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  • Global Shanghai 1850–2010: A History in Fragments
  • David D. Buck (bio)
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom. Global Shanghai 1850–2010: A History in Fragments. New York: Routledge, 2008. 192 pp. Paperback $39.95, ISBN 978-0-415-21328-8.

Beijing had its special year in 2008 with the Olympics. Visitors who wanted more than a travel guide introduction could turn to Lillian Li, Alison Dray-Novy, and Haili Kung’s Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City (2007). Shanghai’s year is scheduled to be 2010 because the city will have a world’s fair of its own. For the past several years, huge amounts of money and attention have been lavished upon the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. On schedule, Jeffrey Wasserstrom had produced this book to appeal to English-speaking visitors.

The scope of the projects underwritten for the 2010 Expo is astounding. To outdo the existing marvels of Pudong’s new skyscrapers, endless factories, and apartment blocks built on farm fields since the 1990s, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall has produced plans and models that include the bridge and viaduct linking Shanghai with Shaoxing across Hangzhou Bay. Yet as Wasserstrom correctly notes, one can still “look in vain for clear signs that Shanghai is catching up with . . . Beijing as a site of political and cultural experimentation” (p. 13).

Wasserstrom employs the use of snapshots of the city’s history at twenty-five year intervals. Beginning in 1850 and ending in 2000, each of these seven short chapters attempts to encapsulate aspects of Shanghai at specific times. An introduction [End Page 399] and conclusion with a suggested reading section round out the book. The individual chapters draw heavily on contemporary newspapers, published memoirs, and novels. Each snapshot has a theme, such as Shanghai at the height of the Boxer Uprising in 1900 or in the last phases of the Maoist era in 1975. In his conclusion, Wasserstrom briefly offers ten propositions about Shanghai, which discuss, for example, the notions that “visions of the city as a ‘East-meets-West’ place are passé” and “twenty-first century Shanghai is a futuristic city.”

While Wasserstrom’s depiction of the ebb and flow of Shanghai’s history is sound, his snapshots do not always work. For example, the chapter on Shanghai in 1925 emphasizes the May Thirtieth Movement, a major labor and anti-imperialist protest in Shanghai that had lasting impact on Chinese politics. In this subject, Wasserstrom is a recognized expert. Here Wasserstrom also discusses Shanghai’s growing reputation in the mid-1920s as a city of excitement, intrigue, and sin. Although he mentions some of the novels, movies, and memoirs set in Shanghai that depict the era from around 1920 through 1940, he fails to capture the mystery and excitement Shanghai came to represent in popular culture.

Shanghai’s dangerous allure became a global fascination a global fascination in the 1920s that has lasted until today. John Colton wrote a 1926 Broadway play “Shanghai Gesture” in which an American girl, while visiting a brothel, is ruined when she falls in love with an Asian major-domo. In 1941 Joseph von Sternberg made a movie based on the play. It was a sequel to von Sternberg’s more famous “Shanghai Express” (1931), starring Marlene Dietrich. A 2009 New York revival, “Shanghai Gesture,” shows the continuing global appeal of Shanghai’s reputation as a symbol of exotic decadence. There are hundreds of stories, novels, plays, memoirs, and films that play out the drama of individuals drawn to Shanghai to suffer like moths caught in a flame. Chinese, Japanese, and Western writers all have employed Shanghai in this fashion.

In the introduction, Wasserstrom discusses the “real and imagined Shanghai” and quotes Jean Cocteau, who said in 1936, “‘[N]othing in Shanghai was the least like the picture I had formed of it’”(p. 6). Others employed Shanghai as the setting for their novels, even though they never visited the city. For example, Wasserstrom cites Andre Malraux’s influential and widely cited novel Man’s Fate (originally La Condition humaine, 1933) about the failed 1927 communist revolution as a example of important literature set in Shanghai. Yet, according to Oliver Todd’s...