Shanghai in the Twenties.

Shanghai was a place to conjure both dreams and nightmares.  The city still incarnated Western power over the rest of the world at the start of the Twentieth Century.  British and French negotiations with the Chinese government in the 1840s had produced the International Settlement and the French Concession in Shanghai.  These tracts were legally privileged and self-governing areas for European residents.  Residents within the Shanghai settlements were exempt from most Chinese taxation.  They were tried by Western courts, rather than by Chinese courts.  Disputes between Chinese and Westerners were tried in a Mixed Court dominated by foreigners in fact if not in name.  The municipal authorities within the Shanghai settlements had legal jurisdiction over all the residents, including the Chinese.  But the settlements also exuded a certain ambiguity and vulnerability that could not escape the Westerners.  They only amounted to a little over twelve square miles.  The exact limits of the Shanghai settlements remained ambiguous since Chinese owned land within the settlements and the foreigners kept trying to extend their authority over additional territory by building roads, water mains, and power lines outside the territory.  Moreover, Chinese made up the vast majority of inhabitants of the settlements.[i] 

Shanghai meant opportunity.  Businessmen came to reap the benefits of abundant cheap labor and raw materials, low taxes, a great port on the South China Sea, and a river into the heart of the much-imagined “China Market.”  Civil engineers came to build bridges, dams, and railroads.  Ship engineers and sea captains came to run the riverboats and steamers carrying the trade.  Bankers, lawyers, doctors, and insurance men—for when the bankers, lawyers, and doctors failed–came to provide their services.  Nor were the opportunities solely material.  Missionaries and teachers came to provide “oil for the lamps of China.”[ii]  The Westerners maintained troops and warships in the Far East to guard their possessions, so there were soldiers and sailors.  People with money need entertainment, so the city drew actors and singers, gamblers and bartenders, whores and pimps. 

Shanghai also meant danger and always had.  In the nineteenth century to be drugged in a waterfront tavern and kidnapped aboard some square-rigged hell-ship bound for the seal fisheries of the Bering Sea was to be “shanghaied.”  Now, a revolution that had been roiling China since 1911 created turmoil.  Shanghai drew adventurers of all sorts, from criminals on the run to “soldiers of fortune” hoping to hire on with a warlord to young men desperate to escape the humdrum life at home.  The police force in the French Concession was in league with the Chinese “Green Gang” to deal in opium in return for the protection of the French territory.  For those with fears of a coming race war between Yellow and White, Shanghai appeared to be a flash-point.  In 1925 the settlements contained about 37,000 foreigners and 1.1 million Chinese.  The total population of Shanghai itself stood at 2.5 million, so the settlements amounted to a great Chinese city under western imperial government.[iii]  The psychological effects could be disturbing.  One Russian refugee remarked that “China is not only an immense territory, it is a human anthill.  Everywhere, in Shanghai, Tientsin, Fuchow, a European feels himself submerged into an enormous swarm of human beings in the midst of which one feels himself defenseless and strange as if he were a creature from another world.”[iv] 

In Shanghai East and West thus rubbed up against each other uncomfortably.  There seems to have been less friction between the Chinese and the residents of the French Concession than between the Chinese and the Anglo-Saxon residents of the International Settlement.  The French assumed that this arose from their own lack of overt racism; the British and the Americans assumed it was because the French were slimy and willing to retreat from any principle in pursuit of gain.  In any event, many rich Chinese maintained a house in the French Concession, either because the services were good and the area quiet, or because they wanted a bolt hole in case of trouble in the Chinese city.  In the French Concession Chinese dressed in Western clothing were allowed to enter the public park, but anyone not dressed as a Westerner was banned.  Conversely, the professors at the Jesuit-run Aurora University on the Avenue Dubail, wore long beards, presumably to associate themselves with the wisdom of the ancients in the minds of their Chinese pupils.[v] 


[i] Albert Feuerwerker, The Foreign Establishment in China in the Early Twentieth Century (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1976), pp. 3, 5.   The International Settlement occupied 8.35 square miles; French concession, 3.9 square miles. 

[ii] The phrase comes from the title of one of the books about Westerners in China by Alice Tisdale Hobart (1882-1967).  Married to a Standard Oil company executive working in China during the 1920s, Hobart drew on her own experiences in a series of novels and non-fiction works: Pioneering Where the World is Old (1917); By the City of the Long Sand (1926); Within the Walls of Nanking (1928); Pidgin Cargo (1929); and Oil for the Lamps of China (1933).  The latter became a best-seller in 1934 and was made into a popular movie. 

[iii] Nicholas R. Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire: Westerners in Shanghai and the Chinese Revolution of the 1920s (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for Middlebury College Press, 1991), p. 40.   There were 29,848 foreigners and 810,378 Chinese in the International Settlement; there were 7,790 foreigners and 289,210 Chinese in the French Concession. 

[iv] George C. Guins, “Interview,” University of California Oral History Archive, 1966, p. 273. 

[v] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, pp. 26-27, 58, 64. 

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