In the summer of 1933, Richard Paulick, the son of an SPD official and himself politically active on the left, hurriedly left Berlin. Transferring in Venice to the Asia-bound ocean liner SS Conte Rosso, he disembarked some weeks later at Shanghai’s Hongkou Harbor.2 Shanghai at the time was expanding at extraordinary speed, being that the city served as both a treaty port and a haven for refugees entering China. Meanwhile the Chinese hinterland was under-going great economic, political and cultural turmoil. The distinction between Shanghai’s relative affluence and the poverty of the vast countryside underscores the harsh contradiction between (Chinese) tradition and (Western) modernization. In the decades before the Second World War, China’s port cities had begun to play an increasing role in the political-economic life of Chinese society. With the end of the imperial period, modern transportation, telecommunication, science and technology, foreign and domestic capital, as well as information from the outside world, all poured into these open port cities. This transformation was one reason for the growing gap between urban and rural China. The 1911 Revolution, the first of its kind in China to originate in cities rather than rural areas, indicates this dawning awareness of the disparities between urban and rural, rich and poor, coast and the hinterland, would greatly affect the country’s future.
The wars of the first half of the twentieth century helped Shanghai further develop into a capital and industrial city. Before WWII, Shanghai had become the financial center of China and the Far East. Until Japan occupied Shanghai’s foreign concessions with the start of the Pacific War (Chinese parts of the city had been occupied in 1937) these areas had been largely shielded from warfare. Refugees poured into the ten square miles from all parts of the lower Yangzi, swelling the population from 1,5 million to 3 million in a few months3. Work remained plentiful. Due to well-established sea routes, Shanghai had emerged as one of the most important port cities on the eastern Pacific rim. Construction of railway lines and modern communication infrastructure strengthened Shanghai’s strategic position, helping it to earn the name, “Capital of modernity” (mo du). Furthermore, with its abundant capital resources and strong merchant class, Shanghai attracted extensive investments in industry and manufacturing. What it lacked in raw materials it made up for with its extensive water transportation system and almost infinite supply of cheap labors. Shanghai industry rocketed ahead between and during the wars, making it a hub of China’s textile, food processing and mechanical industries.
Because of its booming economy, in the 1930s Shanghai had become a paradise for adventurers as well as refugees. Before the Pacific War broke out, a population of more than three million resided on an area of land only 75 square km, with the size of the average household reached thirty-one people.4 As the most westernized and modern city in the nation, Shanghai was also site of the greatest polarization between rich and poor. Wealthy Chinese nationalists/capitalists, a growing administrative class of bourgeois compradors allied with imperialist powers, and those living in absolute destitution lived in the same place, yet their access to the city was distinctly different. The border of the concession areas witnessed sharp contrasts between modernity and tradition, advancement and regression, peace and gunfire.