treasure-house of East Asia'
City of sin and decadence in the 1920s and 30s, theatre of brutal
conflict during Japan’s ‘China Incident’,
birthplace of Chinese Communism and the Cultural
Revolution, flag bearer of contemporary China’s market
reforms, inspiration for melodramatic novels, films and cocktails
– Shanghai is possibly the most evocative city for a visitor
in the whole of China. Beijing may be more purely, mysteriously
Chinese however only Shanghai has such a heady brew of half-digested
images and preconceptions.
As the second city of the oldest surviving ancient civilisation,
Shanghai is surprisingly new. Literally ‘On the Sea’,
Shanghai is a port city on the
Huangpu River, where the Yangzi River flows into
the East China Sea. The used to be marshland until the Song
Dynasty (AD 960-1126), when refugees from Mongol
and other nomad invasions settled in the area. By 1291, Shanghai
was a county capital. The thriving city got its wall in 1553 (prophetically,
against Japanese pirates) and a customs house in 1685. Shanghai
was only thrown into the limelight in June 1842, when a British
seaborne force invaded it during the First Opium War.
One of five cities forced open to Western colonial trade
by the Treaty of Nanjing, Shanghai gained foreign
districts which came under control by the colonial powers –
the British and American Concessions
(combined as the International Settlement) and the French
Concession. This hybrid city thrived as the focus
of Chinese colonial trade and Qing Dynasty China uncomfortably coexisted
with Western power for almost 100 years.
Presently, the Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai’s
Old Town is all that is left of the city’s pre-colonial past.
Colonial is evident in the period architecture in the French
Concession, as well as the grand old buildings –
the Customs House, Peace Hotel
and Shanghai Club – on the grand parade of
the Bund. Across the river from this view of the past is Shanghai’s
future, the Pudong New Area, with the shockingly
modern Orient Pearl Tower, with its museum that
traces Shanghai's rise against seemingly insurmountable odds.
By 1937, Shanghai became the fifth largest city in the world and
unquestionably China’s most advanced, home to a thriving ethnic
mix of East and West and sheltered by its colonial status from the
political storms raging in the rest of China however already swelled
by refugees from the mounting conflict with Japan. In August that
year, bombs (actually Chinese) were dropped on the foreign concessions
for the first time. The Westerners began departing and by the start
of the Pacific War in 1941, there were only few
Western nationals remaining for the Japanese to intern. The Americans
and British surrendered their colonial rights in 1943, to their
new allies, the Nationalist Chinese, who took control
over Shanghai following the Japanese surrender in 1945. But, four
years later, the city once again fell to the Red Army.
Under Communist control, Shanghai’s businesses were nationalised
but the city was fairly quiet until the Cultural Revolution,
when Mao Zedong designated it his power base for
his ‘Gang of Four’ and his campaign
against the Beijing leadership. In 1966, a People’s Commune
– founded Paris-style – maintained power for three anarchic
weeks before Mao released the army on it. Shanghai remained a hub
for Cultural Revolution excesses until the death of Mao in 1976.
Reconstruction proceeded peacefully and, in 1989, Zhu Rongji,
then the mayor, brought student demonstrations to a fairly bloodless
end, unlike the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing.
From 1990, Shanghai once again set the pace for China as the new
leadership began relentless development of the Pudong district,
in an economic renaissance that culminated in China’s
admission to the World Trade Organisation and the
achievement of the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing
in 2001. With Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji
originating in Shanghai, the city is arguably contemporary China’s
de facto capital and definitely its leader into the new millennium
that the Chinese leadership hopes will be theirs.
Shanghai endures climatic extremes, with bitterly cold winters and
hot and humid summers. The best time to visit the city is during
the autumn or spring months.