Who’s Running This Place?
In 1930 the population of Greater Shanghai is around 3 million, making it the fifth largest of the great cities of the world. Only 30,000 residents are foreigners, but these foreigners control the fortunes moving through Shanghai’s docks.
Shangai is divided into concessions, each under absolute rule by a different foreign power. The primary concessions are the Japanese, French, and “International”, which is an amalgam of the original British and American concessions. Various other nationalities have set up shop in the International Settlement, as well.
The International Settlement is the center of The Bund, a stretch of European-style skyscrapers built along the Huangpu tributary of the Yangtze.
These concessions are surrounded by the greater Chinese municipality. Although the local Chinese have nominal control of this city outside the settlements, the real money and power all flow from the foreigners. The British and Americans recently combined their concessions into the International Settlement, ruled by the Shanghai Municipal Council. The French Concession has stayed separate, while the Japanese Concession is a land unto itself, serving as a forward espionage base for the ever-evolving, inevitable Japanese invasion.
The truly amazing thing about the SMC is they declared themselves above Chinese law as a bluff … and won. All foreigners are considered “extra-territorial”; they cannot be prosecuted for any crime by anyone but their own Concession’s Council. To maintain order the Concessions long ago cut deals with the local criminal gangs to employ gangsters as police detectives. The “detectives” keep the Chinese-on-Chinese crime on a simmer and make sure the foreigners are not unduly annoyed by murder, kidnapping and sex crimes.
Just how corrupt is this system? The head of the Chinese Opium Suppression Committee is in fact the leader of the Green Gang, the largest criminal racket in Shanghai.
The Chinese national government was inept before the Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, and has been nonexistent since. Until 1927 various warlords traded control of huge swaths of the nation in a series of endless battles. In 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek cut a deal with Shanghai mobsters for backing, giving him an economic and political edge. He is, in theory, the leader of the government. But he’s still splitting his attention between the Communists, pacifying the remaining warlords, and preparing for the war with Japan he knows is coming — between his own autocratic graft and the opportunities created by that chaos, there’s not so much a “government” in place in 1930 so much as “a certain bunch of people who get somewhat more bribes than others.”
What’s There to Do?
In the tight alleys of the Chinese areas and French Concession, there are a million nightclubs. Some are tiny dance halls, some are expat Russian opera shops (with noodles!), some are straight-up opium dens and whorehouses. Once you’re into the International Settlement, the nightclubs and buildings open up into vast, classic 1930’s dance halls that would be at home in Manhattan. These multi-story dance palaces offer, according to tradition, incrementally more illicit interests as you head farther up the staircase. To move between these pleasure houses, you need to pick your way along packed-mud roads, dodging both classic sedans and rickshaws. The traffic is crushing 24/7. Running gunfights and kidnapping attempts are not uncommon on the main thoroughfares.
There are fight clubs. There are floating gambling junks. There are hotels where Noel Coward hung out, and there are hotels where the floors are covered with sawdust. Many of the nightclubs make a point of inviting known political enemies for free drinks, hoping a bit of gunplay will add to the joint’s reputation.
There are, of course, far more civilized pursuits. The British don’t live in a city for ninety years without building British-y things. There are classic racetracks (horse and dog), along with traditional men’s clubs and a gorgeous Botanical Garden and Zoo. Rich locals build mock-Tudor and sprawling Spanish villa-style mansions in the upscale, tree-lined streets along Bubbling Well Road. Chinese gangleaders and merchant princes own some of these compounds and mix effortlessly with the foreign hoi polloi.