While the rest of the world suffered through the Great Depression, Shanghai—then the world’s fifth-largest city—sailed blissfully along. “The decade from 1927 to 1937 was Shanghai’s first golden age,” says Xiong Yuezhi, a history professor at Fudan University in the city and editor of the 15-volume Comprehensive History of Shanghai. “You could do anything in Shanghai as long as you paid protection [money].” In 1935 Fortune magazine noted, “If, at any time during the Coolidge prosperity, you had taken your money out of American stocks and transferred it to Shanghai in the form of real estate investments, you would have trebled it in seven years.”
At the same time, Communists were sparring with the nationalist Kuomintang for control of the city, and the Kuomintang allied themselves with a criminal syndicate called the Green Gang. The enmity between the two sides was so bitter they did not unite even to fight the Japanese when long-running tensions led to open warfare in 1937.
Once Mao Zedong and his Communists came to power in 1949, he and the leadership allowed Shanghai capitalism to limp along for almost a decade, confident that socialism would displace it. When it didn’t, Mao appointed hard-line administrators who closed the city’s universities, excoriated intellectuals and sent thousands of students to work on communal farms. The bronze lions were removed from the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, and atop the Customs House, Big Ching rang in the day with the People’s Republic anthem “The East Is Red.”
The author Chen Danyan, 53, whose novel Nine Lives describes her childhood during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, remembers the day new textbooks were distributed in her literature class. “We were given pots full of mucilage made from rice flour and told to glue all the pages together that contained poetry,” she says. “Poetry was not considered revolutionary.”
I first visited Shanghai in 1979, three years after the Cultural Revolution ended. China’s new leader, Deng Xiaoping, had opened the country to Western tourism. My tour group’s first destination was a locomotive factory. As our bus rolled along streets filled with people wearing Mao jackets and riding Flying Pigeon bicycles, we could see grime on the mansions and bamboo laundry poles festooning the balconies of apartments that had been divided and then subdivided. Our hotel had no city map or concierge, so I consulted a 1937 guidebook, which recommended the Grand Marnier soufflé at Chez Revere, a French restaurant nearby.
Chez Revere had changed its name to the Red House, but the elderly maitre d’ boasted that it still served the best Grand Marnier soufflé in Shanghai. When I ordered it, there was an awkward pause, followed by a look of Gallic chagrin. “We will prepare the soufflé,” he sighed, “but Monsieur must bring the Grand Marnier.”
Shanghai today offers few reminders of the ideology that inspired the Cultural Revolution. After the city’s Mao Museum closed in 2009, leftover statues of the Great Helmsman stood on a shuttered balcony like so many lawn jockeys. By contrast, many of Shanghai’s precommunist buildings look almost new. The former villa of the Green Gang leader lives on as the Mansion Hotel, whose Art Deco lobby doubles as a memorial to the 1930s, filled with period furnishings and sepia photographs of rickshaw pullers unloading cargo off sampans. The reopened Great World Amusement Center provides a venue for Chinese opera, acrobats and folk dancers, though a few bars are allowed.
As for the Bund, it has been restored to its original Beaux-Arts grandeur. The Astor House, where plaques commemorate Ulysses S. Grant’s post-presidential visit, and where Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard were summoned to dinner by liveried butlers bearing golden trumpets, is once again receiving guests. Across Suzhou Creek, the Peace Hotel (known as the Cathay when Noel Coward wrote Private Lives there during a four-day bout with the flu in 1930) recently underwent a $73 million restoration. The Shanghai Pudong Development Bank now occupies the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building. Bronze lions have returned to guard duty at the entrance.
With the Chinese well into their transition to what they call a “socialist market economy,” it seems that they look upon the city not as an outlier, but as an example. “Every other city is copying Shanghai,” says Francis Wang, a 33-year-old business reporter who was born here.
Shanghai’s makeover began haphazardly—developers razed hundreds of tightly packed Chinese neighborhoods called lilongs that were accessed through distinctive stone portals called shikumen—but the municipal government eventually imposed limitations on what could be destroyed and built in its place. Formerly a two-block-long lilong, Xintiandi (New Heaven and Earth) was torn down only to be rebuilt in its 19th-century form. Now the strip’s chic restaurants such as TMSK serve Mongolian cheese with white truffle oil to well-heeled patrons amid the cyberpunk stylings of Chinese musicians.