History of Old Shanghai and the French Concession

While the construction was taking place, I started digging into the history of so-called Old Shanghai. Shanghai went through a pretty fascinating hundred years, from the Opium War in 1840 up until end of WWII in 1945. As the resulting of a weakening Qing Dynasty, China lost a series of wars and was forced to open up Shanghai to western countries as an important international port of call. The French and British, among other European countries, set up concession zones in Shanghai and ran these areas according to their own rules.

The interesting thing about the French Concession was that the French population (no more than 2000 at the peak) was outnumbered by the Russians (who fled from the new communist Russia), British, Americans, and even the Germans. There were also a significant number of successful middle-class Chinese professionals who lived in the area. Nevertheless, the French ran their own municipal counsel and named all the streets after French generals, martyred soldiers, and other famous personalities.

By the 1930’s, Shanghai and the French Concession were at the height of their glamour and also decadence. I found this old Fortune Magazine article published in 1935 that described a day in the life of a “Taipan” (typically refers to a westerner who is a boss or an employee of a foreign trading company). It bears striking similarities to the expat life in Shanghai today (minus the dozen or so of the servants the typical old-day taipan kept) ;-)

For Quintet, I wanted to bring in names and places of that wild time in Old Shanghai; there was plenty of glitz and romance, but to be sure, there was also lots of shady business taking place, not to mention sorrow of the lost and deprived. Old Shanghai was like opium (ok, also like a beautiful woman) – you know it’s perilous to your health, yet you can’t get away from it…

The modern-day Shanghai is every bit as exciting as the old one to the rest of the world. You see the optimism and entrepreneur spirits in the eyes of every hopeful newcomer. I hope this time around, the good times are here to stay for a long time to come…

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