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Hotel Shanghai, a bitter story

The Park Hotel in Shanghai (brown building), Goulard Sébastien

The old Shanghai and her concessions, has provided the setting for numerous works of fiction. Various authors have been inspired by Shanghai’s chaotic atmosphere in the first half of the 20th century. Millions of European children have learned about Shanghai’s contemporary history and the opium trade through Hergé’s comic book “The Blue Lotus”.

“Hotel Shanghai”, a novel by Vicki Baum (1888-1960), a well-known Austrian writer, is another example of the importance of Colonial Shanghai in world literature.  In this novel, Vicki Baum tells the story of nine characters who all died in a hotel in Shanghai during the events of the so-called “Bloody Saturday” on August 14, 1937, when Chinese aircraft accidentally dropped two bombs on the Cathay and Palace Hotels while trying to bomb a Japanese man-of-war ship.

The nine characters in “Hotel Shanghai” all have difference backgrounds; there is a Hawaiian photographer, a Japanese reporter, an American nurse, a failed German musician, a Jewish doctor, a Chinese gangster and his son, a Chinese coolie and a Russian princess. It is their destiny to meet and die in Shanghai.

At that time, because of the foreign concessions, Shanghai had become a genuine global city where East meets West, attracting people from all over the world. It became a shelter for thousands of Jewish people fleeing European extremism. Shanghai’s prosperity also attracted Chinese migrants and symbolized modernism. But Shanghai was home to inequalities, and many migrants’ ambitions (both Chinese and Western ones) faded in the face of the hard realities of Shanghai. The international concessions provided opportunities for some to succeed, but in the absence of governance, the city’s prosperity was unfairly distributed.

What can we learn from this novel regarding Shanghai’s new leading role?

Shanghai is trying to revive her global past, but the authorities need to be prepared for the challenges created by this ambitious goal. As this novel demonstrates, global cities suffer from many afflictions including inequality, deep poverty, crime and health issues (for example, New York and Paris are victims of a resurgence of tuberculosis). The foreign concessions in Shanghai could be compared to an ivory tower where (some) inhabitants felt they lived thousands of kilometres from China. But in the end, reality caught up with everyone. This proves that Shanghai, like all cities, cannot live apart from its environment, and that inequality is an issue that must be dealt with firmly in order to survive.

 Hotel Shanghai, where a large part of this story takes place, does not appear to have ever existed. However, as described by Baum, “Hotel Shanghai” is a combination of the Cathay Hotel, the Palace Hotel (now the Peace Hotel) on the Bund and the Park Hotel facing the People’s Square.


Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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