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Titillating tales from China’s perfumed city

by Stephen Mansfield

SHANGHAI: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, by Stella Dong. Perennial/HarperCollins, 2001, 318 pp., $15 (paper)

Great cities deserve the attentions of writers who combine the historian’s pursuit of accuracy with the willingness to be swayed by impressions, prejudices, anecdotes and flawed opinions. Shanghai, that most cosmopolitan of Chinese cities, could do no better than acclaimed journalist Stella Dong as its biographer.

Licentious, proudly rapacious, there was really nothing in its heyday to rival Shanghai, a half-Oriental, half-Occidental hybrid built on mudflats and swamp. Founded on the proceeds from opium, “the addictive drug that Britain was so bent upon selling to the Chinese that it waged a war against them for the privilege,” the city that would become known as the “Whore of Asia” was tainted from the very beginning. The Chinese eventually learned to tolerate foreigners and their nefarious substances, however, because they also injected a more desirable stimulant into the country: money.

By turns analytical and descriptive, “Shanghai” covers the years from 1842 to 1949, when a new command economy run by zealots, cadres and the Communist military abruptly replaced the entrepreneurs, courtesans, gangsters and habitues of the shiliyangchang (foreign settlements) who had formerly defined the city. Dong details the founding of Shanghai and its expansion, while describing the lives of its business community, coolies, criminal syndicates and revolutionaries. Notwithstanding Shanghai’s reputation as a city of shame, both the natives and foreign devils who made or lost their fortunes there came to have a deep affection for the city. Dong’s book is an attempt to explain why this should have been the case.

Built on a soft divan of opium, sex and ostentatious wealth, Shanghai supported its habits, addictions and vices with trade and commerce. The counterpart to all the indulgence and depravity was an obsessive work ethic as unhealthy in its own way as the pleasures and vices that consumed it at other times. Diligent in its pursuit of wealth, saturnine in its pleasures, Shanghai could be an overwhelming experience. Its dual fixations gave it a very special character and identity that was surely immediately palpable to visitors. Like a narcotic, Shanghai was, and perhaps still is, a city of great immersive powers. The will to leave did not come easily. War, revolution, or the ultimate dread of having one’s assets frozen were perhaps the only truly effective incentives to disengagement.

The dynamism and surface scintillation Dong portrays so deftly is set against the feeble, morally corrupt character of Shanghai’s average foreign inhabitant. The fetish for making money precluded most cultural pursuits, with few Westerners taking a scholarly interest in the Chinese. Those who did were considered eccentric. Philistinism among the expatriate community, whose main leisure interests appear to have been food, liquor, carnality and a strangely wholesome admixture of physical pursuits like rowing and cricket, prevailed. Not that the city lacked colorful figures. Dong gives us lively portraits of people like Sun Yat-sen, Madame Mao and the fire and brimstone evangelists and missionaries drawn to Shanghai by their own addiction to sin, or the correction of it.

Dong leaves few aspects of Shanghai life unturned, even including in her peregrinations through the culture of the city a hilarious analysis of the polyglot language known as pidgin English. Foreigners and Chinese resorted to this tongue in order to do business, both parties willingly forfeiting the refinements of their own language in favor of a mongrel shorthand largely unintelligible to the outsider.

In today’s money-driven, pleasure seeking Shanghai, many of its old virtues and vices have made a remarkable comeback. If only a fraction of the hedonism found in another book, Wei Hui’s semiautobiographical novel “Shanghai Baby,” is based on observed fact (as the author has indicated it is), then the decadence of the period Dong addresses is alive and well. The pursuit of wealth and sensual pleasure are still ferociously intertwined, according to Hui’s main character and alter-ego, who, taking in the panorama of Shanghai’s neon buildings, observes that “all these signs of material prosperity are aphrodisiacs the city uses to intoxicate itself.”

Wealthier and brasher than Singapore, more liberal in its social conduct than Hong Kong, the treaty port was an experimental city the likes of which the East had never seen. It was also a place of vice and inequality that symbolized China’s century of exploitation and humiliation at the hands of foreigners. Yet, whether it is the author’s intention or not, the reader of this fascinating account is sure to grow fond of this deeply flawed city.