Almost every city on earth has a Chinatown: London. Melbourne. Sydney. San Francisco. New York. Los Angeles. Chicago. Some place where people of Asian, but mostly Chinese background, go to get a taste of their own culture, food, customs and homeland.
But have you ever considered that halfway around the world, in the very heart of Asia, there was once a similar place for Westerners? Not a colony set up by a European power, but an area of land, a part of a city, that was once home to thousands of Europeans and Americans, who could live there in their own slice of home in the middle of the Far East?
From 1843 to 1943, such a place existed. And this is its story.
The End of the Opium War
From 1839 until 1842, China was embroiled in warfare. The First Opium War. Fought primarily between the British Empire and the last of the Chinese Imperial Dynasties, the Qing Dynasty, the Opium War got its name because of the British import of the opium drug into Imperial China. In the 1800s, opium was used in a number of medications (such as the painkiller, laudanum). But it was also highly addictive. The Qing Government had outlawed the use and presence of opium in China and the British importing this drug into China was in direct conflict with Chinese laws. On top of this, trade between the Chinese and British Empires was highly restricted, something that the British wanted to change.
With the ending of the Opium War in 1842, the British and the Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanking. One of the principal issues in the treaty was that of foreign relations, specifically, foreign trade. Under the terms of the Treaty, the Chinese had to open up various cities to Western trade. These ‘treaty ports’ as they were called, lined the Chinese coast. The most famous one was the ancient walled city of Shanghai.
Shanghai liteerally translates as “On the Waterfront” in English. And because of its access to the enormous Huangpu River, it was a city perfectly situated to do trade with the West. But for trade with the West to be successful, the British had to make sure that their business-interests were handled properly in China. To deal with this concern, the British struck a deal with the Chinese to concede land outside of the city walls, immediately north of Old Shanghai, to establish a trading-post.
The Birth of the Shanghai International Settlement
Established in 1843, the Shanghai International Settlement grew rapidly. It started with the British Concession in 1843, followed by the American Concession in 1844, then the French Concession in 1848. In 1863, the American and British Concessions officially joined together, creating the Shanghai International Settlement.
Within the boundaries of the Settlement and the French Concession (which expanded over the next one hundred years), could be found a slice of America and Europe, within the center of Asia. There was a mixture of Western and Eastern architectual styles. There was a British-style police-force (the Shanghai Municipal Police) established in 1854, there was even a separate governing-body for the Settlement, the Shanghai Municipal Council. Despite the Second Opium War of the 1850s, the fall of the Qing Dynasty in the 1910s and the rise of the Republic of China, the Shanghai International Settlement remained. Westerners flocked to Shanghai to get a taste of the Orient from the comfort of their own little slice of home.
The Nature of the Settlement
One thing that you have to understand about the Shanghai International Settlement is that it was not, in any way, at any time in its history, ever a colony. It was not land claimed in China in the name of, and for the use by a foreign power. The land on which the Settlement was situated, outside (and later on, within) the growing city of Shanghai, belonged to the Chinese Government. It was conceded to the foreign powers for use as a trading-post, and was not considered foreign soil, similar to the land on which foreign embassies and consulates are built. Regardless of this, the Shanghai International Settlement existed and operated as an entity that was almost completely separate from Chinese Shanghai. In fact, it was said that to drive through all of Shanghai, you actually required three drivers’ licenses! One for the French Concession, one for the International Settlement and one for Chinese Shanghai.
The Settlement Begins to Grow
As the map below clearly shows, the Shanghai International Settlement grew rapidly during its existence, taking up both sides of Suzhou Creek and the north bank of the Huangpu River in central Shanghai.
The map shows the growth of the Settlement from 1846 to 1943. The grey area is the French Concession. The circular white area next to it is Old Shanghai. Immediately north of the French Concession is the British Concession, which expanded westwards and northwards to the south bank of the Suzhou Creek (the wiggly line between the medium brown and yellow parts of the map). North of the creek (and expanding eastwards) is the American Concession. As time went by, other countries staked their claims in the larger American Concession which was subdivided into German, Italian, Russian and Japanese sectors.
Life in the Settlement
The Shanghai International Settlement was famous for many things. One of them was the standard of living. Especially in the French Concession, you could find lavish homes owned by wealthy socialites and businessmen. The Settlement was famous for its hotels (some of which still stand today), its nightclubs, it’s casinos and department stores. The Settlement even had its own racetrack, sporting-centers, several public parks and gardens and two shooting-ranges (one in the British Concession, and other in the French Concession). Tourism was big business in Shanghai. Getting around the Settlement could be done through automobile, buses, rickshaws or by using the local streetcar system (established in 1908).
Shopping in the International Settlement was big. Nanking Road and Bubbling Well Road (today, East and West Nanjing Roads, respectively) were lined with restaurants, department stores and hotels. They were also serviced by their own streetcar line, which made moving up and down what was (and still is) Shanghai’s main shopping boulevard, very easy.
The flag of the Shanghai International Settlement
Law-enforcement in the Settlement was provided, not by the Chinese Shanghai Police, but rather by the Settlement’s own force, the aforementioned Shanghai Municipal Police. Modelled after the Metropolitan Police Service (“Scotland Yard”) in London, the force was established in 1854. Chinese officers were admitted to the ranks of the SMP starting in 1864. Together with the police, the Settlement had its own military force, made up of soldiers from the various armies and military-organisations of the countries represented within the Settlement. The SMP had a total of fourteen stations scattered throughout the Settlement. It’s headquarters was located on Foochow Road (Fuzhou Road today).
The Shanghai Nightlife
In the Roaring Twenties and the 1930s, the International Settlement gained a reputation for its vibrant nightlife. Hotel ballrooms, dance-halls and other places of entertainment were packed on a regular basis. Nightclubs such as Ciro’s, the Paramount, Casanova’s and the Canidrome Ballroom were popular nightspots where people could go and listen to American, British and European jazz-bands.
Constructed between 1931-1933, the Paramount is one of Shanghai’s most famous nightspots. This three-storey art-deco nightclub was lucky to survive bombardment during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Second World War and the Chinese Civil War. It was abandonded during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, but was restored to its art deco charm in the 2000s and remains operational to this day.
Along with nightclubs and hotel ballrooms, Shanghai also had the Canidrome. It housed not only the famous Canidrome Ballroom, but also a greyhound racing-track (the name ‘canidrome’ comes from ‘canine’ – dog, and ‘drome’ – racetrack). There was also the Great World Entertainment Center located in the French Concession, a popular late-night hangout. Great World still stands today, but the Canidrome (constructed in 1928) was demolished in 2005.
The Bund is the main waterfront road that runs along the east border of the former British Concession of the International Settlement. It’s famous for its row of iconic colonial-era buildings, which included banks, hotels, clubhouses and office-buildings. The Shanghai Club, the Cathay Hotel, the Palace Hotel, the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (“HSBC”) and the offices of the North-China Daily News (one of the Settlement’s several English-language newspapers) were all located here and the buildings still stand to this day.
Above is a photo of the Bund in 1929. The building on the extreme right (with the pyramidal roof) is the Cathay Hotel. Directly to its left is the Palace Hotel (between them runs Nanking Road; East Nanjing Road today). Two doors down is the North-China Daily News Building. A little further along is the Customs House (with the clocktower) and the HSBC Building (with the dome). The Bund and its buildings are one of modern Shanghai’s biggest tourist attractions.
The Second Sino-Japanese War
Shanghai played a very interesting role in the Second Sino-Japanese War. And it’s difficult to understand how this all works out if you don’t factor in the existence of the International Settlement.
In July of 1937, China and Japan went to war.
No they didn’t.
In actuality, China and Japan had been fighting on-and-off for years. It started in 1931 and it never really stopped since then. There was just no formal declaration of war. That didn’t happen until Japan formally declared war on China and launched an invasion in 1937. Chinese forces were pushed back and after defeat after defeat, the Japanese had the important port city of Shanghai surrounded.
The Japanese invaded Shanghai in August of 1937 in a battle that lasted three months. The city didn’t finally fall until November. But even then, only part of the city fell.
In a strange case of diplomatic immunity and Japanese squeamishness, the Japanese army only attacked Chinese Shanghai. They left the International Settlement in the middle of town…largely untouched. I say ‘largely’ because it was still hit by a stray bullet or two, but the Japanese never intended to invade the Settlement.
Because, while the rest of Shanghai was controlled by the Chinese, the Settlement was effectively under foreign control. And if the Japanese attacked the British, French or American concessions of the Settlement and killed foreigners living there, they were terrified that all the other countries in the world would come running after them. So they left the Settlement alone. Because of this, despite the conflict going on all around them, the people living in the International Settlement continued life…more or less as they had always done. Sure, now there were Japanese soldiers poking their noses into everything…but that needn’t disrupt the black tie soiree going on at the ballroom of the Majestic Hotel down the road.
Because the Settlement existed as a separate entity from the rest of Shanghai, at the commencement of hostilities, it actually declared its neutrality from the war. Because the Japanese wouldn’t bomb the Settlement, thousands of Shanghainese poured into the Settlement, seeking shelter from the enemy. Between 1937-1941, the Shanghai International Settlement continued as it had always done.
The Second Sino-Japanese War did something else to Shanghai. In a strange, round-about way, the invasion of Shanghai was actually beneficial to some people. Specifically: European Jews.
In the mid and late 1930s, with Nazism on the rise in Europe, Jews were desperate to escape rabid antisemitism. Unable to go to New York or London or Melbourne or San Francisco or any other major port city in any but the very smallest numbers due to international immigration quotas, between 20,000-30,000 Jews, mostly German, but also Polish Jews, fled to the Shanghai International Settlement between 1933-1941. The disruption caused by the Japanese occupation of Chinese Shanghai meant that travel-restrictions in China were virtually nonexistent. This made the International Settlement the perfect place for opportunistic and desperate Jews to hide out for the duration of the Second World War.
The Nationalist Chinese Government (the Koumintang or ‘KMT’) was desperate for foreign intervention and support in their war against the Japanese, but, badly shaken after the Great War of 1914, nobody wanted to involve themselves in another conflict. In a show of determination and strength, 423 soldiers and officers of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army barricaded and fortified a warehouse in Chinese Shanghai called Sihang Warehouse. From their position, they engaged in fierce battles with the Japanese Imperial Army, to keep them from attacking the main retreating force of the Chinese Army. But keeping the Japanese occupied was only part of the purpose of the Defense of Sihang Warehouse. The warehouse was chosen specifically as the spot from which the Chinese could engage the Japanese, for another reason…It’s right across the river between the International Settlement and Chinese Shanghai. Western foreigners couldn’t ignore and couldn’t have not seen a battle that was happening almost literally next door.
Even though the Chinese managed to kill over two hundred enemy soldiers, the defiant last act of a desperate and retreating army did nothing to move foreign governments and China was largely on its own for the majority of the war.
The End of the Settlement
The beginning of the end of the Shanghai International Settlement came in December, 1941. On the 7th of that month, the Japanese attacked the American naval base of Pearl Harbor. But it also attacked almost every other country in Asia. The East Indies, Malaya, Hong Kong, Wake Island…and of course…the International Settlement.
Terrified expatriates and foreign nationals fled the Settlement in droves, piling onto whatever ships were available to get them out of Shanghai. The vastly superior Japanese Army quickly overwhelmed any defences that the Settlement could muster and soon, all of Shanghai was under Japanese occupation.
The true end of the Settlement didn’t come until 1943, however. Anyone unlucky enough not to take advantage of the confusion and panic caused by the Japanese Invasion were arrested and rounded up. They were taken off to P.O.W. camps or were housed in the “Area for Stateless Refugees”, a ghetto in the Hongkew District of what was once the International Settlement. The Jews that fled to Shanghai in the years previous (see above), were also herded into this ghetto, although, because the Japanese had no policy towards Jews specifically, they were thankfully spared the horrors of the German ghetto-system.
Realising that they couldn’t hold onto the Settlement any longer, the British ceded the land of their Concession back to the Chinese in 1943, followed soon after by the American, French and other foreign governments. Because of the Settlement’s occupation, however, the handover wasn’t really official until 1945.
In 1949, the Communist China defeated Capitalist China and in the ensuing decades, with protests and revolutions, the Settlement was lost to history. The American Consulate in the International Settlement (which moved FOUR TIMES between 1933-1950), was shut down in 1950. There wasn’t another American Consulate in Shanghai until 1980, exactly 30 years (right down the to month, and nearly to the day) after the last one closed.
Today, the International Settlement is something you read about in history-books, that you see in movies like ‘Shanghai’, ‘The Painted Veil’ or ‘Empire of the Sun’. It was the Shanghai of a swinging nightlife, neon, bright lights, drugs, sex, big-band jazz, decadance and wealth. It was a Shanghai of corruption and crime and greed. The Shanghai of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It was something unique and special…and gone.