“Living in Shanghai makes New York seem provincial,” says a transplanted New York professor, now running the Shanghai offshoot of New York University. “It feels open to the world.”
Professor Joanna Waley-Cohen, Provost of NYU Shanghai, thinks it has something to do with the sheer size of the place (population 25 million) and partly the infrastructure – “subway system, ubiquitous WiFi, even on the subway, well before New York got it.”
The city feels busy rather than crowded. People are here from around the world, some working at Shanghai-based multi-national companies, their children attending the growing number of international schools, creating in turn a demand for young teachers who want exciting restaurants, bars, nightclubs.
New hotels are opening on the fashionable waterside street known as the Bund, including the Peace Hotel, once owned by Sir Victor Sassoon, the Iraqi-Jewish multimillionaire who built a property empire on the Huangpu mud, and the magnificent Waldorf Astoria, formerly a private British gentleman’s club.
Walking through the Waldorf’s marble hallways I see Chinese curled up asleep in vast armchairs. “That’s normal,” my friends tell me. “Don’t stare”.
This is my third visit to the city and this time there’s a sense of being immersed in a determinedly 21st century city. In fierce competition with Hong Kong and Beijing, Shanghai now boasts more high rises than any other city in the world except Chicago. The supertall shiny towers proclaim a dedication to global commerce that is echoed by the frenzied shoppers. What on earth would Chairman Mao make of it?
In Shanghai Times Square, as busy on a Friday night as Oxford Street on Christmas Eve, I am struck by the race to westernise, to build giant designer shops such as Ferragamo, Gucci, Hermès, each with massive window fronts, alongside street stalls offering traditional Chinese noodles and dumplings.
Shanghai was once known as the Paris of the Orient, which explains why I’m here to talk at the Shanghai International Literature Festival about how Parisian women survived in wartime France. The Festival was started by an enterprising Australian restaurateur, Michelle Garnaut, whose glamorous rooftop restaurant, M on the Bund, has a dazzling terrace view of Pudong, one of the most booming economic areas in China located on the opposite side of the Huangpu River, fizzing with neon-clad tower blocks. Its international flavour well suits this cosmopolitan city constantly reinventing itself as a modern trading nation, yet proud of its past. And for good reason.
From the mid-19th century, Shanghai flourished as a centre of commerce between China and other parts of the world, mostly because of its favourable port location. Foreigners flocked to its booming economy. First
came Russian Jews fleeing pogroms, next White Russian exiles fleeing the revolution. A few off-beat chancers slipped in as well. In the 1920’s the city was famous for its jazz bands and brothels frequented by American naval personnel.
Wallis Simpson came here trying to patch up her first marriage to Win Spencer. Then, in the 1930’s Shanghai was the port of last resort as almost 20,000 desperate refugees fled here from Nazi Europe, swelling an already established population of about 10,000 Jews. It was the only destination in the world that did not require an entry visa.
The city was divided into three largely self-governing trading blocks: the International Settlement under British and American control, the French Concession, and a Chinese section. But after Japanese troops occupied the city most Jews were forced into a restricted sector for so-called ‘stateless refugees’ in the Hongkou district, which, although never intended as an internment camp, became known as the Shanghai Ghetto. Life was extremely tough for the impoverished refugees and, when the ghetto was liberated in 1945, most Jews left to start new lives in Australia, America and Israel.
Now, this corner of the city is attracting tourists. And city authorities are keen to cash in on such an unusual heritage site. The old synagogue – a factory in Communist times – has been rebuilt, now called a museum to fit in with official Chinese policy towards religion. Only the rather sad gift shop, offering a few books with curled edges, betrays its communist past.
Although most of Hongkou has now been destroyed, one street, with messy criss-crossing overhead wires and cables, remains. All that’s left of Jewish Shanghai. “Zhoushan Street is being preserved because China these days wants good relations with Israel,” explains my guide. The message is clear: China saved the Jews.
The houses here are now lived in by numerous Chinese families, those left behind by the economic boom in the rest of the city. Outside I even saw some pyjama-clad men, a Shanghai habit the local authorities want to discourage. A few have set up lacklustre commercial enterprises at street level; shoe menders, tailors and a beauty parlour with a swatch card in the window offering various hair colours for dyeing. But none was busy.
Returning downtown, it’s time to walk along the Bund and dive into one of the many sophisticated bars for a cocktail. But I suspect nothing on offer is anywhere near as decadent as those served, in the twenties, when Shanghai was in its decadent heyday.
Anne Sebba is the author of Les Parisiennes: How the women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s.