In the first half of the 20th century Shanghai was one of the grand destinations for luxury travelers. Of course, in those days before intercontinental jet travel, to get to Shanghai meant you had to go by liner. If you traveled from Europe, you could expect at least a three-week journey. One could either travel through the Suez Canal, stopping and perhaps changing liners in India, and then proceeding via the Strait of Malacca to Hong Kong and then Shanghai. Alternatively, one could choose to cross the Atlantic, travel across the United States by train, and then go another ten days across the Pacific. American travelers, of course, had a simpler option of traversing the Pacific from any number of west coast ports, often stopping in either Hawai’i, Yokohama, or the Philippines.
In short, it was no quick journey, and usually people would be prepared to spend weeks—if not months—in the Far East. Shanghai was normally the not-miss destination for those traveling to Asia. Known as the “Paris of the East” it was famous for its never-ending nightlife. Swanky nightclubs catered to patrons with sumptuous meals, champagne cocktails, and floor shows highlighting singers, dancers, magicians, acrobats—many of them fluent in half a dozen languages. Shanghai’s hotels—including the Palace and the Cathay—were known around the world as among the finest. Shanghai’s casinos attracted not only the rich and famous, but some of the most sordid underground figures the world has known. Shanghai’s racetrack also was considered a not-miss affair on any tour of the Far East. I have reviewed an excellent book that has the Shanghai Race Club as the focal point of the last glorious days of pre-war Shanghai before it fell under Japanese occupation.
During the 1920s and 1930s, celebrities from across the globe flocked to Shanghai to see and to be seen—particularly American, British, and European actors and writers, such as Charlie Chaplin (pictured), Marlene Dietrich (pictured), Douglas Fairbanks, Paulette Goddard, Eugene O’Neill, Mary Pickford, Warner Oland (who played the original Chinese detective Charlie Chan in Hollywood), and the American divorcée who convinced the King of England to give up the throne, Wallis Simpson. It would have been a grand scene to behold.
Exotic Shanghai is the setting for my novel Above the Water. Please check it out.
Listen to a Soundtrack from the era on Spotify
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