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City of Wealth, Inequality and Vice. More than 100 illustrations, maps, bibliography

Old Shanghai was China‘s richest and most corrupt city. At its heart were the International Settlement and the French Concession – islands of affluence and colonial privilege set amidst a sea of poverty and deprivation. Yet Shanghai was also China's most progressive and innovative city, home to Chinese cinema, modern music and a flourishing literary scene.

The 1920s and 1930s were Old Shanghai's heyday, a period of sybaritic indulgence, revolutionary intrigue and Japanese imperialist machinations when fortunes were made and lost. Opium fumes filled the streets, while cabarets and fine restaurants jostled for space with brothels and soup kitchens. Truly, there was nothing egalitarian about colonial Shanghai, except that anyone sufficiently clever or ruthless stood a chance of amassing a fortune, regardless of race or background.

This was also the era of the city's most infamous gangsters, ‘Pock-Marked Huang' and ‘Big Ears Du', together with their triad associates, variously divided into powerful secret societies that rejoiced in names like the ‘Big Eight Mob', the ‘Thirty Six Mob', the ‘Red Gang' or Hong Bang and – most powerful of all – the ‘Green Gang' or Qing Bang. These mobsters controlled the illicit opium trade throughout Shanghai, as well as running gambling, prostitution and protection rackets. They also doubled as hired guns for local warlords and right-wing politicians, specialising in terrorizing organized labour and breaking up strikes.

Shanghai has long been the most fashionable city in China, even if that stylishness has been tinged with more than a whiff of corruption and decadence, earning the city such unflattering sobriquets as ‘The Whore of Asia'.

Shanghai's dubious past disappeared in 1949, when the victorious People's Liberation Army marched into the city unopposed and began a bleak era of communist austerity that would last for four decades. Foreign and Chinese capitalists shut up shop and fled the city, often for Hong Kong. Dance halls and houses of ill repute were closed, property was nationalized, and the elegant, body-hugging qipao dresses sported by Shanghai women from society hostesses to singsong girls were replaced by a dark tide of identical Mao tunics and peaked caps.

Things would only change following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the emergence of Deng Xiaoping as supreme leader two years later in 1978. Deng permitted the economic opening of Shanghai in 1990, and today the city has become a Pacific Rim prodigy that rivals, and may soon surpass, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

  • Andrew Forbes and David Henley are a writer-photographer team who have been based in Thailand for more than 20 years. Both have travelled frequently in China. They have contributed to Insight Guides Southern China, AA Key Guide China and Berlitz China Handbook, and Andrew - who has  a BA in Chinese Studies and a Ph.D. in Chinese History, both from the University of Leeds in the UK - is the author of National Geographic Traveler Shanghai.

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