Ha! Finally back to my inexplicably naughty ways again! And just as I thought New Years was over and done, I come to find out that the Chinese are not through yet! As a matter of fact, I enjoy Chinese New Years more than the “traditional western” version since it goes on for fifteen whole days, is celebrated in almost every country (just as on Jan 31), and you can do so much with it! So, in honor of the very popular Year of the Dragon, I would like to propose a step back in time. A journey if you wish back to the opium infused, gin swimming, anything goes Shanghai in the early part of the twentieth century and just imagine for a moment what a really awesome Chinese New Years party might have been like for a westerner new to China!
Firstly it is important to understand how and why Shanghai became so important for westerners. I always thought well, they came over…liked it…and made an opportunity out of it. Sort of like Europeans meeting happy Indians who were fine with having land and homes taken away…and then feeling most obliged to run the casinos for the snotty rich. It was kind of like that for the Chinese and foreigners.
Western visitors saw a western city and foreigners living in the city had little need of contact with the Chinese around them. Very few ever learned to speak even basic Chinese. The world of the “Shanghailanders” was based on the classic British colonial model so it had all the amenities of home…only mostly cared for by Chinese.
But aside from that, Shanghai was THE place to be! It was the Paris of the East! Western visitors to Shanghai reported a “treaty port mentality” amongst foreigners here, while Chinese residents were prone to “Yangjingbang culture,” a term describing the foreign-influenced habits, dress and speech of many of Shanghai’s Chinese residents. This meant that everyone was most likely 20’s fabulous and looking their best for New Years!
So here you are, a foreigner, just stepping your polished shoe off the boat in the harbor on the first night of the Spring Festival..aka New Year…1928! It is loud, chaotic, beautiful, violent, smokey, exhilarating, drunken, dangerous, red and you don’t know quite what to make of it. They do love that red. Red lanterns, red envelopes, red clothes, red fireworks…you just see lots of red. And Shanghai, being the largest city in China at the time, had a lot of red going around.
Have you ever seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Of course our scenario westerner doesn’t but imagine that cause that is pretty close to Shanghai in the 20’s and 30’s. There are fireworks lining the streets (forget safety hazard! Live a little!) that are being be set off…well, whenever someone wanted a firework set off. You could be walking with a Faberge Egg and they would set them off and then smile joyfully as you cried while picking the pieces up off the sidewalk as a old woman tries to sell you dried squid.
Those red lanterns earlier, the streets have been filled with those, lights, and lots of people. You, as a rich westerner, have made your way to the clubs, bars, casinos, saloons, massage parlors, and sometimes even a restaurant…cause those are so normal they are out of style!
I know many of you are thinking “Hey! That’s how they do it today!”. Well, not quite. Back then, they mixed the cultures up a bit. It was the first years westerners had influence on the Chinese and it was like a blow to the face with a red hot hammer with nails embedded…it left scars.
So you, our now liquor soaked, culture shocked wealthy little traveler are wanting a true Chinese experience. I know! Let’s hobbled you over to one of the most elaborate and most addictive opium dens in Shanghai! It’s almost midnight. Hearken in the New Year with a new experience! And when the bombardment of fireworks go off, that lovely lady attending you (also a trained hypnotist!) can make sure to tell you about it when you finally realize she is not a headless Puff Orpington (a very cute chicken by the by) and that there really are fireworks and that it’s the Year of the Dragon…not the Year of Napoleon. Silly Chinese hypnotists!
And this will go on for 14 more days! And now dear westerner it is time to say goodnight, preferably in the Astor….that is if you can sleep through the torrent of fireworks, gunfire, more fireworks, and that creepy next door neighbor who brought his Sing Song girls back with him! Needless to say, Shanghai would have been amazing at this time of year since it is always amazing!