Sin in Old Shanghai6 min read

Into the Shanghai trenches, with Paul French

Shanghai’s sin districts, catering to foreigners, were many and varied. They appeared moments after the city became a treaty port in the 1840s and survived through to the 1950s. Whoring at the brothel shacks in Hongkew (Hongkou), gambling at the first race course on Honan Road, illicit betting at the adjacent Fives courts and knock-down-and-drag-out shamshu bars in Pootung (Pudong), were all popular pursuits for sailors. Sin existed across the city – in the French Concession and the International Settlement, around the edgelands of the foreign concessions in the Western External Roads (Huxi), as well as the Northern External Roads that ran across the Settlement’s borders from Hongkew into Chapei (Zhabei).

All of these districts shifted, morphed, rose and fell over the decades thanks to a variety of factors: from suppression by the Chinese and/or foreign authorities; as a consequence of the Second Sino-Japanese War after 1937, and the liberation of Shanghai from the Japanese in 1945; and ending after the arrival of the communists in 1949. All these places were the subject of legend and anecdote, exaggeration, and not a little official embarrassment. The sin districts fill the pages of the files of the Shanghai Municipal Police and the jotter books of the Garde Municipal in Frenchtown. They were patrolled by the Japanese Gendarmerie that, in the late 1930s, controlled the Western and Northern External Roads, and by the Chinese police that governed the fringes of the settlements beyond foreign control. All saw prostitution, drug abuse and gambling alongside murder, mayhem and bloodletting. The stories are legion, such as the unsolved murder of Eliza Shapera in 1907 – one of the many crimes among Shanghai’s multinational underclass, once called ‘Shanghailanders’.

To recover such stories is to retrace the networks of old Shanghai society – not those of the taipans and committeemen, the missionaries and paper-shuffling officials, but of the ever-present but only briefly-glimpsed underworld of the city’s sin economy. Eliza Shapera’s story begins and ends in the so-called Trenches district of Shanghai, in the Northern External Roads centered around Scott Road (now Shanyang Lu). At its high point, roughly from the start of the 20th century to around the time of the First World War, the Trenches was home to an estimated 300 brothels, both foreign and Chinese, running along Scott Road towards Hongkew Park (now Lu Xun Park). Unsuspecting new arrivals to Shanghai found unscrupulous rickshaw pullers who would deliver them to Scott Road to be mugged, robbed and beaten up by the violent Hongkew gangs (themselves a mix of Shanghainese, Cantonese, Jewish, British, Indian, American and Portuguese, among others) that controlled the area. The ever-enquiring William Willis, an anti-white slavery campaigner who visited Scott Road in about 1910, claimed: “If a drunken man or licentious European reprobate enters these quarters, the chances are ten to one against his ever coming out.”

Other areas came and went. Before the Trenches there were casinos, brothels and bars to the west of the city near Siccawei (now Xujiahui). American-run dancehalls and casinos, such as The Alhambra, drew the curious in horse-drawn carriages in the late 19th century. Early establishments, such as The Del Monte, lasted until the late 1930s when the area morphed into the lawless Shanghai ‘Badlands’ around the triangle of Avenue Haig (now Huashan Lu), Edinburgh Road (Jiangsu Lu) and the Great Western Road (Yan’an West Lu). Nightclubs, cabarets, casinos, opium dens and brothels proliferated, protected by the Japanese and the puppet collaborators of Wang Jingwei who “taxed” them for profit. Squeezed up against each other in hastily-erected structures were Farren’s, the Arizona, The Gardenia, the Ali-Baba, the Zau Foong, the Six Nations, the Monte Carlo, the Yih Loo, the Hollywood, the St. George’s, the Argentina, the Shanghai Garden, the Eventail, and others.

Blood Alley (officially Rue Chu Pao San, and now Xikou Lu) in Frenchtown became a legend among sailors, soldiers and curious slummers. The Palais Cabaret, the ’Frisco, Mumms, the Crystal, George’s Bar, Monk’s Brass Rail, the New Ritz, and The Manhattan all vied for business. Love Lane (Wujiang Lu) in the Settlement saw the rise of the St. Anna’s, Van’s Dutch, and Margaret Kennedy’s long-lived brothel where the girls didn’t work on Sundays. Both strips lasted until the 1940s. At the start of the 20th century the American-run brothels of Kiangse Road (Jiangxi Lu) were the most exclusive establishments – the street referred to simply as “The Line.” It died out largely with the arrival of the White Russians and a collapse in prostitute prices as volume nearly (but not quite) outstripped demand. Brothels and bars for sailors proliferated in Hongkew along Wayside (Huoshan Lu) and Broadway (Daming East Road). They were joined in the 1930s by Jewish-run bars and cabarets that clustered on the edge of the ghetto. Some lasted till the early 1950s when foreign ships still called at Shanghai and sailors still got shore leave.

Often it is real people who link the areas: blood links usually, the free flowing kind. Gracie Gale dominated The Line as its premier Madam from the early years of the century, until she saw the bottom fall out of the high-end bordello business and blood on the streets of Shanghai in 1927. She slit her wrists rather than enter a new era of commoditized sex – modernity had limits for Gracie. Sammy Wiengarten, a Romanian, trafficked women from Eastern Europe to the Trenches before World War I, ran clubs in Chapei afterwards, and was murdered in 1936 counting his Christmas take after-hours. Al Israel came from California and pioneered the nightlife of the Siccawei Road and Huxi. His Del Monte club went from tree-lined streets on the fringes of the city in 1900 to the heart of the Badlands of the Japanese occupied city in the 1930s. That transition was bad news for Al, shot dead at his desk above the casino floor of the Del Monte in 1937. And finally Stuart Price, a man who stepped off a boat and entered Shanghai in the nineteenth century. He killed a customer at his notorious Alhambra dancehall in 1906 (whisky and opium over the downstairs bar, girls and roulette upstairs), got off on a technicality, and survived the vicissitudes of fifty years of Shanghai vice to become an old man who’d seen it all in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

New times brought new customers and new red-light areas. By 1945 the Badlands was deserted, most of the giant casinos and nightclubs shuttered, the Trenches largely destroyed by Japanese bombing, The Line a memory. Yet, as Allied troops flooded into newly-liberated Shanghai, scores of new bars and brothels were opened by foreign “entrepreneurs” – Black Eyes, the Victory Bar, the Dollar Bar, the Diamond Bar, the Lear Bar. They lasted but a few years, but all were gone by the early 1950s after the Communists took over. The days of old sin in old Shanghai were over, for new sins to replace them. ∎

Header: Hongkew Police Station (Wikicommons). This essay is adapted and republished from the LARB China blog. Read the full story of Eliza Shapera’s murder in Paul French’s chapter ‘Murder in the Shanghai Trenches’, in the anthology Truly Criminal.