Shanghai, by Stella Dong

Published 2000
Review by Tim

"If God lets Shanghai endure, he owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah."

- attributed to a Shanghai missionary

Cover of the William-Morrow Edition Large port cities, wherever they exist, share similar traits. They tend to be cosmopolitan, and oriented toward trade. They exhibit greater extremes of wealth and poverty, of virtue and vice, than other places. Inhabitants of the greatest ports often boast that any item or service, high or low, can be had within the city's precincts, for a price. Only in Shanghai, for one brief century, did this boast ever approach literal truth. In Shanghai, Stella Dong presents a well researched and fluidly told history of that century.

Shanghai's name is evocative of the exotic - of mystery, intrigue, high-living, decadence and depravity; it has also been adopted as an English word describing an unscrupulous method for compelling service. The core city had functioned as a trading port for centuries, as it was favorably situated in the Yangtze River delta, convenient for trade along the seacoast and with the interior. However, it was the years of its domination by foreign powers that brought the place to its full baroque magnificence. The story of how it all started is one that taxes credulity and strains the imagination.

China produced many products desired in the West, tea and silk being the most popular. Unfortunately, the West had nothing that the Chinese really wanted or needed - except for opium1. In the early 19th century, "gentleman" merchants, mainly from Great Britain, were making vast fortunes by smuggling illegal cargos of opium into China. The ruling dynasty attempted to suppress the smuggling, bringing them into conflict with the merchants. In what has to be one of the most bizarre casus belli ever advanced by a sovereign nation, the British merchants convinced their government to launch a punitive expedition, for the purpose of forcing China's rulers to accept "free trade" (the political buzz-word used for opium); an event that is now known as the Opium War of 1842 (a second Opium War twenty years later forced the Chinese to effectively legalize opium imports). Among the rather draconian concessions demanded by the victorious British was the secession of Hong Kong Island to the British crown, and the opening of five mainland treaty ports, among them Shanghai. Other nations, notably the United States and France, scrambled quickly for a share of the spoils.

This was the beginning of an explosive growth in Shanghai. By treaty, foreign nations enjoyed immunity from Chinese law within their settlements, while Chinese nationals within the settlements were subject to the foreign courts. Every law, statute, ordinance and policy adopted for the settlements was subordinated to the aim of making money, rather than the welfare of the people. At one point, during the Tai-ping rebellion, merchants were making huge profits by erecting cheap buildings and renting them at ruinous rates to refugees. Ms Dong quotes one of the merchants of Shanghai, who responded in writing to the British consul's disapproval:

"It is my business to make a fortune with the least possible loss of time…and for this end, all modes and means are good which the law permits."
This was a general attitude among the merchants of Shanghai. All pursuits that were not related to business were related directly to pleasure. There was no thought of the civic weal; "good" was whatever you could get for yourself, for as long as you could make it last. As the years rolled by this state of affairs only became more pronounced. The Shanghai social whirl included the most luxurious nightclubs, private clubs, parties, race meets, various grades of bordellos, every indulgence conceivable, and every perversion imaginable. The modern shopping mall could not hold a candle to the Wing On or Sincere department stores, whose shelves were stocked with fashionable luxury goods from around the world, and whose high-rise facilities included theaters, restaurants, cabarets, and luxury rooms for rent. For the high-society of the 1920's and 1930's, Shanghai was the place to be seen. And yet, barely a mile distant, millions of Chinese workers, the "coolies" and their families, lived in crushing poverty.

In short, Shanghai was the ultimate consumer society. Modern social commentators like Noam Chomsky and Benjamin Barber point to the dangers of rising consumerism coupled with the decline of our civic life; the Shanghai described by Stella Dong could serve as the model for the ultimate end product of what society could become.

Among Ms Dong's descriptions of glamour and misery are the seeds of a growing social consciousness among the Chinese. Ironically, the city which merchants used as their road to wealth also introduced western ideas of democracy and self-determination. These ultimately led to the Kuomintang revolution that ousted the Ching Dynasty, and the rocky road that culminated with the Communist revolution that ended the foreign domination of Shanghai in 1949.

Ms Dong's narrative often shifts from the broad view of the social fabric to focus on individuals. We learn of figures such as the Scottish merchants Jardine and Matheson (in whom readers of James Clavell's novel Tai Pan may recognize the character Dirk Struan); of the Sassoon merchant dynasty, from their origins as advisors to the caliphs of Baghdad, to their emergence as one of the great far-eastern trading houses; of the rebel leader and thinker Sun Yat-sen; of Charlie Soong and his three remarkable daughters; of Tu Yueh-sen, Shanghai's universally feared master of the criminal underworld, who was also Shanghai's chief of police; and of many other figures, famous and obscure.

My only complaint with the book is the map of Shanghai that was provided - I felt that it could have used a bit more detail. Overall, however, Shanghai is an absorbing survey of a great city with a history that was truly unique.

November, 2000

1Opium is a langour-inducing drug made from the juice of poppies grown in India, among other places. Both morphine and heroin are derived from opium.