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Tales of Old Shanghai: The Glorious Past of China's Greatest City

Tales of Old Shanghai: The Glorious Past of China's Greatest City

by Graham Earnshaw

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The old Shanghai was a rich and cosmopolitan mixture of East and West and this engaging book offers a glimpse into that world through an assortment of photographs, newspaper clippings, cartoons, stamps, and other collectibles. Evoking different eras, this record also contains vintage advertisements, excerpts from travel guides, flyers handed out to ex-pats


The old Shanghai was a rich and cosmopolitan mixture of East and West and this engaging book offers a glimpse into that world through an assortment of photographs, newspaper clippings, cartoons, stamps, and other collectibles. Evoking different eras, this record also contains vintage advertisements, excerpts from travel guides, flyers handed out to ex-pats highlighting Shanghai’s international atmosphere, and often hilarious firsthand accounts from those who had the opportunity to live in or pass through this bustling trade port. The scrapbook format allows readers to either read from the start or flip through to any page to learn of the extraordinary layers and depth of the old-world city.

Product Details

Earnshaw Books
Publication date:
Tales Series
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)

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Tales of Old Shanghai

A Mix of Words and Imaged Bringing Back to Life the Glorious Past of China's Greatest City

By Graham Earnshaw

Earnshaw Book

Copyright © 2012 Graham Earnshaw
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-988-8107-49-0


To Make Money

"In two or three years at farthest I hope to realize a fortune and get away. And what can it matter to me if all Shanghai disappear afterwards in fire or flood? You must not expect men in my position to condemn themselves to prolonged exile in an unhealthy climate for the benefit of posterity. We are money-making, practical men. Our business is to make money, as much and as fast as we can — and for this end all modes or means are good which the law permits."

A trader writing to the British consul, 19th century

Postal Traffic

An excerpt from an article published in The North China Herald on June 21, 1924 commenting on the opening of a new and spacious post office.

The fine new premises built for the Chinese postal authorities to replace the building in Szechuen Road as Shanghai's district head post office are nearing completion, and, by September it is confidently expected will be complete. The congestion in the present post office should be completely eliminated, for the new premises are large and commodious enough to take even Shanghai's postal traffic, — if the term is permissible. Certainly the counter space is larger, the counter in the parcels department being 523 ft. in length, and that in the public hall, 515 ft. Some idea of what this means can be gathered by picturing H.M.S. Hawkins, and chopping off a little under one-sixth of her length; then take what remains and you have the size of each of these counters. The Shanghai Club bar will be no where in it.


All About Shanghai

The opening words of a famous travel guide on the city, published in 1934

Shanghai, sixth city of the World! Shanghai, the Paris of the East! Shanghai, the New York of the West!

Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city in the world, the fishing village on a mudflat which almost literally overnight became a great metropolis. Inevitable meeting place of world travellers, the habitat of people of forty-eight different nationalities, of the Orient yet Occidental, the city of glamorous night life and throbbing with activity, Shanghai offers the full composite allurement of the Far East.

Not a wilderness of temples and chop-sticks, of jade and pyjamas, Shanghai in reality is an immense and modern city of well-paved streets, skyscrapers, luxurious hotels and clubs, trams, buses and motors, and much electricity.

Less than a century ago Shanghai was little more than an anchorage for junks, with a few villages scattered along the low, muddy banks of the river. What it will be a hundred years from now is a test for the imagination. Principal gateway to China, serving a hinterland population of more than 200,000,000, many close observers believe it will become the largest city in the world.

How to Pronounce "Bund"

This is the most mis-pronounced word of all. It is not pronounced in a Germanic way. The word has Sanskrit origins, and the Shanghailanders pronounced it to rhyme with "shunned".

Headlines from May, 1949

Sink of Iniquity — an expression used of Shanghai by the Duke of Somerset in Parliament in 1869. It is not generally known that the accusation was against the commercial morality of the place. The Duke's authorities were naval officers. The Chamber of Commerce considered the question of officially noticing the bad language used, but wisely let the matter drop.


High Lights, Low Lights, Tael Lights

Excerpts from the introduction to a book written by Maurine Karns and Pat Patterson in the mid-1930s, revealing the seamier side of life in Shanghai

PEOPLE have a good time in Shanghai, often because they have more time in which to enjoy themselves than they would have elsewhere, more often because the number of friends that people have coming through, or staying for a short time gets them into the habit of entertaining and being entertained, but most of all because it is apparently a part of the Shanghai psychology to have as good a time as possible as often as possible. Even the missionaries get around, we understand.

Principle among the methods of diversion seems to be the good old pastime of stepping out. This is done by getting into the glad rags, taking on a few quick ones, going to your favorite evening spot, then somewhere else, and so on, and so on, until you wind up at either Del Monte's or the Venus. Then home. Bed, milk of magnesia, and late to the office.

Newcomers to Shanghai, upon seeing the magnificent Race Course often got the idea that this forms one of the town's more exciting diversions. Unfortunately, this is not true. Racing in Shanghai is, in the words of our houseboy, no use. The system of betting is, in the first place, all wrong according to the standards of people who enjoy betting horses elsewhere. In the second place, there are no horses in Shanghai — at least, not race horses. There are a number of animals who might possibly get by in the pony class at a Children's Gymkhana elsewhere, but no horses to inspire a bet five on the nose to win. The horse business, in Shanghai, is in the hands of gentlemen riders, most of whom are at least gentlemen. Some of them ride very well, indeed. A race meet however has the atmosphere of an English fox hunt, and nobody much is interested in an English fox hunt except the hunter and the fox.

Hai Alai, which takes place continuously out in a splendid new auditorium in Frenchtown is interesting, has many followers and is as good a way to lose your shirt as we know of. You can lay a bet here just as easily as you could get converted at the Methodist Mission. Hai Alai is an old Basque game, and tho town is filled with Basquards who have been imported to lend the local game an authentic touch.

Dog racing occurs regularly at the Canidrome, also in Frenchtown. Whippets chase each other around the track after a phoney rabbit and a good time is had by all. Betting is on the pari-mutuel system, the club getting fifteen per cent of the take. Betting tickets are bought in two dollar and five dollar denominations. This is as wacky a way to lose your money as we know of.

For those who like to gamble, the State Lottery offers a slower if no surer means to the big money. A ticket costs ten dollars, a share (one tenth part of a ticket) sets you back a dollar. The big prize is 250,000 dollars but there is a complicated system of less important prizes and one's impression upon reading the list of awards is that everyone in China should receive some kind of prize. We have never known anyone who won a pretzel in this lottery, however ...

No small part of the nocturnal street scene in Shanghai is contributed by the ladies whose commodity is love, cash and carry. Thibet Road between Avenue Eddie the Seventh and Nanking Road is practically infested with these charming ladies from the earliest sign of twilight until three and four in the morning. From one A.M. on, the region around Kiukiang Road and on over to Peking Road from Nanking Road is the hunting ground of the damsels and hunting ground it is. The weak of resistance are the prey of sometimes two and three of the gals who work in a concerted onslaught, grasping the victim firmly by the clothing and doing their best to work him into a doorway or other place where they can compromise him to the extent that he loses face if he doesn't accede. Each girl is accompanied by an amah, who recites her protege's charms, virtues and accomplishments and otherwise negotiates with the clients. Meanwhile, the girl stands by and looks bored. On a warm evening hundreds of these girls are out, filling the street, giggling and wise-cracking at the appearance or demeanor of the male passers-by, horse- playing with each other like high school children while amah keeps a wary eye for customers and police. Sometimes the law puts in an appearance. Then all of the girls, like some startled colony of pygmies at the approach of a giant, take to their heels in a wild rush for doorways and basements and the midnight street is left to the sardonically smiling ricsha coollies, who smile because they know that the only advantage they have is that their trade is not unlawful.


Sir Victor Sassoon

AN INVESTOR of Armenian Jewish ancestry, Sir Victor was one of the towering figures of the Shanghai scene from the 1920s through to the Communist takeover in 1949. He built many of the most imposing buildings of old Shanghai, and was a horse-racing fanatic who once remarked: "There is only one race greater than the Jews and that's the Derby." His ancestors came to power and wealth through the opium trade from India to China, and had their headquarters in Bombay. But in the late 1920s, Sir Victor transferred, as Fortune put it in 1935, "from Bombay to Shanghai about sixty lakhs of taels, which is roughly $85.000,000 Mex. (Mexican silver dollars)". He invested the money largely in land, real estate and hotels, and his gamble proved correct. He built the Cathay Hotel (now the Peace Hotel), and the Metropole and what is now the old Jinjiang Hotel, as well as Embankment House on the north side of Soochow Creek, the biggest building in China at that point. He had ambitious plans for the reconstruction of Nanking Rd, Shanghai's main shopping street, when the Japanese War intervened in 1937. When the Communists took Shanghai, Sir Victor was in New York. He commented: "I gave up India, and China gave up me."



An excerpt from Household Days in China, by J.O.P Bland, published in 1906

To do the Chinese peasant justice, he is usually a decent fellow in this matter of retrieving, especially in a country where foreigners do not shoot too often. To have one's bird deliberately lifted in the open by the Lord of the Soil was a new experience, another pernicious result, no doubt, of the "sovereign rights" movement. As a general rule, unless you happen to be in a district where so-called sportsmen have irritated the natives by tramping through their crops, the countryman will take a kindly interest in your proceedings, advise you where to find game, and help to retrieve a lost bird. And should you express appreciation with a ten- cent piece, you will be none the less welcome when next you pass this way.


The Spartans

An excerpt from Letters of a Shanghai Griffin, published in 1910:

Shanghai is well provided (with social clubs). So far I have discovered the Masonic Club, open only to the members of that mysterious brotherhood whose ambition would appear to be passing through arches; the Junior Club, German Club, American Club, French Club, Italian Club, Portuguese Club, Country Club - the latter is run by masculine women and paid for by nice men with pink cheeks and long, silky eye-lashes - and finally the Ward Road Athletic and Social Club, commonly known as the "Spartans."

The last-named has, however, died an heroic death, owing to the fact that the members could not retain the services of either a medical man or a committee for a longer period than one week. It appears that one of their regulations was to the effect that any member must be prepared to get up and box four rounds at any hour during the night. If it was decided that a certain member was becoming slack, or soft, and not taking sufficient exercise, the committee would advance on his house in a body at about 3 a.m. with a set of boxing gloves, turn him out of bed, clear the room, and insist upon his doing his duty for the sake of his health and the reputation of the Club.

Indians in Shanghai

One of the stranger consequences of the Empire was the Indian community in Shanghai — policemen, doormen, and millionaires. The huge, bearded Sikh policemen were an imposing and frightening sight for the Shanghainese, who referred to them as "Red Head Number Three's". Why Number Three? The best explanation I have heard is that 19th century white British men were constantly exclaiming "I say!" to each other, and the Shanghainese heard it as "ah-se" in their language, meaning Number Three. The Indians were red-turbaned versions of the generic foreigner.



An excerpt from Vicki Baum's novel, Shanghai 1937

The town emerged slowly out of the white morning mist, the gigantic town, the vicious town, the industrious, dangerous and endangered town of Shanghai, the City-by-the-Sea. Foreigners had raised it from the marsh and mud, they had made their pile with opium and smuggling, foreign fortunes had been squeezed out of the sweat and blood of the Chinese coolies. Now it had the wild years of its first youth behind it and was beginning to reflect, to learn refinement and to be a little ashamed of its past. Three and a half millions slept under its roofs, in skyscrapers, in mansions, in luxury hotels and on tattered mats, in boats, in good beds and in dirty, slimy corners. They slept, they dreamt and woke up, missionaries and millionaires, victors and victims, the blackmailers and the blackmailed. Factory sirens summoned the hands to labor, women, children and coolies streamed like beetles into the mills to spin silk and weave cotton. The early airplanes took the air and vanished into the sky. Soldiers drilled, porters carried goods to the quays, automobiles were washed, gamblers reeled from the clubs, losers and winners. Indian, French, Russian, Annamite and Chinese police kept order. Bands of thieves and burglars shared the booty of the night. Banks rolled up their shutters, night clubs closed. Sailors trooped back to their ships, and the brown sails of a thousand junks were spread. Craftsmen of every color and trade bent to their work. Tea was sipped from innumerable blue-and-white cups, and those who were too poor for tea drank hot water. The merchandise of the whole world was unloaded in the port; Chinese compradors did business for foreigners, and foreign money stuck to their hands. At the gateway of that seething world called China, competitors thronged with their wares. Underground conflicts and briberies were carried on between smugglers and customs officials. Students poured into the universities to fill their bellies with foreign knowledge for the benefit of their country and their nation or to their own advantage and that of their clan and family. Muttering priests lit candles and incense, and people of all religions prayed before the altars of every faith. Buddhists, Taoists, Lamas, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons: Christians of every shade and sect scuffled for the souls of the Chinese; and salesmen of all nations scuffled for their money. Like foam on the city's turgid current swam the philosophers and poets, the journalists and learned men, the writers, actors and artists. Ten thousand busybodies ran to and fro between the cultures of West and East, trying to act as go-betweens and explain the one to the other. Ten thousand castaways clung to the edge of society before they went under. Ten thousand who had made good gave them the last murderous push. Ten thousand others fought their way up step by step by infinitesimal degrees and imperceptible successes, with the tenacity of ants and their callousness. Many had come and vanished again. Many had struck root in the foreign soil, founded families and built homes and could no longer breathe any other air than the hot, moist, heavy air of Shanghai. The town gave out a mighty hum, the hum of ceaseless labor. It relied on the industry and sweat of the middle classes, whether white or yellow, those who were neither very rich nor very poor and whose part it was to live through the unceasing toil of the daily round. Their pleasures were simple and cheap: a visit to a cinema, a game of mahjong, a modest meal with friends. New China rioted with gigantic building schemes, with barracks, schools, sports grounds and airports. The old China lived in narrow alleys, echoing with the chanted cries of the coolies and peddlers; it hung birds before its doors, smoked water pipes, bargained and haggled, ate and slept, played and smiled, and was happy. Much blood has flowed in its streets, for every war in the country must come to Shanghai. The city treated man as a stage play and shook bombs and destruction off as though they were all in the day's work. The foreigners had sown benefits and crimes in equal quantities over the city, and they had reaped much hate and very little gratitude. The foreigners despised and marveled at the Chinese. The Chinese despised and marveled at the foreigners. The foundations of the city were riddled with rats, conspiracies and secret societies. The warships of many nations lay at anchor in the river; their guns were not concealed but always ready and visible in war rig or in threat. Would the war come to Shanghai? And if the war came to Shanghai, would the town be able once more to shake it off like a noxious or insignificant insect? From the West and South, Chinese soldiers by the hundred thousand were on the march. In the river six Japanese ships lay at anchor, in which thousands of soldiers had been transported through storm and typhoon to the mouth of the Yangtze Po. The stage was set, the play could begin. Newspaper boys roared the latest headlines in the streets. A little old Chinese sat smiling on the steps that led down to the water near the Bund with a tiny cage on his knees. In the uproar that shook the world he heard nothing but the fine clear summer voice of his cricket.


Excerpted from Tales of Old Shanghai by Graham Earnshaw. Copyright © 2012 Graham Earnshaw. Excerpted by permission of Earnshaw Book.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Graham Earnshaw is a writer, a businessman, and a journalist. He is the author of several books, including The Great Walk of China and Life and Death of a Dotcom in China.

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