AUTHOR: Vantage ShanghaiStory Architect: Juliet Feng
Contributing writers: Coco Shen, Cecilia Chan
Translators: Coco Shen, Cecilia Chan, Rachel Gouk, Peijin Chen
Special Thanks to the Shanghai History Museum
While the rest of the world was facing the Great Depression, Shanghai was experiencing perhaps its most affluent era. During the 30s, when little separated city from country, Shanghai became the first metropolis in the Far East, and was venerated as the ‘Paris of the Orient’. From ballroom dancing and horserace betting, to catching the latest Hollywood films and passing time in Parisian-style coffee shops, Shanghai underwent a drastic process of Westernization.
The 1930s saw foreigners and Chinese from across the nation flock to Shanghai to get rich fast and indulge in life’s guilty pleasures, the most popular being the city’s burgeoning nightlife. There were several ballrooms of various sizes and catering to different social classes scattered across the city. Ciro’s, Xin Xian Lin, Metropolitan Ballroom and Paramount Hall were the most high-profile spots. These ballrooms typically charged patrons based on the number of songs they wanted to dance to, with noteworthy venues charging a hefty one yuan for three songs. The ballrooms were managed on the principle of exclusivity, and therefore reserved the city’s best jazz bands, musicians and dancers for their venues alone. Every weekend, like today’s ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ the rich and famous would don Western-style outfits and escort Shanghai’s qipao-clad beauties to spend a night gliding around a dance floor of neon lights to the world’s latest jazz numbers.
Located near Jing’an Temple, Paramount Hall was the origin and epitome of Shanghai’s nightlife culture, a place where Chinese tycoons and gangsters mingled with beautiful women and foreign travellers in a setting of dizzying opulence. A-list patrons of the time include the 20th-century Chinese political and military leader Chiang Kai-shek, the patriotic hero Zhang Xueliang, notorious gangsters Huang Jinrong and Du Yuesheng and the famous poet Xu Zhimo. Famously, when Charlie Chaplin visited China and only stayed for a single day, he spent it at Paramount Hall.
Four years after Paramount opened to the public, a rival luxury ballroom was built. The newly built ballroom surpassed the Paramount in many ways, as it covered a vast 10 mu (imperial units of land area) and was refurbished with modern automatic lights and heating and cooling facilities. The owner was property tycoon Victor Sassoon, the man behind the Messrs Sassoon Sons & Co empire, who decided to build his own ballroom after an infamous incident. One night, when Sassoon visited Paramount, the ballroom manager, unaware of his status, didn’t treat him in a manner befitting his wealth. Sassoon lost his temper and stormed out, and the rest is history. Ciro’s takes its style from the most popular ballroom in New York at the time and hired high-profile bands and dancers of the same standing.
‘Spring Floor’ in Paramount Ballroom
The Paramount Ballroom is an exercise in extravagance, costing a staggering 600,000 silver (the Chinese currency at the time) to build, it typified the culture of consumption of the era. The building’s style is Art Deco, the pinnacle of architectural fashion for its time. The interior is even more extravagant with crystal and marble-clad surfaces at every turn, while the iconic dance floor is illuminated by more than 50,000 lights. The highlight of Paramount Hall is the dancing experience, the dance floor is sprung so that not only does it improve the dancing but you can feel the music and movements of other dancers through the floor, and you can feel the vibrancy in the room.
At the Movies
During the 1920s and 1930s, going to the movies became one of the most fashionable ways to spend the evening. The theaters were filled with all types of peoples, from young couples on dates and stay-at-home wives looking to kill time to the very stars pictured on screen. It is said that Lu Xun, the world-renowned Chinese writer, watched more than 100 movies during the last 20 years of his life. At the time, Zhang Ailing, a noteworthy female writer, was one of the first film critics, as she would regularly attend screenings and write reviews.
During this period, going to the movies became as popular and regular a social activity as inviting people to dinner. At its advent in Shanghai, film screenings were mobile, as Westerners would show movies in public areas like parks and teahouses. It wasn’t until Spanish entrepreneur Antonio Ramos set up an iron house in 1908 near Haining Road and Zhapu Road that China saw it’s first cinema: the Hongkew Motion Picture Theater. Establishing a permanent venue made the pastime more accessible. The 20s saw the motion picture’s most popular era as the number of movie theaters doubled in Shanghai in the five years from 1927 to 1932 to a total of 50 theaters; the three most popular theaters were The Grand Theater, Cathay Theater and Nanjing Grand Theater.
The high-class theaters were first to screen the latest Hollywood and domestic movies. Such theaters were renowned for their luxury and exclusivity: Going to the movies became a fashionable activity for society’s elite, as men would see fit to style their hair while women would don their most expensive outfits.
The Best Movie Theater in the Far East
The Grand Theater on West Nanjing Road, not to be confused with the Shanghai Grand Theatre, was known as the best theater in Shanghai in its day. It boasted luxurious facilities, the best service and the highest quality of sound and film. The wide-screen displays and expensive stereo system were revolutionary in China’s movie projection development. In 1933, celebrated Hungarian architect Lázló Hudec remodeled the theater, transforming the three-story building into a stylish art deco building.
In the 30s-era of Hollywood films, nearly every popular translated foreign film was screened at The Grand Theater. The audience would receive beautifully printed brochures containing information about the movie, its actors and directors, as well as posters and poetic catchphrases reminiscent of today’s movie trailers. To help viewers better understand the plot, the theater offered an advanced interpretation system imported from the U.S. Every seat was outfitted with a set of headphones that would project the voice of an interpreter nicknamed ‘Miss Earphone,’ who would describe the plot and dialogue to the audience. It was the first time earphones were seen in China, and patrons could enjoy in the experience for an extra 10 cents.
Dreaming of a Race Pay Day
As one of the West’s most popular sporting events, it wasn’t long before horse racing made its way to the ‘Paris of the Orient.’ The British loved the pastime so much that they brought the practice to Shanghai, setting up a racecourse in the centre of town. Not only did this introduce a popular form of entertainment, but also the gambling culture that came with it, spurring dreams of overnight riches. Shanghai’s first racetrack was built in 1850 on Nanjing and Henan Road, with three more circuits opening over the next ten years.
At first, winners on the races were not awarded prize money, but bottles of champagne, leading to the betting slip moniker “champagne ticket”. Later, cash rewards were established, and the highest jackpot was reportedly up to 224,000 Yin Yuan, the silver currency at the time. The high-profit bets took the East by storm, spreading nationwide and even making it possible for those outside Shanghai to purchase betting slips from cigarette shops. The races transformed the Bund into a wealthy area overnight, bringing windfalls to lucky punters, while bankrupting many more.
The Far East’s First Raceclub
In its wake, horseracing culture left behind a lot of English-influenced architecture including a building completed in 1932 by Englishman Mohair Matheson. This never-before-seen structure of reinforced steel and concrete cost a staggering two million silver dollars. At 100 meters high, its construction area of 21,000 square meters included a dramatic 53-meter tower. The four-story building contained the racetracks’ ticketing office, a member’s club and an indoor swimming pool, as well as an area for awarding ticket winners. This historical site is still intact and has been used for art and cultural purposes such as the Shanghai Art Music event.
During the 1930s, Shanghai became a shopping mecca with an influx of some of the most fashionable and internationally renowned brands of clothing, jewellery and magazines setting up shop in the metropolis. This attracted people from nearby cities and neighboring countries who flocked to the city. The four most famous department stores were Sincere, Wing On, Sun Sun and Da Sun, which stocked an assortment of products in grand and luxurious settings that were comparable to New York’s Macy’s and London’s Selfridges at the time. Shanghai was determined to keep pace, lighting up the streets with neon lights and creating beautiful window displays that exhibited the latest international trends. Boutiques also opened shop, selling imported products like long stockings, chocolates, wine, dancing shoes and talcum powder – items that were never before seen in China.
Of the four major department stores, Wing On was the most influential and high-class. Within the modern European-style building of Wing On’s store, there were as many as 50,000 different products for sale. Wing On even imported the glass for their display windows. Previous to Wing On, all store clerks were male, but Wing On became the first to employ beautiful young female attendants. This awoke more male customers to the benefits of shopping, and provied to be the start of a smart business practice that stores routinely employ today.
Wing On was also the first company to combine both commercial and entertainment features, placing shopping stores on the first to fourth floors and setting up entertainment venues on the upper floors like restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and cinemas. They maximized all the available space, even utilizing the roof for an open-air playground during the day and making it a venue for rooftop parties at night. Their store was one of the most popular destinations on Nanjing Road.