The whole point of this little series was to follow on from aussie’s Reports on Nanjing and Shanghai to illustrate the many other opportunities for interesting trips in China and the ease of finding company using the gay apps. There is no need to write much about Shanghai other than to add a bit of history and something about some other parts of the city.
Chiang Kai Shek played a major and far from distinguished role in this city. When, largely through trickery, he assumed leadership of the emerging nationalist Party after the death of its founder Sun Yat-sen, China was still not united. Chiang faced opposition from several warlords and later the Japanese who had invaded Manchuria and formed the puppet state of Manchukuo with the last Emperor as its titular head. He was also fighting on another front – with the young communist movement headed by Mao.
Chiang had captured Shanghai in 1927 when it was still very much a divided city thanks in large part to the after effects of the Opium Wars. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking gave Britain, France and the USA chunks of the Chinese coastline. In Shanghai, the city was divided into four Settlements – British, French, American and Chinese. As if this was not shame enough, in the foreign settlements foreign law applied. Later the Brits and Americans merged their lands to create the International Settlement.
Map illustrating the borders of the early Settlements. Later the British and French Concessions were extended much further west.
Chiang did nothing to disturb the foreign settlements, but he wanted his rule solidified in the Chinese quarter. To achieve this he allied himself to several notorious Triads and Gangs, notably the Green Gang which controlled the city’s drug business. Assassination of potential rivals and murder in general was common. The Green Gang even used part of its large cash hoard to finance Chiang’s political activities.
Drugs were only one of the city’s many vices. The “Whore of the Orient” was a common nickname for the city. High-class prostitutes with a variety of legendary skills serviced the city’s rich. At the other end of the scale, as the visiting novelist Christopher Isherwood wrote, “If you want girls or boys, you can have them, at all prices, in the bath houses and the brothels.” And he did not necessarily mean those of acceptable age.
For decades after World War II, Shanghai reverted to being almost a ghost of a city under communist rule. Even by the mid-1980s when I first visited, the tallest building was still the dark 22-storey Park Hotel on Bubbling Well Road built in the 1930s. Lamplighters still lit the streetlamps in the French Concession. What is now the centre of the city, People’s Park, had once been the Shanghai Horse Racing Club in the original British Settlement. This Settlement also controlled much of the Bund on the west bank of the Huangpu river where many of its impressive old buildings have since been restored and are back in use.
The area to the west of the French Settlement was to become the most desirable residential part of the city, boasting large villas and tree-lined avenues, many still in existence today. Not surprisingly, this was called the “Paris of the East”. Sun Yat-sen’s old home is here, as is the main shopping street Huaihai Road, the Cathedral in Xujiahui and the popular shopping and dining area mentioned by aussie, Xintiandi. Here, too, is an interesting old Shanghai restaurant named Ye Olde Station Restaurant.
This serves traditional Shanghainese food (I love the small slabs of fatty pork and the famous soup dumplings) and is filled with old artefacts. Most interesting, you can dine in one of two railway carriages in the garden, one used exclusively by the Dowager Empress Cixi and the other by Sun Yat-sen’s widow, Soong Ching-ling.
In a twist of fate, Chiang Kai-shek had tried to marry Ching-ling after Sun’s death. She refused, so he married her sister Soong Mei-ling instead. Mei-ling was to become the darling of the American media and Congress, and helped Chiang keep the USA on his side during the Cold War. Ye Olde Station Restaurant is a bit of a pricey tourist trap but the food is certainly very good – and how often can you say you dined in the carriage of an Empress?
Also here is the famous 5-acre Yu Gardens with its plethora of pathways, interesting entrances and the famous teahouse, another tourist haunt.
The only other site I will mention here is the Shanghai Museum situated right in the centre of People’s Square. Opened at the end of the last century and with most of the galleries financed by Hong Kong squillionaires of Shanghai descent, this has the finest examples of Chinese art and artefacts outside the National Museum in Taipei (whose treasures Chiang looted from China). I have also seen some fascinating visiting European Exhibitions here.
I doubt if any city in the world has developed as much between 1985 and 2017 as Shanghai. I find it more exciting than Hong Kong, although the latter boasts many more gay venues. I have gay Chinese friends who have lived in Shanghai for almost 25 years. When I visit we will usually go out for dinner rather than to a gay bar or club. Occasionally we used to go on for a drink at Shanghai’s first gay bar – and later almost an institution, Eddy’s. Sadly Eddy’s closed about two years ago, anther victim of the apps. Several do remain, though. Lucca on Panyu Road and Telephone 6 above it are always busy, particularly at weekends. But like the others, they tend to be venues where Shanghai guys go with friends rather than to hook up.
One of Shanghai’s attractions is that the high-speed rail network means it is now so easy to get away from the city for a day or two. One with the fastest journey time of around 1 hour is to Hangzhou with its famous scenery and lakes. Another shorter trip is west to Suzhou, for millennia the centre of world famous silk production and the quality of its silk products. There are no less than 170 high-speed trains to Suzhou daily with the shortest time of less than 25 minutes. So a day-trip is easy.
Both cities are at the southern end of one of the world’s least-known marvels, the Grand Canal, now a World Heritage Site. This was constructed to ease the flow of trade down from Beijing to Hangzhou. Like all trade routes, cities on the Canal soon became extremely wealthy, none more so than Suzhou. What makes Suzhou worth a visit are its own small canals and waterways – some 40% of its area is covered by water – and its many famous gardens.
Some of the merchants who made their fortunes from the silk trade bequeathed to the city their fabulously extensive classical gardens, many with fascinating names like the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Lingering Garden, the Retreat and Reflection Garden, the Master of the Nets Garden, the Lion Grove Garden and the Couple’s Retreat Garden (but I didn’t see any gay couples there)! Nine of the 50 or so gardens open to the public are noted for their exquisite craftsmanship, artistic elegance and rich cultural implications. The earliest dates back to the 11th century but most were created a few centuries later during the Ming Dynasty.
I ‘did’ Suzhou in a day which meant quite a rush as this is a big city of almost 11 million. But the most visited gardens are all in a relatively small area along with a few other sites like the Ming Dynasty Beisi Pagoda.
So there is still time to linger along some of the small waterways and have lunch in one of the many small restaurants and teashops. There seems to be some gay nightlife in Suzhou – at least one gay bar and one bay sauna are usually listed. If that is what you are looking for, though, probably best either use the apps or hop on the train for a more exciting evening back to Shanghai.
Shanghai’s Pudong Skyline in 2011 (minus the new Shanghai Tower, the tallest building in China and presently the second highest in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa)
Anything and everything about gay life anywhere in the world, especially Asia, other than Thailand.
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