[Photo story] The many faces of Shanghai over a hundred years

Over a century, the city of Shanghai saw it all. Westerners fell in love with Republican Shanghai, where commerce and culture flourished; Japanese invaders advanced and retreated; communism and capitalism vied for a stage. Despite these ups and downs, Shanghai has maintained a demeanour and style unto itself. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao traces Shanghai’s days of glamour and the front-row seat it had in war, revolution, and reform.  
During the days of the Republic, Nanjing Road in Shanghai was one of the best-known commercial streets in the world. Stores and advertisements lined the streets; advertisement placards announcing sales and discounts were waved in the streets while tobacconists, pharmacies, watch shops and metal workshops vied for customers side by side.
During the days of the Republic, Nanjing Road in Shanghai was one of the best-known commercial streets in the world. Stores and advertisements lined the streets; advertisement placards announcing sales and discounts were waved in the streets while tobacconists, pharmacies, watch shops and metal workshops vied for customers side by side.

Of all Chinese cities, Westerners may be most familiar with Beijing and Shanghai.

Beijing is China’s political centre, where Westerners have interacted with the Chinese government through the ages, and so everything about Beijing city is found in the diplomatic records of Western countries. Shanghai is slightly different. It is China’s commercial centre, with more romance and colour.

In 1860, after the second Opium War, China opened up the ports on its coastal cities and Western diplomats, businessmen, missionaries, and technical persons came into China. Western governments established concession areas in China’s main cities, run by their own institutions, as bases to do business in China.

During the days of the Republic, the Bund area was already teeming with tall buildings and busy ports, and commerce going back half a century. The area was wealthy and the logistics, finance, food, and publishing industries were highly developed. It was not just the foremost city in China, but it also attracted top talents from all over the world to seek opportunities.

A window to the West

These concessions became a diplomatic disgrace for the Chinese, but it was also through these areas that the Chinese got in touch with the latest knowledge and products from the West. The concessions became windows for the Chinese to the West, and the best known of these areas were those in Shanghai, including the zones belonging to the British, French, and Japanese.

The prosperity of the concession areas was not just commercially and culturally attractive within China, but also led adventurous Westerners to flock to China to seek money-making opportunities. Many Western-style buildings went up in Shanghai, whose climate of openness made it a centre for Chinese culture, moviemaking, pop music, fashion, and publishing.

A lively scene at Shanghai’s Longhua Temple (龙华寺) in the late Qing dynasty. The crowd is crammed in a side hall, watching the monks pass in grand fashion, with lanterns held high to guide the entourage.
A reader browses at a book stall along the street during the days of the Republic. Traditional street stalls selling books stood firmly amid Shanghai’s urban noise of cars, trams and rickshaws.
During the days of the Republic, Henan Road in Shanghai was part of the British concession. In this picture, rickshaws ply the streets with passengers, while giant banners hang along the streets.
In October 1935, the Sixth National Athletic Meet under the Nationalist government was held in Shanghai. The photo shows guests dressed in the latest fashion — a woman in a black leather jacket and white leather shoes, and two men in all-white ensembles.

Even the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) made concessions the bases for underground activities, where they carried out publicity and party operations. After Sun Yat-sen passed on, Chiang Kai-shek — the rising political star of the Kuomintang (KMT) — was also found in Shanghai’s Bund area for a time, where he dabbled in stocks and shares, and held a grand wedding with Soong Mei-ling, one of the famous Soong sisters.

The early 1930s saw the US mired in the Great Depression, but for Shanghai, it was a golden era. The Bund and Nanjing Road (one of Shanghai’s main streets) were bright with neon lights and flowing with alcohol. And the glamour of Shanghai did not just make an impression on the Chinese; Westerners also considered Shanghai their sought-after Paris of the East.

During the late Qing dynasty, Huxin Pavilion (湖心亭) was a popular teahouse in Shanghai’s old city area. This landmark in old Shanghai was situated in the centre of the lotus pond in Yu Garden and joined by nine zigzag bridges.
A view of the Sichuan Road Bridge and Shanghai Post Office headquarters during the days of the Republic. Boats sail under the bridge — sampans, sailboats, and Western-style ferries ply the Suzhou Creek, also called the Wusong River — while bicycles, cars, and traditional rickshaws mill around the bridge and street.
A view of the entrance to old Ximen Street in Shanghai’s old city during the Republic. People traverse the wide street in twos and threes, as rickshaws, cars, and trams vie for the right of way, with plenty of stores and signs along the street.

On another note, Shanghai was the economic centre of the Nationalist government, and so it invested heavily in building up the city to boost the economic development of the Yangtze River Delta and the modernisation of the whole of China.

Urban warfare against the Japanese

However, this was also the period of Japanese military imperialism and invasion of China. To shift the international focus after they invaded Manchuria in September 1931, the Japanese started a fresh offensive in Shanghai in January 1932. For the first time, Westerners in Shanghai saw intense fighting break out in the city of Shanghai.

In July 1937, a full-blown war broke out between China and Japan. As the capital of the Nationalist government was in Nanjing, Japan gathered its troops in Shanghai which was close by. The Nationalist government knew its army was less mechanised than the Japanese, and chose to engage in urban warfare in Shanghai, using the city’s urban structures to obstruct the advance of the Japanese armoured troops. Shanghai city was seriously damaged.

Plainclothes Japanese troops arresting a Chinese resistance fighter in the “28 January” incident of 1932. The blindfolded man has been beaten and has blood in his mouth. While his whole face is not seen, his proud refusal to back down in the face of the enemies’ knives and guns is strongly felt.

The Chinese — both military and civilians — paid an enormous price, including human casualties and loss of property, for fighting back against the Japanese invasion. But it also proved to the international community that despite the strength of the Japanese army, they could not conquer China in the short term, or quell the fighting spirit of the Chinese.

Over three months of intense fighting, the Westerners in Shanghai generally sympathised with the Chinese, with Western media reporting extensively on the fighting between the Japanese and Chinese in Shanghai. However, the neutrality of Western governments was soon challenged. As Japan invaded large areas of China, there was a rising conflict with the interests of Western powers, leading to growing friction.

battle of shanghai
During the Battle of Shanghai in 1938, Chinese and Japanese troops exchanged fire on a wide open plain. Both sides fought bravely and suffered heavy casualties. Among some 20 battles over eight years, the Battle of Shanghai was the largest and most significant battle, with the highest casualties.
Japanese troops with bared swords entering a home in Zhabei, Shanghai on 27 October 1937. Chinese troops engaged in intense street fighting with the Japanese.
A Japanese military plane flying over Pudong, Shanghai, October 1937. The smoke below is coming from Zhabei which has been bombed by the Japanese. During the Battle of Shanghai, the Japanese deployed many planes to carry out heavy bombing of Shanghai and also Nanjing, Anqing, and Wuhu. The Chinese air force took off from Nanjing and Hangzhou to engage in fierce air battles with the Japanese.

In December 1941, Japan launched the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought Britain, the US, and France into the war. The Japanese troops in Shanghai immediately took over the Western concession areas and put the Westerners in concentration camps. Hollywood turned this piece of history into the movie Empire of the Sun; Christian Bale, its young star then, is now an A-lister.

In February 1943, after the Pacific War broke out, the Japanese army captured the Western concessions in Shanghai. The photo shows foreigners waiting for rations; life was difficult for them, just as it was for the Chinese.

The new Shanghai

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, prosperity returned to Shanghai, only for the CCP-KMT conflict to begin. In April 1949, CCP troops entered Shanghai — within the year, the People’s Republic of China was established.

In 1946, after the war against the Japanese ended, US military vessels started to dock in Shanghai. The photo shows a US officer walking around in Shanghai.
In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party won out against the Kuomintang. The People’s Liberation Army entered Shanghai and slept on the streets without taking up space in civilian homes, in order to build a good image.

While the Westerners did not leave immediately, they quickly felt that they were not welcomed by the CCP government. Over the next few years, they left this once-exhilarating city that they had enjoyed.

Shanghai itself also faced a tough challenge. The CCP was guided by Marxist and Leninist ideology at its core, and the objective of revolution was to turn China into a socialist country, meaning that capitalism had to go. Shanghai was the epitome of a capitalist city in China, which naturally made it one of the main cities that the CCP government wanted to transform.

In 1952, the CCP government launched the “Five-Anti campaign” (五反运动), to clamp down on unlawful business activities. A strong political slogan is stuck outside a store, attributed to the “Glorious Shanghai team” (沪光小组).
shop assistants
In 1952, a meeting of shop assistants on the “Five-Anti campaign” was held in Shanghai, with fired-up delegates committing to call out unlawful activities by their employers.

In the 1950s, China embarked on many political movements to gradually change China’s economy from private-run to public-run. Shanghai’s capitalists were forced to give up their private enterprises to the government so that they became joint public- and private-run enterprises, and were subject to various political investigations.

In January 1956, the CCP government reformed the system of ownership on businesses, turning private businesses into public-owned businesses via a transition period of joint private- and public-ownership. In this photo, Xindaxiang Silk Fabrics Store (信大祥绸布店) puts up a sign to announce the good news of the joint ownership.
joint ownership
A crowd gathered on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road during the Cultural Revolution, tearing down a sign announcing joint ownership of Yong’an Department Store, and sticking slogans on the wall calling for the downfall of capitalism.

In 1965, CCP chairman Mao Zedong started the proletariat Cultural Revolution, and in early 1966, China’s first large-scale Cultural Revolution mass gathering was held in Shanghai, organised by the CCP propaganda team in Shanghai on Mao's instructions; its main members subsequently became known as the Gang of Four.

In 1967, the CCP Central Committee initiated a mass movement in Shanghai to drum up enthusiasm for the Cultural Revolution. This poster shows the “January Storm” or “January Revolution”, with a sea of revolutionaries happily taking to the streets on receiving a celebratory telegram from the Central Committee.
Young people from two Shanghai factories dance and have fun in the late 1970s, after the end of the Cultural Revolution. The climate became more relaxed, and traditional entertainment gradually came back.

In 1978, the CCP conference led by resurgent CCP leader Deng Xiaoping decided on the policy of reform and opening up, officially ending the Cultural Revolution. Given Shanghai’s previous open business culture, it immediately became a new engine in China’s economic development policies.

Forty years later, Shanghai has recovered its position as an international hub, even surpassing its status in the 1930s. The Chinese are anxious to restore Shanghai’s former glory, but are also facing the future with a mindset of innovation. The Shanghai story continues…

great world
In 1987, the Great World amusement arcade reopened after renovations, attracting a large crowd on its first day. The singer and band on stage evoke the feel of Shanghai at night, harking back to the Great World’s golden age of the 1930s. After reform and opening up, Shanghai’s traditional consumer industry gradually recovered. Rundown houses were repainted, and fresh new signs were put up as the city sought to regain its former glamour.
In April 1984, US President Ronald Reagan made an official visit to China and was invited to give a speech at Fudan University in Shanghai. On the right is Shanghai mayor Wang Daohan, and on the left is Fudan University president Xie Xide. Reagan was a Republican and was politically pro-Taiwan. However, after his election, he actively stepped up exchanges with China, and was the first sitting US president to visit China after the normalisation of China-US diplomatic relations. In his speech at Fudan, Reagan explained US-style democracy and freedom, which made a major impact on Chinese youths at the time.
In October 1986, Queen Elizabeth II visited China, where she was warmly received. In 1984, China and the UK had signed a joint statement for Hong Kong to be returned to China in 1997. The Queen had tea in Shanghai’s Yu Garden, accompanied by Shanghai mayor Jiang Zemin, shown on the right. As the British are well known for being tea drinkers, and British tea was imported from China initially, the Queen and her Chinese hosts probably had a good discussion about tea at Yu Garden.
abn amro
In June 1994, the Shanghai branch of ABN AMRO began operations at its old address in the Bund area. Under the new policy of welcoming foreign capital, foreign businesses and foreigners that had stayed away for decades came back to the Bund, so that Shanghai gradually recovered its status as an international hub.
yu an
A crowd including the media at the opening of Yu’an Building, 1995. A staff member hands out flyers, hoping for an opportunity to make some money from this wave of economic development. The growth of the Yangtze River Delta provided opportunities and carried the hopes and dreams of many Chinese of making it big. In the photo, the enthusiasm for doing business is written on the man’s face, a record of Chinese sentiment in those times.
At a dance performance by the elderly in Shanghai in 1998, these elderly from Hubei sport large spectacles and canes for their self-choreographed Shanghai-style jazz item, with humorous movements amid a joyous atmosphere.
A view of Pudong, 1992. Pudong’s development was a top priority for Shanghai in the 1990s. There used to be a saying: “Rather a bed in Puxi than a room in Pudong.” This was because even though Pudong and Puxi were just on opposite sides of the Huangpu River — Pudong to the east and Puxi to the west — at the time, Puxi was much more developed, with high-rise buildings, while Pudong was just agricultural land. But today, Pudong is full of financial buildings, high-class condominiums, vast green fields, and the best modern roads in the country, with the verve of a modern metropolis.
In July 1998, US President Bill Clinton made an official visit to China, during which he found out more about China’s improvements. The photo shows Clinton in an internet bar in Shanghai. With the spread of internet culture, internet bars sprang up in Shanghai, becoming one of the favourite hangouts of young people. At the time, there were only about 50 internet bars in Shanghai, and the US embassy arranged for Clinton to visit one of them to get to know the new trends among young people. Today’s well-known tech companies such as Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi, Douyin did not yet exist in China, but in just 20 years, China has achieved unimaginable growth in the tech industry.

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