Writer’s Wednesday

Today Clare Kane, author of Electric Shadows of Shanghai, has written a guest post about the walk that she led around Shanghai earlier this month.

City Of Sin: Discovering Shanghai’s Hidden Past

Shanghai: Are there two more evocative syllables in the English language? From today’s gleaming skyscrapers to the dark, velvety cabarets of decades past, Shanghai has long been synonymous with glamour and worldliness.

But that’s only part of the story. In the roaring 20s and 30s Shanghai was known as the Paris of the East, thanks to its population of stylish sophisticates and array of cosmopolitan entertainments. But in quieter tones the former free port was referred to as the Whore of the Orient…and with good reason.


The group outside the Astor House Hotel – spot the bride having her picture taken behind us!

On a recent overcast October morning I set out on a walk around the city’s hidden gambling joints, opium dens and sing-song houses. In partnership with Hi-Tec Shanghai Walker, I led fifteen time-travelling tourists around the darker side of Old Shanghai, stopping at exactly the kind of long-shuttered establishments the characters in my novel Electric Shadows Of Shanghai liked to frequent.

You too can discover Shanghai’s hidden underbelly with a walk around some of downtown’s most salacious spots.

Blood Alley: This small road, now the innocuous Xikou Lu and previously known as Rue Chu Pao San, was described by one British journalist as “a thoroughfare entirely dedicated to wine, women, song and all-night lechery”. A stone’s throw from the bright lights of the Bund, Blood Alley was where Shanghai entertainment circled the drain. Popular with the navy and other servicemen, the small street was home to bars like Manhattan and Silver Dollar, casinos and cabarets. Drinkers came here for two things: a punch-up (the Brits and Americans were apparently most given to a bit of scrapping) and women, with many of the taxi dancers likely to have been White Russian emigres, like some of the characters in Electric Shadows.

The Great World: This former entertainment complex now lies hauntingly empty (though construction noise suggests it may open its doors once again). The Great World offered four floors of every type of entertainment, from gambling to opera and prostitution to acrobatics. The highlight for one French journalist was a pregnant six-year-old. And when notorious Shanghai gangster Pockmarked Huang took over the Great World in the 30s the complex became even more entangled with criminal elements.

 Walk 2.jpg

Shanghai Municipal Police Building: At the corner where book street Fuzhou Lu meets Jiangxi Lu, this imposing building was home to men of various nationalities tasked with maintaining law and order in Shanghai’s International Settlement. The force of around 6,000 men hailing from China, Britain, Ireland, Russia and Germany lived in dormitories here, while prisoners occupied cells below them. And these coppers certainly had their work cut out for them. Nobody needed papers or passports to come to Shanghai in the 1930s and as a result the city attracted its fair share of scamps, petty criminals and fortune hunters. That’s not to say the police necessarily disapproved of citizens’ nocturnal behaviour – at one point the SMP had to put out a notice advising officers only to visit brothels when carrying out their duties!

Peace Hotel: The Peace Hotel on East Nanjing Road was one of the world’s premier hotels when it opened as the Cathay in 1929. The hotel was owned by the wealthy and well-known Shanghai businessman Victor Sassoon. Sassoon, a racing aficionado with an eye for actresses, was Shanghai’s Gatsby, famed for his lavish parties and unbounded generosity (he once gave New Yorker writer Emily Hahn a Chevrolet). He wanted to build the best hotel in the world, and the Cathay didn’t disappoint. With spring water pumped directly to the rooms, air conditioning and staff that could be commanded simply by picking up the telephone, Sassoon’s creation was popular with visiting celebrities and Noel Coward famously wrote Private Lives while sick with flu in one of the Cathay’s suites.

But Sassoon wasn’t all froth and fizz. When European Jews fled Nazism for the safer shores of Shanghai, Sassoon turned over seven floors of his luxury apartment building Embankment House to refugees, feeding and clothing new arrivals and helping them find jobs.

 Walk 3.jpg – On the move down Shantou Lu

Because nowhere did Oscar Wilde’s words ring more true than in Shanghai at its grimiest and most glittering:

“Every saint has a past while every sinner has a future.”


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