When someone thinks of famous sin cities, perhaps Shanghai is not the city that comes immediately to mind. However, Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s was actually considered the wickedest city in the world. Known as the Paris of Asia, Shanghai was a thriving port city and was considered the whore of the East for tourists. Shanghai was a virtual supermarket of pleasure.
In Shanghai, if you had money you could get anything. The number of prostitutes, gamblers, and drug dealers surpassed even Berlin and Paris. The smell of opium was rampant in the streets of Shanghai which was the most notorious of all the port cities.
In the 20s and 30s Shanghai was under British rule and was a melting pot of people from other countries. Foreigners could live a life of opulence, ease and status as they usually had wealth and social status. Neighborhoods usually reflected ethnicity and there was a strict social structure that put the British on top, then Americans, Germans, mixed raced persons and then the Chinese. The poverty among the Chinese was staggering and each year over 30,000 people simply died in the streets.
For women and girls, both Chinese and those who were refugees from other countries, Shanghai meant work in prostitution and vice. There were over 100,000 prostitutes walking the streets or working in brothels. There was a hierarchy among sex workers as well. The Waterfront Nail Shed prostitutes were considered the cream of the crop, then came the Taxi Dancers who charged money for each dance and more money for something extra. The Sing Song girls were next and finally there were the First Night Virgins who were 12 or 13 years old. $10.00 guaranteed disease free intercourse. Frenchtown offered the highest class brothels, opium dens and casinos.
Because Shanghai didn’t require passports, entry to the city was a breeze. During the 1920s Russian refuges flooded the city. Men were unable to find work so women turned to prostitution and other vice to support their families. These Russian prostitutes did something no other prostitutes would do-they had sex with Chinese men. When Russian men could find work it was usually as bodyguard to Shanghai elite.
With vice came crime and all the vice in Shanghai was run by the Green Gang, a secret Chinese society. Police and gangsters were one in the same and by the 20s Shanghai was the most gangster riddled city in the world. Foreigners overlooked this part of Shanghai because it allowed them to experience Shanghai as a city full of life where each foreign family had a minimum of six servants. Indeed cheap servants known as Amas raised their children and took care of their every need. Instead of seeing the crime, they lived a life of luxury, ease, country clubs, bridge games, cocktails, chauffeured cars, and parties.
The architecture of the time in Shanghai resembled New York or Paris and while the rest of the world was immersed in the Great Depression, Shanghai thrived and experienced a building boom. Sir Victor Sassoon built the Café Hotel, a luxury hotel where Nowell Coward stayed and hosted lavish parties. While the rest of the world suffered through the Great Depression Shanghai was full of Jazz, parties, vice, theaters and nightlife. Shanghai was also known as the Hollywood of China with a thriving film industry. The devil may care attitude was the perfect place for people seeking adventure.
Shanghai was host to some very interesting people during the 1920s and 1930s. With the free living spirit in the air, men and women were free to live the life of their choice in Shanghai. Sir Victor Sassoon was a British Baron who lived in Shanghai and devoted his time to protecting Western business interests in China. He also helped many European Jews survive in Shanghai as they fled Europe to escape the Nazis. Sassoon threw lavish parties at his hotel and stayed in Shanghai until he had to leave as the Japanese began occupying the city at the start of World War II.
Naughty Girl Emily Hahn
Emily Hahn, an American journalist and author often described her years in Shanghai as the most tumultuous of her life. A free thinker, Hahn is credited with helping to open Asia to the West. In Shanghai, Hahn became romantically involved with Sassoon and other prominent Shanghai figures. She had a pet gibbon monkey that went everywhere with her often dressed in a diaper and miniature dinner jacket.
Hahn was introduced to the practice of smoking opium by one of her Shanghai lovers, Sinmay Zau. She often visited him at his home which was very unconventional for Western women in the 30s. She quickly became addicted to opium and later said it was her reason for going to China.
Like Paris and Berlin, World War II played a major role in things changing in Shanghai. As the Japanese invaded and bombed the city, the prominent foreigners left in droves. It would be years before Shanghai was free of Japanese rule but it would never again boast the thriving, free times as it did during the 20s and 30s.