The band played "I'll Be Seeing You" and the American couple put aside their drinks and began to dance, eyes closed, remembering the days when Shanghai was licentiusly alive. Their style of dancing left no doubts about their ages: they were prewar, chasing after ghosts.
Every night, in this small corner of Shanghai's Peace Hotel, a seven-man band does its pathetic best to resurrect moments forever gone. To have lived in Shanghai before the war -- providing one wasn't Chinese -- was to have experienced the heights of hedonism. Sybarites still discuss it whenever they reminisce.
Shanghai was lascivious, licentious, and Oriental backdrop for traders, merchants, opium dealers, freebooters and the spies of a dozen nations.
Gunboats patrolled its waters Turbaned Sikhs directed stree traffic. And the riches of the earth passed through its port.
Shanghai was known throughout the Orient for its wicked ways. Bars and cabarets, hundreds of them, operated day and night. The Paris, the Cannes, the St. Tropez. Some remained open till dawn. Particularly along Avenue Foch in the French Concession. Some closed only after the last customer shuffled off into the new day.
One was especially popular, the Del Monte. It never closed. Not even on a holiday. And so it was a ritual for those who'd stayed out all night to drop by the Del Monte for breakfast. Or even brunch. Or perhaps just to have a Bloody Mary.
How one guaged Shanghi depended upon the individual. To the ordinary Chinese, Shanghi was difficult. Beggars lined its streets. They stood outside every bar and cabaret in town. But if one were a foreigner, well . . . this was life at its best.
The cosmopolitan character and the social life were without comparison anywhere in the Orient. Besides the bars and cabarets, there was other action. Entertainment at the Roof Garden of the Park Hotel was both tasteful and European. Orchestras were booked from Britain, France, the United States and Russia. The gaiety and luxury seemed unending.
Everyone adored Shanghai: the British, the French, the Americans. So did nearly every other Foreigner who ever stepped ashore. The British took afternoon tea, the Americans had their highballs and the French sipped champagne. On Weekends everyone went to the races or played cricket, baseball, tennis. Life was easy. There were servants: cooks, houseboys, gardeners, chauffeurs, valets. The foreigners couldn't imagine their small world ever ending. Wealthy "taipans" darted about town in custom-made rickshaws and their ladies appeared in Paris gowns.
Life was dominated by the river. The Huangpo was crowded constantly with freighters from around the world. Sampans and junks bobbed in their wakes. Streets were a clot of cars, bicycles, rickshaws, particularly Nanking and Bubbling Well roads.
Adventurers came to Shanghai from every corner of the earth. Wicked, astute, cunning, avaricious. Few laws prevailed, few rules. Shanghai was a city without conscience, the market for opium, expensive silks, gold, jade, silver. An estimated 250,000 prostitutes lined Bubbling Well Road, the streets of the French Concession and the Bund where the big ships docked.
Shanghai's International Settlement was founded on a mud bank by the British in 1843. Afterward came the others -- foreigners from nearly every place on Earth. During the second half of the 19th century Shanghai was dominated by foreigners. They spilled over into the 20th century. They controlled everything: banks, customs, trading, shipping, industry.
Fortunes were amassed; missionaires went uncounted. It was a life unknown anywhere else in the Orient. But there was the flip side to Shanghai. While foreigners lived in spendor, most Chinese lived in squalor. Putrid canals ran past their hovels. Rats scrounged through their rooms at night.
Finally, the end of foreign domination glimmered with the Sino-Japanese War and later China's civil war. When it was all over the Communists had won. The foreigners had fled. The year: 1949.
Once in control of Shanghai, the new government of Mao Tse-tung closed the bars, the brothels, the cabarets. They set down tough rules, forbidding all those pleasures that had made Shanghai famous. Indeed, it was only recently that the Peace Hotel was permitted to engage the little band that plays nightly. (With the introduction of tourism, foreigners had been looking for entertainment.)
I toured the city, seeking out other changes. The muddy old Huangpo is still Shanghai's lifeline. It remains crowded with freighters, barges, sampans, junks. The river's guayside boulevard, the Bund, is formally callet Sun Yat-sen Road. And of course the park no longer has the sign that read: "Chinese and dogs not admitted."
Shanghai once boosted that it had the world's longest bar. It's gone. Party members occupy the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. And the Friendship Store does business in the old British Consulate. The golf course created by the British is a zoo. Schools and hospitals occupy dozens of palatial villas, all left by the foreigners. The notorious "Meet For Happiness Lane" -- the one-time red-light street -- is now called Liberation Lane.
In the early days the French Club was known throughout the East as the Ritz of the Orient. And while it is still a temple of opulence, its name has been changed to the Jin Jiang Club. The club faces the Jing Jiang Hotel, where President Nixon and Premier Chou yen-lai signed the Shanghai Communique, restoring friendship between the two nations. Nixon was in a suite that occupied an entire floor of the hotel: four bedrooms, four baths, a stitting room, dining room and study. The Chinese even rolled in a piano.
As for the Jing Jiang Club, it brings to mind the casino at Monte Carlo, except that gambling isn't permitted and guests are warned against "druken behavior." The club's ornate ballroom, once the scene of extravagant parties, is used for meetings (none of that bourgeois nonsense). Elsewhere, guests bowl, play billards, mah-jongg and Ping-Pong. Or else swim in the club's heated pool. Rooms maintained for VIPs at the Jing Jiang Club have attracted the likes of Yugoslavia's late President Tito.
The club's French restaurant is open nightly, serving foreigners searching for breath of yesterday. And like the Peace Hotel, its small orchestra entertains diners with prewar melodies that few recall.
Still searching out the old Shanghai, I dropped by the Red House restaurant at No. 37 Shensi South Road. The Red House, a holdover from prewar Shanghai, was popular in the '30s and '40s as Chez Louis. Apparently the owner had second thoughts when the Communists came to power and saw fit to change the name. Thus, the Red House. Anyway, the food is supurb -- it was the music we could do without. The waiter set a tap to playing such old-time favorites as "My Old Kentucky Home." "My Darling Clementine" and "Turkey in the Straw." It was too much, even with the candlelight and wine.
And so we drifted back to the Peace Hotel to listen to the only live music we found outside the Jing Jiang Club. Well, it was a trifle better, but barely. The saxophone players were out of tune and the drummer moved stiffly like some mechanical man. The place was filled with foreigners and the songs took you back: "Mexicali Rose," "La Paloma," "Maria," "Tea for Two" and "I'll Be Seeing You."
Ghosts. You could feel their presence. Well, it was getting late -- time for a nightcap.
Bartender, another Scotch.