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Foreign Influence in Shanghai

The Whampoa Club, in the old Union Insurance building.

Photo: Andrew Rowat

One Halloween evening, before the great recession briefly dampened spirits in China, I found myself at a party in Shanghai. We were in the so-called French Concession, an oasis of winding tree-lined boulevards and blocks of old European-style mansions tucked away in a city bristling with new skyscrapers. The surrounding streets were empty, marked occasionally by a lone cyclist or a vendor of Shanghai snacks in a scruffy Mao shirt. To step into the party then was to enter a chaos of color and noise.

My American host, an investment banker dressed as Superman, met me at the entrance of an alley lined with art galleries, studios, and cafés and led me to a Chinese-style courtyard that boomed with foreign voices—Australian, American, British, and Mid-Atlantic. Two large men in pink ballerina costumes strutted through the crowd. A woman dressed head to toe in leather impersonated a dominatrix; hip-hop music blared from massive speakers.

Wearing a long-tailed shirt and thick Tibetan beads, I was hoping to pass myself off as an Indian guru; even less convincingly, my American companion in a tank-top was posing as a seeker of Oriental spirituality. We were regretting our relatively drab attire when I noticed Tess Johnston in the melee. She is an author as well as a leading expert on Shanghai’s colonial architecture. “Do you realize that there are twenty such Halloween parties going on in Shanghai tonight?” she asked.

Johnston, who, after a life spent mostly in the Far East, is an expatriate emeritus in Shanghai, looked delighted. The expats continue to thrive in Shanghai, adding their own gloss to the glamour and vitality of the most Westernized of Chinese cities.

Cafés and restaurants heave with foreigners, single white men crowd nightclubs such as the Glamour Bar, and new expat-run art galleries open almost monthly. Expensive primary schools led by expatriates are much sought after by rich Chinese families.

The small boutiques of Changle Lu are full of housewives shopping for Chinese-designed fashion. Schoolkids sip mochaccinos at the Starbucks in Xintiandi, a few yards away from the historic building where the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921. On Sunday mornings, young expat families brunch on the terrace of M on the Bund, Shanghai’s first fine-dining Western-style restaurant, framed against the pink TV tower and other kitschy buildings of Pudong across the Huangpu River. You can see expats shopping for bargains at illegal DVD stores, where a pirated box set of The Sopranos retails for $10.

Beijing has its share of expats, but they appear to have been lost in the city’s impersonal vastness. It is Shanghai—the host of the this year’s World Expo—that advances more persuasively China’s new claim upon cosmopolitanism and modernity: no part of historically insular China was more decisively shaped by foreigners.

Modern Shanghai began life as a treaty port in the 19th century, one of the few places on the coast where Chinese authorities allowed foreign traders to live and work. Built upon the profits of the lucrative opium trade between India and China, it soon attracted people from all parts of the world: Jews from Baghdad, such as the Sassoons, who opened the city’s famous Cathay Hotel (renamed the Peace Hotel in 1956, and recently taken over by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts), and the Kadoories, founders of the Hong Kong–based Peninsula Hotels (who, in a homecoming of sorts, opened the Peninsula Shanghai this March), as well as Sikhs from India, who worked as policemen in the city’s exclusive International Settlement. The Japanese built up the city’s industrial infrastructure; they were followed by other foreign businessmen. Moneymaking took precedence over political and racial hierarchies and made the city one of the freest in the world.

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