Brandon Fisher Nov 4 2019

Pearl of the Orient: A Short History of Shanghai

Shanghai’s historical evolution from a sleepy fishing and textile port on the Yangtze Delta to a fully fledged world-class city has been formed by lucrative Chinese-Western trading relationships, cheap and plentiful labor from rural areas and the city’s relative peace compared with the rest of China in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Shanghai emerged as a popular export centre for the British East India Company in the 18th century as Chinese silk, porcelain and tea became popular in Great Britain. However, the isolationist Qing Dynasty had no desire for Western goods, thus creating an unacceptable trade imbalance. To rectify the situation, the British took advantage of the Chinese penchant for opium smoking by cultivating and importing a superior product from India. When China resisted by seizing the opium and restricting trade access, the industrialized British army overpowered the Chinese in what became known as the First Opium War.

former-french-concession-map (1)

In the resulting 1842 Treaty of Nanking, the Chinese ceded Hong Kong and extraterritorial concessions in five cities, including Shanghai. The British named their new autonomous settlement along the Huangpu River the Bund, which was later consolidated with the American community to form the International Concession. The French and Germans also carved out sovereign concessions, where they were not subject to Chinese law and could trade freely.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, while most of China was suffering from internal conflict and poverty, Shanghai blossomed as foreign residents built up an impressive infrastructure. While the rest of China was entrenched in civil strife, Shanghai developed some of China’s best roads and hotels, its first gaslights, electric power, telephones and trams. The city continued to prosper throughout the first decades of the 20th century, welcoming Japanese, Russians and other Europeans, each bringing their own customs and culture. By the 1920s and 30s, Shanghai had grown into the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city in all of Asia.

It wasn’t just British financiers and Japanese industrialists that were getting rich; gangsters and thugs from all nationalities were able to establish a foothold. The Japanese invaded the International Settlement in 1942 and interned Allied nationals in detention centers until the Japanese surrendered to the Americans in 1945. Soon after, the Communists liberated Shanghai in 1949.

Signage being removed from Wing On Department store on Nanjing Road, 1966.

Signage being removed from Wing On
Department store on Nanjing Road, 1966.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Shanghai was the headquarters of the Gang of Four, who purged the city of the ‘Four Olds’: old habits, old culture, old customs and old ways of thinking. By the time they were finished, the only evidence of Shanghai’s earlier prosperity and decadence was the crumbling infrastructure left behind. When Richard Nixon visited Shanghai for his historic meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972, the city was completely dark after nightfall. Even in 1988, ten years after Deng Xiaoping launched the economic reform era, the tallest building in the city was the Park Hotel, built in 1934.

In 1990, however, the government in Beijing decreed that Shanghai was to be the epicenter of China’s ambitions of becoming a global economic powerhouse, allocating national revenues to store up neglected infrastructure and subsidize business development. Pudong, consisting at the time of a few settlements and rice paddies, was declared a Special Economic Zone. The city quickly changed beyond recognition as it rushed to make up for the 40 years it had lost. Tens of thousands of foreign and Chinese investors poured money into new enterprises and infrastructure, while hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers migrated from their homes across the country to Shanghai to build it.

By the time Shanghai was awarded the 2010 World Expo in 2002, it was a modern megalopolis with a population approaching 20 million. The city spared no expense to impress visitors to the 2010 Expo, inspiring a building frenzy that included a new terminal in Pudong International Airport, upgrades to the Nanjing Lu Pedestrian Mall and the Yan’an Elevated Expressway, new bridges and an underground public transportation system that has now overtaken London’s in size. Shanghai has truly regained what many feel is its rightful place on the world stage.

For a visitor from the recent past, Shanghai would be virtually unrecognizable. Basking in its boomtown exuberance, 21st-century Shanghai emanates a feeling of energy and adventure. This is a city which has no time for nostalgia as it blasts off into the future. Then again, making money through economic adventure and old-fashioned industriousness is nothing new to the Shanghainese. The original characteristics that created Shanghai prosperity are still prevalent today: Chinese-Western trading relationships, innovative and entrepreneurial Chinese and Asian migrants, cheap, hard-working and plentiful labor and relatively hands-off government policy.


View of vibrant pedestrian shopping area on East Nanjing Road.

Behind Shanghai’s modern glitz, there are plenty of relics of the past. The architecture and street ambience of the Bund and the French Concession offer visitors a glimpse of Shanghai’s colorful past, and any visitor who compares the elegant villas of the French Concession to the crowded quarters of the Old City can quickly imagine the historic income disparities of 1920s Shanghai.

While at times spectacular, Shanghai’s incredibly rapid rise can make it feel like the latest thing, a city about the here and now rather than a place with its own character; and at times it just feels like a giant construction site. Either way, Shanghai is sure to dazzle and intrigue any visitor, and it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on where it came from, and where it might be going – since it’s evolving daily and what remains of its past is fast disappearing amidst a sea of change.