Metropolis Shanghai - Showboat to China

Shanghai means "on the sea". The name comes from the Sung dynasty in the 11th century. At that time the story of Shanghai began as a small fishing village. It became a city in the 16th century, but was still unimportant until the Opium War during the 1840s when European powers took control of the city and opened it up to foreign trade. Be-cause of its ideal location near the mouth of the Yangtze River and the foreign concessions, Shanghai became China’s main trading port and lost its Chinese self-determination. "Metropolis Shanghai - Showboat to China" is the sound story about the "Paris of the East", about the "Whore of Asia", about the "Golden Era" of the greatest city in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, about the most cosmopolitan place on earth, about the port of last resort for the Jews, about the fully-controlled Japanese base after the second Sino-Japanese War, about the "Old Shanghai" which was not a colony but ruled by foreigners, about the "Queen of the Orient". During the first half of the 20th century this metropolis was divided in different territories: the French Concession, the International Settlement ("owned" by England and the United Sates of America), the Japanese base and the Jewish ghetto. Nearly all residents were Chinese (4.5 million Chinese and 50.000 Europeans) but without any political power. Shanghai was one of the most extreme places that ever existed, full of speculation, entertainment, hunger, shelter, sex, death, life, war, hope, drugs, despair, business, and poverty. Shanghai was the worst and the best of everything. The city of quick money and masses of incredible poor people, every day dead bodies were laying in the streets, and girls sold themselves to survive and earned venereal diseases. The "Golden Era" was a very cynical name for that time period, only few winners and rich people created their own "Paris of the East" in Shanghai. Hotels, bars, whorehouses, vaudevilles, entertainment and the gambling places were booming tremendously. "Ye Shanghai" (Shanghai Nights) sung – at that time – by the star Zhou Xuan became the "hymn" of this fascinating decadent world:


"Shanghai Nights" (Text by Fan Yanqiao)

Shanghai nights, Shanghai nights,

You're a nightless city;

Bright lights, music, delirious dancing,

Not wine drunk, drunk by crowd frenzy,

Reckless nights, reckless days, 

Afraid to miss the taste of spring!


To see your welcoming happy face,

Who thinks your inner heart is sad?

A night's work for a place to live,

Hazy dawn tired eyes filled with sorrow, Empty now, Nightlife spark extinguished.


Carriage wheels grind, turn,

Changing, changing heaven and earth, Somewhere there must be another life, Waking from a dream, aftertast of nightlife!


Beyond the so-called "Golden Era" the Chinese people had to create their own world to survive in the foreign-controlled enclave. Their music was one important element to preserve their own identity during these difficult times. The masterwork "The Moon over a Fountain" composed 1939 by A Bing (whose given name was Hua, Yanjun, 1893-1950, he was the most well known folk musician in the recent history of China) sounded in the neighbourhoods next to the French Concession. And at the bar of the Peace Hotel (first opened as the Cathay Hotel in 1929) which was a strange fusion of ancient tradition and modernity, Eastern and Western, Chinese bands played jazz. The highest possible extremes coexisted. Chinese and Philippinian show bands were entertaining the decadent society in vaudevilles like the Paramount. In 1937 the second Sino-Japanese war broke out and the Japanese occupied parts of Shanghai and controlled the city. During that time the biggest wave of immigration of Jews to Shanghai was caused by the Nazis, mainly from Germany, Austria and Poland between 1937 and 1943. About 20,000 central European refugees came to Shanghai, of which over 300 were musicians. Music - though in a difficult situation - was significant to these refugees, too. "Sehnsucht" ("Nostalgia"), a composition by Mischa Spoliansky expressed the feelings of many Jews, who tried to find a new home in the bombed out quarter Hongkew. Shanghai was one of the very few places on earth where nobody asked for any visas. And the Jews from Vienna, Munich and Berlin were playing Viennese music by Schrammel in cafe houses in "Little Vienna", a quarter that the Jews had built up stone by stone. In 1943 the Jews had to move in a ghetto and lost again what they had created with their own hands. The end of World War II opened up the opportunity for the Jews to move to Israel, South America or the US. By the time the Communists took over in 1947, they had the job of eradicating slums, rehabilitating hundreds of opium addicts, stamping out child and slave labour, and drive away the decadence. For the West, the party was over in Shanghai. But Shanghai's people have not had the possibility to find a new identification because of the cultural revolution, which dictated the new rules. "Ambush on all Side" could be the characteristic hymn of the port at the Yangtze River.

Time goes by and the 1990s have seen invitations go out again to capitalist business interests as the central government hunts foreign capital to help reinvent this whirlwind metropolis. And the city continues to grow with new underground stations, highways, crisscrossing the city, the most modern stock exchange in the world and new cultural institutions. However despite the growth and international investment Shanghai is still a city of contradictions as poverty is still prevalent in the new "Babel at Yangtze River".


This project was possible with the musical support of:

Mr. Wang Yongji (and his great artistic work, without him it would have been impossible to record the wonderful traditional Chinese music, the music style of Suzhou from the Yangtze delta, and Cantonese music),

Dr. Tang Yating (and his great knowledge about Jews in Shanghai),

The Monks at the Long Hua Temple (their open-mindedness and very nice cooperation),

Mr. Zheng Deren (and the exciting information about Shanghai's musician's life in the 1930s and 1940s),

Prof. Chen Gang (introduction to the music of his father, Mr. Chen Gexin),

Mr. Wu Guangye (outstanding collection of shellac recordings),

Brave Old World and Roswitha Dasch (for their great cooperation and musical teamwork),

and the cooperation of the filmmakers Mr. Nicolas Humbert (Shanghai letters and photos of his grandfather Dr. Max Mohr),

and Ms. Joan Grossman and Mr. Paul Rosdy (for making the documentary "The Port of last Resort – Zuflucht in Shanghai" with the music by John Zorn to be released by the Film Edition Winter & Winter, DVD Nº 915 004-7).


- Stefan Winter

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