Shanghai looms large in our collective imagination. Which is why it's hard to believe that the "City By the Sea" was a backwater fishing village until 1842. What happened? The first Opium War precipitated a sudden change in status. You gotta hand it to the British colonists: they excelled at identifying raw potential. Shanghai's position at the mouth of the Yangtze River made it an ideal trading hub. Once the village was established as a treaty port by the Treaty of Nanking, it was divided into autonomous concessions administered concurrently by the British, French, and Americans—all independent of Chinese law. The rapid influx of immigrants and capital turned the city into a living cultural experiment. By the 1920s, "Shanghai was an exotic stew of Jewish opium traders, Chinese compradors and Viennese dancing girls." The English writer Aldous Huxley immortalized Old Shanghai in a 1926 journal entry:
"In no city, West or East, have I ever had such an impression of dense, rank richly clotted life. Old Shanghai is Bergson's elan vital in the raw, so to speak, and with the lid off. It is Life itself...Yes, it will all be there, just as intensely and tenaciously alive as ever-all there a thousand years hence, five thousand, ten. You have only to stroll through old Shanghai to be certain of it. London and Paris offer no such certainty. And even India seems by comparison provisional and precarious."
These photos capture 1930s Shanghai in all of its glory. What don't they show? The Chinese laborers toiling away behind-the-scenes.
Chinese singer and actress Zhou Xuan wearing a cheongsam in 1930s in Shanghai
Rue de Consulat (East Jinling Road), the rue principale or "high street" of the original French Concession, pictured in the 1930s.
Marine Corps Boxer, Shanghai, 1930s. (USMC Archives via Flickr)
Evelyn Oswald and her son Alan (1930)
Actress Hu Die, photo by Wang Kai Studio