A Top-Five List of Shanghai Urban Legends

From the World’s Biggest Fishing Village to Bruce Lee’s Most Famous Kick....

As routinely happens with famous cities, there are many things that people think they know about Shanghai—that turn out to be false or only half-true. Hence this “top five list” of myths, which I have come across continually while researching the book that I am finishing up for Routledge, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010. The first three items are unlikely to cause controversy, but the final two might cause a bit of fuming in some quarters. At least, that’s what happened when Robert Bickers and I tried to lay these two legends to rest in “Shanghai’s ‘Chinese and Dogs Not Admitted’ Sign: History, Legend and Contemporary Symbol,” an unexpectedly controversial piece we did for the China Quarterly back in June of 1995.

Legend #1: Before the Opium War (1839-1842), Shanghai was a mere “fishing village.”

No, no, no! This canard
keeps being repeated, but “fishing village” just won’t do as a descriptor of a community containing a couple of hundred thousand inhabitants, made up not just of people who farmed and yes fished, but also of people who worked in shops and restaurants, went to sea, taught at academies, tended lavish gardens, kept up temples, you name it. Shanghai’s history was changed forever when, immediately after the Opium War, it became a subdivided international treaty port with special zones set aside for trade and settlement by first Britons and then other foreigners. But before the Western gunboats came it was already a bustling walled town (see this 1817 map) with a port that served as a major transshipment point for goods circulating between China and Southeast Asia. (Why do you think the British wanted a piece of it so badly?)

Legend #2: Shanghai was built on reclaimed swampland.

This was true of the
Bund, the most famous section of the city throughout the century-long treaty-port era (1843-1943) and beyond. But even before the rise of Pudong (East Shanghai) across the river, the Bund was just part of a sprawling metropolis, much of which was built on what had always been dry land.

Legend #3: Only Westerners lived in the International Settlement and French Concession.

These foreign-run enclaves were supposed to be just for foreign residents, but they quickly became places where Chinese far outnumbered everyone else. And even among foreigners, by the early 1900s there were many more Japanese than Westerners living in them (see this
1915 census).

Legend #4. A big sign banning “Dogs and Chinese” stood at the gate to the best park.

Bruce Lee kicks such a sign in half in a memorable cinematic scene, but Bickers and I provide a lot of evidence in our China Quarterly article to back up the idea that the sign is best treated as an urban legend. And historians based in Shanghai have begun—albeit sometimes grudgingly—to concur, to the point that even the more carefully done Chinese language guidebooks sometimes refrain from breathing new life into the old tale. Last time, I checked, even Wikipedia was
going with the urban legend line, directing readers to our article for evidence.

5. The Western populations of the foreign-run districts were not prejudiced.

A second point of our China Quarterly piece is that, while a sign that humiliatingly paired “Dogs” and “Chinese” didn’t exist (at least not for decades in a prominent place), the kind of prejudice it has long been said to symbolize definitely did. Not every Shanghailander (as Western residents of the International Settlement were called) viewed Chinese as less than fully human. But many were content to see local Chinese treated like second-class citizens—and to have all Chinese other than Amahs looking after foreign children kept out of the best local park (until the rules for access were changed in 1928). Some of those who couldn’t get past the policemen guarding the entrance to the “Public Garden” in the late 1800s and early 1900s were, to add insult to injury, middle class Chinese whose taxes helped pay for the upkeep of the grounds!

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