The French Concession at Shanghai was very modern in terms of its appearances and services, but was home to comparatively few businesses. Consequently, rents and property values were lower here than in the International Concessions. Not a few rich Chinese merchants had built opulent homes in the French Concession because of the superior services and policing compared to the rest of Shanghai.[i] The better-off among the Russians often settled along the plane tree-lined Avenue Joffre in the western part of the concession, which became known as the “Russian concession.” Here there were many Russian restaurants, cabarets, bakeries, and shops, all with signs in Cyrillic over their doors.[ii]
Few of the Russian refugees arrived with the resources to start a new life, but many of them managed to thrive over the years.[iii] The prosperity of the European population, the vitality of commerce in the great trading port, and the absence of the sort of professional restrictions on the immigrants which prevailed in European countries allowed the refugees to make a better living than was commonly the case for the Russian refugees in Europe or America.[iv] Valentin Fedoulenko, who ran a successful pharmacy in the French Concession, recalled the favorable business conditions that made prosperity possible. “Credit there was rather easy to obtain from the Chinese firms. But the condition was that everything must be paid [back] within one year; if you didn’t pay within one year then you never got any more credit. If you did pay back within one year then you had complete respect and you had all the money you ever needed.” In addition, “We had almost no taxes to pay and life was truly remarkable for a long time. We did not know such a thing as income tax up to the end, when the merchants had to pay a tiny percentage of their income.” There was a sham quality to this glitter of success however. “In Shanghai money was unstable and we were taught not to hoard it but rather to spend it.” Inflationary conditions bred inflationary behavior. “All of this trade was based on very easy credit. As we used to call it in Shanghai, this was business sucked out of one’s own thumb. Many of our merchants who gave the appearance of being very wealthy were in fact quite poor but lived and operated on credit.”[v]
According to a 1925 census of the foreign settlements in Shanghai, there were only about 4,000 White Russians living within the privileged areas. From 6,000 to 10,000 more, the much less successful, lived in Chinese Shanghai.[vi] The prosperity attained by some allowed them to escape the oppressive heat of the Shanghai summers by vacations at one of the northern Chinese ports. These cities– Peitaiho, near the Gulf of Chili, and Tsingtao and Chefoo, on the Shantung peninsula–became popular summer vacation spots for White Russians in Shanghai with the means to afford it. The upper crust brought their marriageable daughter there in hopes of finding a match with a British or American naval officer; the Shanghai prostitutes hoped to do a profitable trade with sailors on shore-leave.[vii] Tsingtao became known as the “Brighton of the Far East” because of its cool climate, a beautiful beach on the Yellow Sea, and the large Strand Hotel.[viii]
A favorite place for relaxation among Shanghai’s foreign population—including the White Russians–was the Cercle Sportif Français which admitted interesting Chinese and women. It had a dance floor and an excellent restaurant, a swimming pool and tennis courts, and a roof garden in the form of a pagoda.[ix]
[i] Miller, Shanghai on the Metro, p. 241.
[ii] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 64; Sergeant, Shanghai, p. 36.
[iii] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 64.
[iv] Stephan, The Russian Fascists, p. 35.
[v] Fedoulenko, “Russian Émigré Life in Shanghai,” pp. 53, 59, 84.
[vi] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, p. 41.
[vii] Stephan, The Russian Fascists, p. 36.
[viii] Feuerwerker, The Foreign Establishment in China, p. 18.
[ix] Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire, pp. 72, 160.