Synopses & Reviews
Chapter OneThe Ugly Daughter Rises"If God lets Shanghai endure, he owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah.
-- Shanghai missionary
In Shanghai's prime, no city in the Orient, or the world for that matter, could compare with it. At the peak of its spectacular career the swamp-ridden metropolis surely ranked as, the most pleasure-mad, rapacious, corrupt, strife-ridden, licentious, squalid, and decadent city in the world. It was the most pleasure-mad because nowhere else did the population pursue amusement, from feasting to whoring, dancing to powder-taking, with such abandoned zeal. It was rapacious because greed was its driving force; strife-ridden because calamity was always at the door; licentious because it catered to every depravity known to man; squalid because misery stared one brazenly in the face; and decadent because morality, as every Shanghai resident knew, was irrelevant. The missionaries might rail at Shanghai's wickedness and reformers condemn its iniquities, but there was never reason for the city to mend its errant ways, for as a popular Chinese saying aptly observed, "Shanghai is like the emperor's ugly daughter; she never has to worry about finding suitors."
Other great cities -- Rome, Athens, or St. Petersburg, for instance -- might flatter themselves that they had been conceived for virtuous, even heroic, purposes. Not so the ugly daughter who reveled in her bastard status. Half Oriental, half Occidental; half land, half water; neither a colony nor wholly belonging to China; inhabited by the citizens of every nation in the world but ruled by none, the emperor's ugly daughter was an anomaly among cities. The strange fruit of a forced union between East and West,this mongrel princess came into the world through a grasping premise -- the right of one nation to foist a poisonous drug upon another.
Born in greed and humiliation, the ugly daughter grew up in the shadow of the Celestial Empire's defeat by outsiders in the Opium War. Nonetheless, within decades, she had become Asia's greatest metropolis, a brash sprawling juggernaut of a city that dominated the rest of the country with its power, sophistication, and, most of all, money.
The two characters making up the Chinese word "Shang-hai together can be translated as "above the sea," a reference to the fact that the port stood on mudflats barely above sea level. Westerners, however, turned the word into a verb denoting a despicable act. To know its English meaning is to comprehend the modern city's ignoble essence. To quote one lexicon:
shanghai... fr. "Shanghai, China; fr. the formerly wide-spread use of unscrupulous means to procure sailors for voyages to the Orient 1a: to put aboard a ship by force often with the help of liquor or a drug...b: to put by force or a threat of force into or as if into a place of detention...2: to put by trickery into an undesirable position...
It was a form of shanghaiing that created the modern city of Shanghai. A flotilla of Her Majesty's gunboats invaded the prosperous town of 250,000 "Celestials" in 1842, not departing until they had received a ransom of three million silver dollars from its wealthier residents. A few weeks later, the force of "red-haired barbarians," as the Chinese referred to the British, threatened to attack Nanking, the ancient Ming capital. In so, row and despair, the Tao-kuang emperor sued for peace, dispatching three imperialemissaries to Nanking. On August 29, 1842, aboard a British gunboat anchored outside the city, they opened the door to a century of China's exploitation by outsiders by signing the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty's terms, virtually dictated to the Chinese, were among the harshest ever extracted of a defeated government. They called for, among other things, the payment of an indemnity of 21 million silver dollars, the cession of Hong Kong, a low tariff on foreign goods, and the opening of five Chinese ports -- among them Shanghai -- to foreign trade and residence.
Jealous of Britain's victory, other Western powers, led by France and the United States, requested similar treaties with Peking. Adopting the philosophy of "soothing the barbarian," the emperor complied. To ensure that none of its rivals would obtain from the dynasty advantages it could not share in, Britain had cleverly insisted upon a "most favored nation" clause in its agreements, requiring Peking to extend a concession won by one nation to all others. One of the most important of these subsequent privileges was that of extraterritorial jurisdiction. A cornerstone of Western power in the treaty ports, extraterritoriality -- "extrality," to use its treaty port abbreviation granted foreigners immunity from the laws of China. Under this principle, subjects of the treaty powers could be tried for crimes and misdeeds committed in China only by their own consuls or their nation's courts. Fittingly, the Treaty of Nanking and the subsequent edifice of agreements for which it provided the foundation, came to be known as, the "unequal treaties."
Western gunboats and firepower were the instruments by which Britain defeated thefive-thousand-year-old Flowery Kingdom, but opium paved the way. Opium, the addictive drug that Britain was so bent upon selling to the Chinese that it waged a war against them for the privilege, built modern Shanghai. Without the opium poppy, the most evil and profligate of flowers, the "Whore of Asia" would never have been created.
The drug that seduced the Chinese was brought by "fan kuei, or "foreign devils" as the Chinese called foreigners. When the "barbarians from across the sea" first appeared, they hardly seemed capable of being the menace that would puncture the Celestial Empire's splendid isolation, let alone destroy a civilization its four million people considered the most glorious in the world. To the Chinese, the "fan kuei were bizarre creatures. Everything about them, from their bushy whiskers to their unnaturally pale flesh, seemed outlandish, even grotesque. When they spoke, they made harsh, guttural sounds; their "legs and feet stretched out and bent with difficulty," reminding one scholar of "prancing Manchu ponies" and "water buffaloes"; and they dressed ridiculously. Another official also remarked on the devils from across the seas' resemblance to animals. They appeared to him to be "playing the parts of foxes, hares and other such animals on the stage." Even more striking, he commented, was the fact that foreigners "really do look like devils; and when people call them 'devils, ' it is no mere empty term of abuse." Altogether, from the Chinese point of view, Europeans were no less than beasts given human form...
"...her work is an entertaining relation of more than a century in one of China's most tumultuous times and cities." Sheryl WuDunn, The New York Times Book Review
"...provocative and exciting...producing a series of engaging vignettes of 19th and early 20th century Shanghai..." Washington Post
"Dong, a journalist and second-generation Chinese American, offers a fascinating account of a city legendary for decadence, violence, and greedy imperialism....Although irredeemably corrupt, Shanghai was also the epicenter of technology and advancement from machinery to movies. Dong captures Shanghai's history through changes in geopolitics, economics, and social politics and the 'ever combustible tinder of Chinese nationalist feeling.'" Vanessa Bush, Booklist
Transformed from a swampland wilderness into a dazzling, modern-day Babylon, the Shanghai that predated Mao′s cultural revolution was a city like no other: redolent with opium and underworld crime, booming with foreign trade, blessed with untold wealth and marred by abject squalor.
Journalist Stella Dong captures all the exoticism, extremes, and excitement of this legendary city as if it were a larger-than-life character in a fantastic novel.
About the Author
Journalist Stella Dong has written for the New York Times Book Review, Travel & Leisure, and Harper's Bazaar. A first-generation Chinese American, she grew up in Seattle and now lives in New York City. This is her first book.