The History of foreigners (expats) living in Shanghai

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    As one of the youngest of China’s large cities, Shanghai is not blessed with all the antiquities and dynastic destinations of Beijing or Xian. But what Shanghai lacks in historical span it more than makes up for in historical intensity. Declared one of five “treaty ports” opened to foreign occupation in 1842 under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking, which settled the first Opium War, Shanghai quickly rose to the prominent position as China’s most prosperous ?and in many ways most important ?metropolis. Throughout the tumultuous decades of the 1920s and 30s, almost every significant event happened in or in some relation to Shanghai.

    The town of Shanghai was first founded in the 11th century as a small fishing village near the mouth of the Yangtze River, and so it remained for centuries. The oldest parts of Shanghai are in what are now its suburbs, such as Songjiang and Jiading Districts. By the 17th century it had grown to a port of medium size and importance, receiving trade from the rest of Asia. It also developed a significant cotton industry –one of China’s largest in the 18th century. The debate rages over Shanghai’s origins and pre-colonial importance, but it is generally agreed that the Shanghai the world came to know began with the arrival of the foreigners and their settlements.

    Along with the original walled city, Shanghai grew up along the boundary lines of the British and American International Settlement and the French Concession. These areas were ruled entirely by foreigners who enjoyed “extraterritoriality” ?freedom from prosecution under Chinese law. Despite the indignity of its semi-colonial status, Shanghai grew rich from foreign investment. The city became a diverse cultural pastiche of both Chinese and international influences, a legacy that remains today in both the colorful cacophony of the architecture and the openness of the population.

    In the mid-1850s, the city was briefly overrun by the Small Swords Society. This secret society was affiliated with the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a quasi-Christian sect that rose up against the Qing Dynasty in 1851. Otherwise, the foreigners were for decades unfettered in their dominance of the city, unaware of or indifferent to the opposition to this foreign domination of a piece of Chinese soil that was seething around them.

    In 1911, Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary Nationalist movement succeeded ?almost accidentally ?in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. Sun aimed to end the foreign dominance of China, even though his Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, relied largely on funds gathered from Shanghai’s compradores, shrewd Chinese business men who made their fortunes working at foreign companies before proceeding to launch their own companies and make even larger fortunes.

    Sun Yat-sen’s revolution ran into unexpected difficulties when the new Chinese Republic was usurped by Yuan Shikai, a militarist who declared himself Emperor in 1916 before conveniently dying. China then descended into a chaotic congeries of feuding warlord satrapies. In Shanghai, relative freedom and the influx of foreign literature and technology, combined with a turbulent social and political situation, resulted in an intellectual and artistic flowering such as China has rarely seen before or since.

    Literary magazines sprung up like toadstools after the rain, and the very first Western-style spoken plays in Chinese were written and performed. The Shanghai film industry emerged as second in the world only to Hollywood, producing countless classic films up into the 1950s. Many of these films, with their subtle but scathing criticisms of the social and political order, are surprisingly sophisticated even when viewed today. China’s first popular music, tied closely with the film world, also appeared in Shanghai starting during the Warlord Era.

    Political changes were meanwhile afoot, including the establishment of the Chinese Government Party, which held its first National Congress in secret in a house in the French Concession in 1921. In 1927, the Nationalists ?under the leadership of General Chiang Kai-shek ?joined forces with the Communists to take over the city as part of a larger effort to reunify China.

    The Communists and the left-leaning Wuhan-based branch of the Kuomintang were in for a harsh surprise in April, when Chiang Kai-shek called on his extensive underworld connections to move against the leftists that had helped his first campaign succeed. The crackdown became immortalized as the “White Terror,” and it was the first of the three times that Shanghai’s streets would literally flow with blood.

    The second time came in 1932. Shortly after the Mukden Incident and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, the Empire of the Rising Sun turned its gaze on the Paris of the East. After a dubious “incident” involving the deaths of a few Japanese citizens, Japanese prepared to invade Shanghai’s northern Zhabei District, where most Chinese-owned industry was based. They were countered by the Nineteenth Route Army, a rag-tag group who,