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SHANGHAI: THE WAY IT WAS : A glance back at a short, but extraordinary era

October 19, 1986|IRENE CORBALLY KUHN | Irene Corbally Kuhn was a foreign correspondent in Shanghai and elsewhere in the Orient during the 1920s. She lives in New York City's Greenwich Village. and

Shanghai, known once as the Paris of the Orient, has persisted in the Western imagination as the essence of exoticism, excitement, color and vitality through wars, revolutions and decades of isolation. But vintage Shanghai, the city that epitomized those qualities, actually existed in all its extraordinary variety and complexity for only a very short span of time: during the years between the end of World War I and the capture of the Chinese part of the city by the Japanese in 1937.

In those days, the great port--which lies about 13 miles above the mouth of the Whangpoo River, a small tributary of the mighty Yangtze near its estuary--was a city unlike any other, a place so cosmopolitan that sizable colonies of about 30 nationalities lived and worked there in amiable juxtaposition. Westerners drawn to Shanghai at that time, whether led by fate or by choice, were generally free spirits--adventurous and enterprising--or soon became so in order to survive. The British were the dominant group, although for them Shanghai was a seven-week journey by sea, half the world away from home. But when their ship dropped anchor alongside the Bund, the long, curving waterfront street that was a main thoroughfare of the city, they found much that was familiar in a strange setting. Decades before, under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking, which ended the first Opium War in 1842, British merchants were given permission to set up permanent trading establishments and residences in Shanghai as well as in other Chinese cities. The French and then the Americans followed shortly after the British, and other nationalities were not far behind. Within a few years, Shanghai's International Settlement, a mere nine square miles and undisputedly unique, came into being.

The International Settlement was almost a city-state. It observed its own code of law; was governed by its own municipal council composed of all resident nationalities; had its own police force of tall, straight-spined, turbaned Sikhs, its own customs authorities, courts, currency, and even its own language--the delightfully flexible, easily acquired Pidgin English. Much of Shanghai's foreign population (along with numerous wealthy Chinese) maintained spacious, airy, European-style houses set in large, tree-shaded gardens in the French Conces-sion. Here Annamese from the French Colonial Service kept order in place of the Sikhs, and the streets bore such names as Avenue Joffre and Rue Massenet.

But it was the surrounding Chinese city, noisy and noisome, vast and vibrant, filled with teeming life, constant motion, and daily drama, that claimed the heart of every Westerner fortunate enough to know Shanghai in that brief, suspended time between the wars.

I was one of those venturers to vintage Shanghai in the '20s. Young and innocent, I arrived on a Japanese freighter after a six-week voyage from Marseilles to find a place where everything was strange, nothing was surprising and anything seemed possible. My limited experience as a journalist in New York and Paris proved sufficient to get me on the staff of the China Press, an American-edited English- language newspaper that ran brisk competition to the staid, 100-year-old, English-edited North China Daily News, sometimes called the Old Lady of the Bund as much for its editorial views as for its location.

The owner of the China Press was a Mesopotamian (he would be called an Iraqi now) who had made an early fortune in the opium trade and then had turned respectable. An indulgent and appreciative man, he rewarded his staff not merely with sturdy salaries but with rent-free lodgings in a large and comfortably appointed house in the French Concession. Thus, the China Press Mess was established, a common living arrangement for the unmarried employees of many Western enterprises. As I was to be the only single woman living there with six male newspaper colleagues, a housekeeper-chaperone was required, and an American woman with long experience in running a household in China was engaged. From her I learned about the elaborate rituals of domestic life in Shanghai, so that when, in several months' time, I was married to a fellow journalist and we moved into our own home, organizing a domestic staff held no terrors for me. Wages were so low that one could afford a houseful of servants on even the most modest of incomes. And indeed, one was expected to. For there was always Chinese custom to consider: custom born of the pressures of overpopulation and expressed in the saying, "One does not break another man's rice bowl." In other words, the available work was extended to provide as many jobs as possible, and the subsequent divisions of responsibility were punctiliously observed.

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