The first modern metropolis: How Shanghai was born of a refugee crisis

Shanghai in 1930. Image: Getty.

When George Balfour, the first appointed British consul of Shanghai, envisaged the future of his British-only settlement at the end of 1843, he stood on a piece of marshland by the Huangpu River.

Balfour could not have imagined in his wildest dreams the prosperous modern metropolis to come. The settlement was to be built, first and foremost, to house an influx of refugees from the Chinese hinterland.

Balfour’s master plan was neither visionary nor inspirational; it was a rudimentary division of land blocks driven by sheer pragmatism. East-west roads were laid towards the Huangpu River bank, which has lasted to this day as the enduring urban feature of Shanghai – the Bund.

The early buildings in the British settlement – consulates, trade offices and houses, sitting oddly on the muddy ground to the Chinese eye – were not meant to last. The settlers slept rough. Hoping to make a quick fortune in Shanghai, they did not intend to stay put for long.

This piece of “wasteland”, of one-kilometre-long river frontage with easy waterways connecting to the vast interior, turned out to be the most convenient and indeed strategic location for the British. The French too quickly saw the advantage. In 1856 they secured the segment between the old Shanghai town and the British Bund as the French Bund, though not as grand.

A haven in times of conflict

A remarkable population boom and prosperity occurred in the second decade of foreign settlement, when droves of Chinese refugees sought sojourn in the safe haven of foreign concession lands.

During years of turmoil, which started with the threat of the Small Sword Society in the old Shanghai town and continued until the collapse of Taiping Tianguo in 1864, the British Shanghai was never taken. More than 30m people lost their lives during the 14 years of revolution and rebellion.

Three sisters take tea at the Shanghai Lawn Tennis Club in the 1920s. Image: author provided.

It was against this background that the Chinese refugees flocked to the foreign settlements. By 1865, the population in Shanghai’s foreign concession had reached 150,000. This was 21.5 per cent of the entire population in Shanghai, and included approximately 110,000 Chinese.

Although foreign merchants were predominantly involved in trading (opium, silk, cotton and tea), building houses and letting them to the Chinese refugees proved to be far more profitable than what they originally set out to do.

An English merchant declared his naked business ambition to Balfour’s successor as British consul, Rutherford Alcock. With a profit margin of 30-40 per cent in this property development business, he showed zero concern for Shanghai’s future:

In two or three years at farthest, I hope to realise a fortune and get away; what can it matter to me, if all Shanghai disappears afterwards, in fire or flood?

This was the first time in Chinese history that the notion of profit-driven property development was explicitly displayed before the Chinese. The segregation of Chinese and foreigners as determined by land regulations was broken. The consuls of Britain, America and France subsequently revised these without any consultation with the Qing Court.

Rise of a modern metropolis

The influx of people into the foreign settlements also enabled the inevitable transition of economic structure – that is, the shift from a primarily trade-driven one to that of production and industry.

In addition to the building industry, reeling mills, yarn and flour factories emerged on the banks of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek. These provided a vital force that pushed the unskilled farmers from the hinterland into various trades – a marker of the rapid urbanisation and modernisation of Shanghai.

The hybrid shiku men housing at one time dominated Shanghai. Image: kafka4prez/Flickr/creative commons.

The early houses were makeshift timber terraces built in shanty construction, which were known as li (the ancient name of neighbourhood). But the governments of foreign settlement abolished this sort of construction after 1870, mainly because it was prone to fire.

From then on, the mixed construction of timber and masonry called shiku men (stone gate building) had gradually replaced the early makeshift timber terraces as the dominant residential pattern and urban form of modern Shanghai.

Better built and more costly than the earlier timber houses, the parsimony of their land use meant dwellings were clustered together like the English terrace house, one next to the other within the parallel urban grids of the streets and laneways. Being low maintenance and high rent, the shiku men housing became very popular in Shanghai.

This form of housing quickly spread over the old Shanghai town and other places occupied only by the Chinese. The country gentry and land owners had their first taste of modern urban life when they stayed in these houses. They were small, confined, dark and poorly ventilated.

Only in Shanghai: fashion in the street in 1948. Image: author provided.

The Confucian world of paterfamilias, though tenuously held by the hall and symmetry of the old shiku men, begun to be shaken by the distraction and allure offered by the larger interior of the city.

The extension of confined shiku men to the laneways and streets led to the world of delicious and exotic food, intoxicating drinks, shops selling fine things, sleazy opium dens and brothels, splendid dancing halls holding elegant balls, racetracks and casinos. All were irresistible.

The porosity between the house and street became the precursor of a lively urban life. It exuded the glitter of the city as the replacement of the internalised Confucian world – the courtyard. “Shanghai petty urbanites”, coined by one of Shanghai’s favourite literary daughters, the exceedingly talented Eileen Chang, are symbiotic with this urban fabric that houses them.

The Bund in 1928, hardly recognisable as a Chinese city. Image: Author provided.

Shanghai could hardly be recognised as a Chinese city. But Chang laid bare her affection for the intoxicated city and its residents:

Shanghai people are distilled from traditional Chinese people under the pressure of modern life; they are the product of a deformed mix of old and new culture. The result may not be healthy, but in it there is also a curious wisdom.

Rooted in its inception as an asylum haven, one aspect of this “curious wisdom” appears to be xenophilia. It is telling that, unlike xenophobia, this word is a modern coinage.

Modern Shanghai was soon more globalised than today’s European Union – no-one needed a passport, let alone a visa, to enter Shanghai. That some 20,000 Jewish refugees were embraced in Shanghai during the second world war was another example of the innate character of this modern metropolis.


Such magnanimous urbanity has arguably continued to this day. As the popular saying goes, Shanghai is the sea where all rivers run into it.The Conversation

Xing Ruan is director of architecture at UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.