Getting to know a new culture is one of the most exciting aspects of travelling. A city as vibrant and diverse as Shanghai presents endless wonderment to Western visitors. The city is composed of migrants from all over China and the world. Shanghai’s history of business and technological innovation and as the crossroads of East and West in China creates a dynamic energy that lures many visitors in... and keeps them there.
Opium & Trading
Modern Shanghai has been shaped by its position as a port city on the Yangtze Delta and the Chinese-Western business coalitions first established in the 19th century. Originally a fishing and textile port on the Yangtze Delta, Shanghai (‘on the sea’ in Chinese) emerged as a popular export base for the British East India Company in the late 18th century as Chinese tea, silk and porcelain became more popular in Great Britain. However, neither the isolationist Qing Dynasty nor Chinese consumers desired any British products in return, creating for Britain an unsustainable trade imbalance. To redress this situation, the enterprising British capitalised on the Chinese fondness for opium by importing a superior product from India. In order to protect this dubious trade from Chinese resistance, the far more industrialised British overpowered the Chinese army in what came to be known as the First Opium War. In the resulting 1842 Treaty of Nanking, the Chinese ceded Hong Kong and extraterritorial concessions in five other Chinese cities, including Shanghai.
The British named their settlement along the Huangpu River the Bund, and later consolidated with the American community to form the International Concession. France also claimed a concession from a weakened Qing Court. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Shanghai grew rapidly and the foreign residents built an impressive infrastructure. Shanghai boasted China’s best roads and hotels, its first gaslights, telephones, electric power, cars and trams. The city continued to prosper throughout the early part of the 20th century, welcoming more immigrants from Russia and Japan, each bringing with them their customs and culture. During the 1920s and 30s, the city became legendary for money, gangsters, drugs and brothels.
1949 - The Communists
The party ended soon after Shanghai was liberated by the Communists in 1949. The dance halls and villas were converted into ‘cultural palaces’ and stylish Parisian apparel was traded in for grey unisex tunics and caps. Shanghai was the headquarters of the ‘Gang of Four’, who made it their business to rid the city of the ‘Four Olds’: old culture, old customs, old habits and old ways of thinking. Of course, what was deemed ‘old’ was left to their discretion. By the time Richard Nixon visited Shanghai for his historic meeting with Zhou Enlai in 1976, the city was completely dark after nightfall. Even in 1988, ten years after Deng Xiaoping launched the economic reform era, the tallest building in town was the Park Hotel, built in 1934.
Modern Shanghai - 1990's to the Present
In the 1990s, the lights came back on, and in a big way. The government decreed that Shanghai was to become the country’s new economic powerhouse. The skyline, and the city, changed beyond recognition. Skyscrapers, roads, trains and bridges were built at breakneck speed. By the time Shanghai was awarded the hosting the 2010 World Expo in 2002, it was a modern megalopolis, with a population approaching 20 million, and once again a centre of global commerce and innovation. Not to be outdone by 2008 Olympics host and rival Beijing, the city spared no expense – or architectural relic of its past – to impress international visitors to the World Expo. However, strolls along the Bund, the French Concession and the Old City still allow visitors a glimpse of Shanghai’s rich and colourful history.
Shanghai is now regarded as mainland China’s centre of finance and trade and the driving force behind China’s booming economy. Modern development began with the economic reforms in 1992 and economic growth remained in double digits for two decades before experiencing a slight slowdown in recent years. The city is undertaking massive public works projects at an unparalleled pace and scale. Besides being a major international manufacturing and financial services centre, Shanghai is also one of the world’s busiest ports, surpassed only by Singapore.