Date of this Version
May 7, 2009 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
Shanghai is in many ways the face of the new People’s Republic. Even as the city has been remade in recent decades, efforts are underway to selectively salvage what remains of its pre-war architectural heritage (1842-1937) and many of its archival records are becoming accessible to foreign researchers. Touted as Asia’s biggest and most cosmopolitan urban centre in the pre-war era, Shanghai has (re)emerged over the last two decades as “a harbinger of China’s future and a testing ground for the world at large.”
It is therefore worth reprising Shanghai’s distant treaty-port past not just as tourist-trivia pursuit: the past also offers a perspective from which to observe the imminent rise of the city to global prominence.
One of few exhilarating privileges Shanghai history buffs can nowadays enjoy is staying at the city’s oldest-running hotel, the tactfully-refurbished Astor House (est. 1846), near Suzhou Creek. In its heyday, The Astor hosted luminaries like US President Ulysses S. Grant, Charlie Chaplin, Guglielmo Marconi, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and even Zhou Enlai. A 15-minute walk due south, along the ceaselessly re-vamped Bund is the Shanghai Municipal Archives. There, history buffs can relish on demand letters written by the managers of the very same Astor over a century ago, complaining to the foreign-run Shanghai Municipal Council about “natives,” “coolies” and “rickshaws” making too much noise for patrons to bear.
Returning to the Astor from the Archives, history buffs cannot but note that road hazards and noise are still a feature of the hotel environment; however, Santanas have by now supplanted rickshaws as the most common means of transport, and whites no longer run the municipal council. Neither is there a sign of Shanghai’s once ubiquitous double-deckers and trams, though Soviet-style electric-powered buses still ply the routes between the Bund and Nanjing Road. Back in the 1940s Shanghai’s traffic amenities fired up rustic imagination, with newly-imported American automobiles and regular flights serving the high-heeled between the city and Hong Kong, as was beautifully captured in Eileen Chang’s classic screenplay Taitai wansui. The comparable traffic novelty at present is the fact that one can, as of this year, board direct flights from Pudong International Airport to Taipei after decades of cross-strait political chill.