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’.