Loved as the Paris of the East or reviled as the Whore of the Orient, Shanghai has had a chequered history. China’s eastern coastal megalopolis of Shanghai (Hu for short), situated on the estuary of Yangtze River, began as a fishing village in the 11th century, but by the mid-18th century it was an important area for growing cotton and by the 1800s it was becoming the largest city in China, a position that led to frequently unwelcome intervention from foreigners seeking to impose their exports on the Empire during the nineteenth century.
During the early 1900s, Shanghai attracted many entrepreneurs and established businesses. Around the same time, opium sales along with the gambling and prostitution that went with it brought in very big profits. Foreigners came into Shanghai due to foreign trade after the Opium Wars. Shanghai was the largest and most prosperous city in the Far East during the 1930s. During the first half the twentieth century, Shanghai was the only port in the world to accept Jews fleeing the Holocaust without an entry visa. The British, along with the Americans and French, were allowed to live in certain territorial zones without being under the Chinese laws. As a result of all the foreigners, Shanghai became greatly influenced by Western culture. After the end of Shanghai’s subjugation by the Japanese, the Nationalist Chinese government was given control of the city. The foreigners no longer had control and by 1949, Shanghai was transformed by the Communist Chinese government.
Things then changed dramatically after Communism took over. As the foreigners left, the businesses that were left behind were one by one taken over by the government. After losing ground during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, Deng Xiaopeng’s open door policy allowed for the advancement back to being an international force in business and finance. Now the good times are rolling again as China’s economic boom has lifted Shanghai from the doldrums and given this city of 27 million people a high-tech makeover of mammoth proportions. Shanghai hosted the World Expo in 2010. After the building boom, Shanghai is now relatively easy to navigate by taxi, metro and on your own feet. The face of the city constantly evolves weekly as roads are ripped up, subway lines added, and new skyscrapers built.
Many foreigners chose to live, give lectures or just experience the Chinese charm in Shanghai. They included Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Czar Nicholas II, Prince of Siam, Aga Khan, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Doris Duke, George Vanderbilt and Bernard Shaw to name but a few.
Shanghai’s cosmopolitan past has given the city an eclectic architectural heritage. The historic shikumen houses of the now-trendy Xintiandi area fuse Chinese style with European design flair, and the city also has one of the richest collections of art deco buildings in the world. As a result of the numerous Concessions (designated districts) granted to Western powers at the turn of he 20th century, Shanghai sometimes has the feel of Paris or London, while Tudor style buildings give a German flair, and the 1930’s buildings put you in New York or Chicago. Nowhere else in China is the contrast between old and new China so striking – sidestep from a glittering shopping parade into a narrow pedestrian alley and 15 seconds later you are in another world. Housewives dry their laundry outside, beat carpets and take more than a few breaks to gossip and laugh with neighbors.
Shanghai is bisected by the Huangpu River, with the older town (Puxi) on the west bank and most of the brash new development on the east side (Pudong). The space-age Pudong skyline is dominated by the bold (some might say hideous) skyscrapers of the Lujiazui Financial District