A hundred years ago, the way the world looked and sounded was being shaped by a host of new technologies that allowed soaring skyscrapers, “talking pictures” at the cinema and a radio in every home. Artists, architects, musicians and writers responded to these developments with new sets of aesthetics such as jazz rhythms, abstract painting and forms of literature, all of which were such departures from their categorical norms that they came to be known, collectively, as modernism. American poet Ezra Pound designated 1922 as “Year One” of this new cultural landscape, and the world’s ever-growing cities were the incubators for these movements, as artists were drawn to create in cities being reimagined by “modernist” architects in New York, London, Berlin, Moscow and Paris. In Asia, no urbanity launched itself into the experiment of modernism so wholeheartedly as Shanghai. Which makes sense for Asia’s one true, freewheeling, laissez-faire melting pot at the time. This most cosmopolitan of cities craved the new, and in the golden years before the Japanese invasion of World War II, Shanghai’s denizens eagerly blended the city’s own Chinese heritage with contemporary European, American and Japanese influences. Modernism came to define Shanghai in its heyday, and it exhibited much the same spirit of its Western counterparts of the time, and like Weimar-era Berlin or Belle Époque Paris, the 1920s and 30s in China’s most notorious port city would provide its greatest creative legacy – to such an extent the period can be catalogued, even today, all the way from A to Z. Art deco The Chinese and foreign architects of Shanghai all took to art deco with a passion in the 1920s. The skyline filled with skyscrapers distinguished by sleek ornamentation and stylised geometric motifs. An international style combining luxury with modernity was perfect for Shanghai and its emergent nouveau riche, both foreign and Chinese. The city’s apartments, hotels, office blocks, banks, cinemas and schools of the time, at least the ones that still survive, stand as part of the world’s greatest endowments of art deco architecture. Every version exists in the city, from the “classic moderne” of the Bank of China building on the Bund, to the “streamline moderne” of the ziggurat Broadway Mansions overlooking Suzhou Creek. It’s a love affair that still resonates a century later in the look and feel of the city’s new buildings. Think of the fake art-deco frontage added to brighten up the New Heng Shan Cinema (838 Hengshan Lu), originally a drab 1950s Soviet-style concrete lump, or the more recent American art-deco-influenced Peninsula hotel at 32 The Bund. Billboards and advertising Shanghai took advertising seriously, seeing it as a “modern” form of communication. From the 1920s, ad agencies targeted foreign companies – Coca-Cola, Dubonnet, Eastman Kodak, Colgate, British American Tobacco – not to mention countless local brands, hoping to capture the new Shanghai consumer. Shanghai was brand-obsessed. One of the modern city’s great chroniclers, the writer Mu Shiying, complained of nightclub dancers with indigestion: “That can only be blamed on snacks the girls like to eat, you take Nestlé chocolates, Sunkist, Shanghai beer, candied walnuts, peanuts and other stuff and swallow it all down at once and you’re going to have severe digestive problems.” In his modernist short stories, Mu fixated on Tangee cosmetics, Craven A cigarettes and Johnnie Walker whisky. Carl Crow, an American who created the city’s largest agency, believed the “modern girl” or “moga” was the advertising revolution’s main driver. He claimed his 1920 ad for Pond’s Vanishing Cream had heralded their arrival. Once launched, the image of the modern girl would grow ever more daring, evolving into the iconic qipao-clad, permanent-waved, rosy-cheeked beauty of the 1930s. And we can’t mention Shanghai advertising without mentioning neon. The nighttime streets lit up with ads, luring the public into cinemas, cabarets and late-night restaurants. The city got its first neon sign in 1926, erected on Nanjing Lu advertising Royal typewriters. Canidrome Perhaps nowhere in Shanghai embraced popular modernity more than the Canidrome complex. Opened in 1928, it dominated an entire block of the French Concession. Here, 50,000 spectators watched floodlit greyhound racing, boxing or open-air movies. Its art deco dance hall was dedicated to jazz and over the years was home to numerous African-American acts, including Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen, brought to Shanghai from California. Nearby was the Parc des Sports jai-alai stadium (still standing at the junction of Shaanxi Lu and Huaihai Lu). Superstar pelotaris (players) attracted legions of adoring fans. Dance halls Shanghai’s dance halls were a staple of life and an industry. They created employment as dance teachers tried to help patrons keep up with new fads – the tango, Charleston, foxtrot. Musicians were hired from across the globe – orchestras composed of Filipino and Russian émigré musicians, black jazz bands from the United States, or Hawaiian ukulele sextets. Taxi dancers at a dime or a dollar a dance became stars with fan magazines devoted to them. The dance halls held beauty contests sponsored by whisky brands, cosmetic companies, even gangsters. They marketed the products of modernity – patrons might buy filter-tipped cigarettes from salesgirls, or gramophone records to take the band home. Ecole Rémi and The Bauhaus Designed by architect Alexandre Léonard, the Ecole Rémi (200 Yongkang Lu) represents perhaps the city’s best example of the influence of Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus School , still Germany’s most recognised modernist school of architecture. Shanghai’s continual embrace of the modern allowed Léonard, along with other foreign architects such as Paul Veysseyre and René Minutti, to move from the adornments of the Beaux-Arts and art deco to the more industrial, unornamented Bauhaus style. The influence can also be seen in Minutti’s Picardie Apartments (534 Hengshan Lu) and the offices of the French passenger liner service Messageries Maritimes (9 Zhongshan Lu). Fine Arts School The Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1912 by artist Liu Haisu, who believed that traditional Chinese art was in a state of stasis. To rejuvenate it required engaging with contemporary foreign trends, primarily post-Impressionism. In 1921, the academy published the first full translation of Italian art theorist Filippo Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto”. Two years later, the school gained notoriety for employing a nude model for its life drawing classes. Graduates emerged as Shanghai’s leading modernist painters. Female artists such as Qiu Ti and Pan Yuliang embraced the modern. Qiu’s non-realistic use of colour for everyday objects was seen as the height of the city’s avant-garde art world, while Pan’s daring partial nudes shocked many. Some graduates eschewed the rarefied gallery world for the modern realm of commercial art. Xie Zhiguang was among the best-known calendar girl artists portraying Chinese women as strong and athletic. Gonda and Shanghai’s foreign architects The vogue for foreign “starchitects” is nothing new in China. Hungarian C.H. Gonda arrived in 1920 to pioneer an ultra-modern style of building, The Capitol (146 Huqiu Lu) and Cathay (870 Huaihai Lu) cinemas, as well as the Sun Sun Department Store (Nanjing Lu), among others. Fellow Hungarian architect László Hudec arrived in the 1920s just as the city’s population doubled and the booming economy could finance grand projects. He created many modernist, art deco and expressionist classics. Hudec’s 1924 neoclassical Normandie Apartments (1850 Huaihai Lu) is the city’s most instagrammed building today. The Park Hotel (170 Nanjing Lu), so redolent of Shanghai’s spiritual modernist twin city of Chicago, opened in 1934 and, at 22 storeys, was the city’s tallest building at the time. Hotels Without doubt Victor Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel was the art deco masterpiece of the 1930s Bund. Its pyramid roof is redolent of modernism’s Egyptian obsession. Opened in 1929, the hotel had a rooftop nightclub, jazz band in the downstairs pub, Sassoon’s personal cocktail menu, a shopping arcade, central heating and telephones in every room. The Cathay was the epitome of modern accommodation. But we shouldn’t forget Shanghai’s other modernist hotels – the now-demolished Weida, once on Huaihai Lu, and the 1933 Yangtze Hotel (740 Hankou Lu) still with its lavish art deco lobby. And, in a superbly modern style, Sassoon’s other great hotel, the Metropole (at the Jiangxi and Fuzhou Lu junction) featuring the American Bar. Interiors With home interiors we really see the fusion of Chinese and Western influences, the stylish mix-and-match of blackwood tables, Chinese screens, lacquerware objets alongside art deco chairs, Bakelite telephones and the latest gramophone player. No interior design brand epitomises this fusion better than JL George, which in the early 1920s began producing Beaux-Arts-inspired furniture and soon moved towards contemporary Chinese styles with art deco flourishes. Ornate gilded chests, curved leg coffee tables (pictured), all “Made in Shanghai” and designed for modern Shanghai apartments. Juelanshe Founded in 1931, the Juelanshe (Storm Society) movement sought to bring a Parisian-style art world to China and champion Shanghai’s modernist artists. Co-founder Pang Xunqin, returning to Shanghai from Paris, declared the society wished to give “traditional decorative art a modern context”. Co-founder Ni Yide (a graduate of the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts in the crucial year of 1922) put it more stridently in the society’s 1932 manifesto: “Let us rise up! With our raging passion and iron intellect, we will create a world interwoven with colour, line and form!” Juelanshe artists included Pang’s wife, the modernist painter Qiu Ti, as well as Lin Fengmian, who spent 1922 studying art in Paris. Juelanshe exhibitions championed Shanghai artists experimenting with fauvism, surrealism, cubism, symbolism and futurism. Käthe Kollwitz German artist Käthe Kollwitz is one of many examples of the major influence of foreign artists on Shanghai, in this case woodcuts. Kollwitz became a totemic symbol of modernism in Shanghai art circles championed by none other than writer Lu Xun, who was deeply influenced by her. Kollwitz appears in our A-Z for the influence of expressionism and Revolutionary Realism, often, though not exclusively, originating from the Soviet Union, then undergoing its own, but very different, journey to modernity. Lu Xun China’s best-known contemporary writer couldn’t be more in tune with Ezra Pound’s injunction that modernism started in 1922. Lu Xun ’s iconic The True Story of Ah Q , first published that year, is written in a vernacular Chinese everybody could understand and tells the tale of a working-class thief who ends up at the wrong end of a revolution. Humiliated, powerless, certainly not a socialist-realist hero … Ah Q is the symbol of a weakened China. Lu moved to Shanghai in 1927 to live as a professional writer and became a co-founder of the League of Left-Wing Writers. He continues to be crucial to the story of literary modernism in China as the best-known exemplar of China’s involvement in global modernism. Mingxing studio and Shanghai films Audiences thrilled to foreign films – accessible to everyone for a few coins – Hollywood Westerns as much as German expressionist movies, but they also supported their own studios. The 1920s and 30s became Shanghai film’s golden era with classics such as The Goddess (1934), Song of the Fishermen (1934), New Woman (1935) and Street Angels (1937). Shanghai’s biggest film studio was Mingxing, whose first movie, Labourer’s Love , premiered at the Olympic Theatre on Bubbling Well Road in October 1922. New Sensationists Every modern city must have its literary movements and salons. In Shanghai, one group, the New Sensationists, embraced modernism more than any other. Among the key members were the writers Mu Shiying, Liu Na’ou and Shi Zhecun, short-story writers who accentuated psychology and aesthetics over Soviet-influenced ideas of social realism. The New Sensationists were intensely urban, flâneurs of the modern streets of neon, nightclubs and Cadillacs. Odeon and other Shanghai cinemas You can’t see the Odeon that once stood on Sichuan Lu any more. Once Shanghai’s most impressive cinema, it was destroyed in 1932 by Japanese bombs. However, plenty of glorious picture houses remain. The prototypical art deco Cathay, the Grand Theatre on Nanjing Lu, the “Streamline Moderne” Lafayette on Fuxing Lu, the intricate frontage of the Isis on Sichuan Lu. Happily, Shanghai’s treasure trove of cinemas has mostly survived the widespread demolition of recent decades and you can still see movies in some of the most beautiful theatres in the world. Poy Gum Lee and ‘Chinese deco’ We shouldn’t think of all modernist architecture in Shanghai as created by foreigners. Poy Gum Lee, who moved to Shanghai from New York in 1923, living in the French Concession, is credited with the creation of a specifically “Chinese deco” style. His modernist flourishes can still be seen in the YWCA building on Yuanmingyuan Lu. We should also note Shanghai-born Robert Fan Wenzhao who, rejecting the Beaux-Arts aesthetic for modernism, designed the art deco Majestic Theatre (at 66 Jiangning Lu) and several modern residential complexes, including the Georgia Apartments (311 Hengshan Lu), which incorporated central heating, hot water, Westinghouse refrigerators and garages all as standard. Qipao In the 1920s, the human form became modern, too. Hair was cut, permed, nails varnished, lips reddened, cheeks rouged and the silhouette slimmed. Nothing symbolises this more in Shanghai than the evolution of the qipao. The form-fitting, feminine dress became Shanghai’s modern expression of individuality through fashion. Over time it became slightly tighter, the slit on the thigh a little higher and fabrics with art deco-styled prints became available alongside traditional designs. Derived from the loose-fitting robes worn by Manchu women, the qipao became one of the most long-lasting examples of Shanghai women’s embrace of modernity. Ruan Lingyu and screen goddesses Shanghai film stars were worshipped by the masses. Their faces adorned film magazines and their endorsements were branding gold mines. But the public and press were fickle. Tastes changed and new stars rose. It was a dream to be a Shanghai movie star, but also for many a curse. In her troubled personal life Mingxing’s biggest star, Ruan Lingyu , was hounded by the modern media of tabloid newspapers. Her life was tragically cut short by suicide at just 24, even as she came to symbolise the modern woman on screen. Shidaiqu Literally “songs of the era”, the popular blend of Chinese folk music, American jazz and Hollywood movie scores exploded onto the new nightclubs, cabarets and radio stations of the 1920s. As ever with the modern, Shidaiqu became a business – marketed via sheet music and 78rpm records. Hit songs lured sponsors to the airwaves. Lu Xun thought the unabashedly commercial Shidaiqu sounded like “strangling cats”, but many remain popular today. And, in the spirit of the modern, they were a fusion. Composer Li Jinhui heard jazz trumpeter Buck Clayton in the Canidrome Ballroom and a fusion of music styles from both sides of the Pacific was born. Typography Graphic designers embraced modernity as much as any other creative sect. In Shanghai’s typography from the 1920s we can see influences from the new Soviet Union, German expressionism, the socialist woodcut movement, Bauhaus and others. A focus on simplicity of design, as well as the legibility of the information globally, was merged in Shanghai with new ways of presenting Chinese characters. Uchiyama Bookstore The transmission of international modernism to Shanghai required pathways. These were chiefly gramophone records, magazines and, of course, books. No bookstore in Shanghai was as important as that run by a Japanese man, Uchiyama Kanzo, in Hongkou. The store was a crucial hub for contact between Shanghai’s modernists and those visiting from Japan. Lu Xun, left-wing playwright Tian Han and author Guo Moruo mingled with major Japanese writers such as Tanizaki Junichiro, Fumiko Hayashi and Haruo Sato. Often now glossed over, this close interaction between Japanese and Chinese authors in 1920s Shanghai was vital to the development of modernist writing in the city. Violet Violet ( Ziluolan ) is often seen as the “house journal” of the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies School of literary journalists who gathered in tea-houses and bookshops in Shanghai’s old town (Nantao). While they embraced nostalgia and melancholy rather than modernism, Violet also translated and published new, and distinctly modern, forms of writing, notably the urban hard-boiled detective fiction of the early 1920s, often with Chinese characteristics, rather than straight translations of American or European writing. Violet , along with other magazines that specialised in detective fiction, such as Zhentan ( Great Detective ) and Zhentan Shijie ( The Detective World ), were massively popular. Wing On and modern retail They have been called “beacons of modernity” and keys to the urban experience. Of Shanghai’s so-called Great Four department stores, Sincere opened first, in 1917; Wing On in 1918; Sun Sun in 1926; and The Sun in 1936. These were not simply emporiums with constantly changing new products from around the world, but featured restaurants serving global cuisines, coffee shops and cocktail bars, rooftop dance floors and photography studios. Nanjing Lu, then as now, became a cluster of stores, draped in neon, open late, free for everyone to browse and absorb the new. You didn’t even need to spend any money to experience the modern. Ride the lifts, see the fashions, try a squirt of French perfume from a tester, feel modern and international. Sun Sun even ran a slogan: “Anything That One Can Buy in Chicago.” XHMA and Radio Shanghai went radio-crazy in the early 1920s. The city’s first station, Radio Corporation of China, was founded in 1923. They soon proliferated – KRC, XHMA, XGRS – mixed Chinese and Western music, and included live broadcasts from nightclubs. “Radio Rickshaws” appeared with wireless sets fitted to the carriages. Shops selling and renting radios appeared all over town. RCA Victor and His Master’s Voice (HMV) opened studios on Beijing Lu – Shanghai’s Tin Pan Alley. Yuefenpai Shanghai’s emblematic yuefenpai (literally, chart of months) and their calendar girl images have had enduring appeal. They are, perhaps more than anything else, the primary visual symbol of Republican-era Shanghai. And, of course, they are inherently modern – commercial advertisements, art that hung on shikumen walls regardless of income or education. They were a visual modernism that penetrated just about every Shanghai home. As they progressed so they became yet more modern – women in cars, listening to radios, dancing, playing sports – reflecting the fashions and tastes of the times, the “modernity of consumption”. And so they remain today hanging in cafes and restaurants as symbols of Shanghai’s unique sense of China-Modern. Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang) The Shanghai-born American writer ’s early fiction bridges the divide between tradition and modernity by infusing the Chinese vernacular tradition with modern sensibilities. Her writing was imbued with Shanghai’s edginess and cross-cultural interactions. Zhang, who started out as a freelance journalist writing about fashion and reviewing films, embraced modernity in all its forms, not least her apartment in the art deco masterpiece Eddington House (195 Changde Lu), where she later wrote some of her best known and most modernist works, including The Golden Cangue (1943) and her collection of novellas Love in a Fallen City (also 1943).