades of neglect had left the buildings in the precinct in need of repair. Construction in the area since 1949 had lacked overall planning. Its former role as a space for political meetings had diminished in significance, while its role as a performance space had been superseded by newer or better facilities. In 1988 the entertainment venue closed after a performance from the Brigham Young University Troupe.
In the summer of 1992, the Cultural Square was converted into a temporary stock exchange.
In 1997, this area became the location of the Shanghai Flower Market accounting for 70% to 80% of the city’s annual consumption and making it the largest flower trade market in east China.
In 2003, a series of international design competitions were held. A plan was adopted to rebuild the area as a park. Certain elements of the original structures would be retained, including the long-span space frame structure over the auditorium, which was, at the time of its construction, the longest such span in the Far East.
The original grandstand, along with most of the other structures in the area were demolished in 2005, making way for today’s Shanghai Cultural Square Theatre.