Fleeing the Russian Revolution across Siberia, thousands of White Russians eventually settled in Shanghai. Turned away almost everywhere in the world, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany found a hospitable home in the city between 1938 and 1941—Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, was born to a family of Chinese Jews.
In the twenties and thirties, when one of its currencies was Mexican (due to old trading links with the Philippines), its policemen Sikh, and its prostitutes Russian, Shanghai was one of the great global cities in the world—even more so than London or New York. These years before the Second World War were a time of celebration. In the Chinese quarter of the city, mafia dons may have been fighting turf wars and the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, conducting brutal purges of Communists. But little of this violence and chaos touched the International Settlement. Jazz bands played fox-trots and jitterbugs at the Tudor-style bar in the Cathay Hotel (where Noël Coward wrote Private Lives). Even the Japanese invasion of China, which began in the early 1930’s, didn’t break the mood in the International Settlement. (The Japanese moved to intern Europeans and Americans in the city only after their attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.)
After the Communist takeover in 1949, the Paris of the East sunk into drabness and austerity, and it was not until China’s economic reforms, which began in the early 1980’s, that the expats returned. The more liberal economic and social climate encouraged thousands of Australians, Americans, and Europeans to move to Shanghai, following a huge influx of Taiwanese.
In the late 1980’s, historian Lynn Pan told me, Shanghai had yet to emerge from decades of Communism and still struck foreigners as an alien city. Many early expatriates didn’t venture out much, living or socializing at the Portman Hotel, on Nanjing Road, the first high-end hotel in Shanghai, and working at the adjacent Shanghai Centre. In the mid 1990’s, they began to spread across the city.
Shanghai now attracts some of the best talents from the large Chinese diaspora spread across Southeast Asia. Jereme Leung, the founding chef of Whampoa Club, one of the trendy new restaurants in the old Shanghai Club building, was enjoying a great reputation in Malaysia and Singapore when, seven years ago, he decided to move to Shanghai and open a restaurant devoted to local cuisine. He said he saw Shanghai as a challenge: “This is the most exciting city in Asia today. Just look at it!” he said, pointing to the glittering Pudong skyline, where the Jinmao Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, already seems to possess the iconic status of Rockefeller Center.
The new bars and restaurants on the Bund are still obliged by local authorities to fly the Chinese flag. But even the bright red cloth emblazoned with stars seems to add to the general impression of capitalist gaiety. And it is possible for expatriates to retreat entirely from the flashy present into the sepia-tinted Shanghai of the pre-Communist era—in the style commemorated by the designers of Shanghai Tang, probably Asia’s most famous fashion brand, and in such films as Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad and Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon. At the Old China Hand Reading Room, a bookshop-café on one of the elegantly shaded streets in the French Concession, coffee addicts linger late into the night amid the Ming-dynasty-style décor. A jazz band plays in the Peace Hotel’s Tudor bar: aging Chinese saxophonists blowing out “These Foolish Things.” Borscht soup, the culinary legacy of the White Russians, can still be found on Shanghai menus.
China has not only survived the Great Recession but also emerged stronger than before; Shanghai is visibly the engine of Chinese modernity. Yet there are discordant noises in the background. In 2006 the city’s Communist party chief was ousted on corruption charges. Raided by the Chinese authorities a few years ago, Randolph Hobson Guthrie III, the 38-year-old scion of a prominent Manhattan family, was found in possession of 210,000 pirated DVD’s.
It is clear that, growing wealthier by the day, Shanghai attracts more than its normal share of buccaneers, of the kind that in the pre-Communist era gave the city the reputation of being the “whore of the Orient.” As in the past, a backlash against foreigners may be building up. Responding to various real estate scandals, the Chinese government has made it more difficult for foreigners to own property in Shanghai. But though the city is still nominally Communist, it is increasingly hard to imagine Shanghai without its adventurous new capitalists—the foreigners whose reckless energy and greed will probably always define Shanghai’s special glamour and excitement.
Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond (Picador).