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Learn the unique histories of Shanghai's most popular venues
Chen Manli was one of Shanghai's many "taxi-dancers," women who were rented (ostensibly) for the purpose of dancing, and was one of the most popular girls at the city's biggest and most popular dancehall, The Paramount. But that's not what she is remembered for. She's famous because in 1941 she said, "No," when a Japanese man asked her to dance and was shot dead on the spot. You'd never know it now, though, watching the middle-aged Shanghainese crowd dancing the rumba in the ballroom today. It's the only surviving classic dancehall in all of Shanghai, but most people know it only for its exquisite Art Deco exterior and the disco downstairs.

People often complain that Shanghai has less to offer than other Chinese cities because there just aren't very many interesting historical sites. But in reality, Shanghai, arguably the most important international city in Asia for over 100 years, has much to offer. "Other cities have more imperial Chinese history," explains Wm Patrick Cranley of Historic Shanghai, "but no other place has as significant and interesting a history with respect to China's interface with the rest of the world." Often the evidence of this past is right under your nose, but you just don't realize it.

Pros and Cons

Some of the most colorful figures of the Treaty-Port Era (roughly 1842-1949) emerged from Shanghai's opium-smuggling underworld. The Green Gang was the most notorious criminal syndicate and ran "the drugs, gambling and prostitution of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s," tells Graham Earnshaw, author of Tales of Old Shanghai. Its legendary leader, "Big-Ears" Du Yuesheng, "believed in power," says Earnshaw. "He was ruthless. He fought his way up from nothing to be one of the richest men in Shanghai." Du was said to wear a shrunken monkey head at all times for luck, have coffins delivered to his enemies, and was so well-connected that he received 'round the clock police protection, a seat on the French Municipal Council, and an appointment to the Board of Opium Suppression which he, no doubt, used to corner the market.

The Donghu Hotel contains a luxurious villa that may have been Du's private brothel or residence. Today it's a relaxing place to grab tea or a cocktail in a gangster-chic setting. The recently renovated Mansion Hotel, only a block away, was supposedly the staging ground for lavish Green Gang parties (read: orgies) with enough drugs, booze and prostitutes to make Tony Soprano blush. The word got around, too. Mei Lanfang (the Peking Opera star whose story inspired Farewell My Concubine) and the French ambassador were both said to have partaken in festivities here. It's anyone's guess how many people left this building rolled up in a carpet, but several hotel staffers believe its halls to be haunted.

Foreign Movers and Shakers

Though the triads controlled the trade in later years, the majority of Shanghai opium fortunes were made by "legitimate" trading firms. Of these traders, perhaps none is better known than the Sassoons, an Iraqi-Jewish family of British decent, and no Sassoon left a more lasting impression than Sir Victor. This eccentric horse racing enthusiast with a penchant for rowdy parties arrived in Shanghai in 1923 and immediately began building many of the city's most ostentatious Art Deco architecture like the Peace Hotel (originally the Cathay Hotel, the largest building on the Bund), the Jinjiang Hotel (formally Cathay Mansions and the Grosvenor House) and the Cathay Theater.

The best place to get a dose of Sassoon today is at Hamilton House opposite another Sassoon creation, the Jin Jiang Metropole Hotel. Hamilton House was a luxurious apartment building ideally situated for both business and pleasure, equidistant to both the Bund and Fuzhou Lu's infamous red-light district. Perhaps this is the reason that U.S. Air Force brochures from the 1940s recommend Hamilton House as a "prophylactic station."

But the Sassoons weren't the only family to leave behind a legacy. One of the most elegant garden villas in Shanghai, the Ruijin Hotel, was the estate of the Morriss family, owners of the most important English publication in China: The North-China Daily News. The hotel and guest rooms were abandoned during World War II and inhabited by the fascist Italian consul-general, incidentally, Mussolini's son-in-law. Building Three, a rowdy opium den and casino during the Japanese occupation, now only feeds caffeine addictions while the Japanese business turned military headquarters next door is now the most popular stop for visitors thanks to Face Bar, Lan Na Thai and Hazara. When the new Chinese government took over in 1949, the property was seized and the last member of the Morriss family was forced to live out his years in the gatekeeper's house.

Republican Power Players

Contrary to the rumors, the Shanghailanders, as foreigners were once known, weren't the only ones cashing in on Old Shanghai's prosperity. Carl Crow, a writer from the era, noted that "foreigners appeared more wealthy than the Chinese, but they weren't," and that Chinese homes in the early twentieth century "set new standards in pretentiousness and luxury." One such mansion was the home of T.V. Soong, a Harvard-educated businessman and minister of finance for the Kuomintang government. Soong is rumored to have had a taste for the famously beautiful White Russian women of the French Concession and even had a steady mistress, Sasha, for whom the restaurant Sasha's is named. T.V. would later give the estate to his more famous sister Soong Meiling on the occasion of her wedding to KMT Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. They lived in the Ailou, or love building, now a music school next door.

Just down the block from the Chiangs' love shack was the beautiful and immense three-storey colonial mansion where Chiang's top general and defense minister Bai Chongxi once lived. His home is now the site of one of Shanghai's favorite stops for high-end Japanese food, Ambrosia. Even though General Bai would score one of the KMT's only decisive victories in the Chinese Civil War, he famously fell out with the Chiangs after the war and never held another government post. Perhaps this all could have been avoided had he settled for a dwelling less glamorous than that of his boss.

Off to the Races

If you couldn't work your way into a mansion, you could always get lucky. Shanghai's horse racing track, now People's Park, was the single most popular gambling and recreation center in town. "The Racing Club members were mostly Brits, since Chinese were not admitted," says Lynn Pan, author of Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars. "In the 1940s, rich Chinese were [able to become] members." In the stands, however, you could find everyone from the richest of the rich to the poorest of rickshaw coolies.

During the two annual seasons, thousands would gather here in the hopes of striking it rich. Not everyone was so fortunate. French aviator M. Vallon, for example, crashed to a fiery death there in front of horrified spectators in 1916, and William "Tony" Keswick, director of the Hong Kong trading firm Jardines, Matheson & co., was shot twice in the clubhouse by a disgruntled Japanese man in 1940. Now you can kick back and enjoy a drink while looking down on the park where so many fortunes were made and lost at Kathleen's 5, located atop the former clubhouse. Though not historic itself, Barbarossa is located on what would have been the interior of the former track. This area, known as the "Recreation Ground," was where yesterday's expats would come to play sports and was also used for special ceremonies.

"Shanghai's history is so poorly understood because it was suppressed for several decades," says Cranley. But as the demand for authentic settings increases, many remnants of the city's glorious past are finally being restored and each comes with a story, some so fascinating they deserve an audience. "One feels more at home in a place when one understands its history," suggests Pan, so the next time you're sipping on a glass of wine and staring up at that latest colonial mansion turned bar or restaurant, don't be afraid to ask what it once was.

Derek Sandhaus