See more photos of Shanghai when it was Asia's Vegas here.
The members of the Harvard Medical School Class of '08 were exceedingly ambitious -- even by Harvard standards. Not content merely to graduate from America's top med school, a small group of them set out to found an entirely new campus of their alma mater abroad. As they looked out across a world knit together by instant communications and intercontinental travel whose center of gravity was shifting to the rising Pacific Rim, there could be only one choice: Shanghai. China's financial hub and international gateway seemed destined to blossom into the leading global city of the new century. The get-rich-quick schemer's paradise that had grabbed the world's attention as an Asian El Dorado now had its sights set on becoming a cultured and cosmopolitan Paris of the East.
The year was 1909, and it took more than three weeks by ship for the Harvard doctors to cross the Pacific and make it to Shanghai. But already the city they encountered, with its Scottish opium traders, Jewish real estate magnates, Sikh police officers, Cantonese merchant princes, and pidgin-English lingua franca, was the most open metropolis the world had ever seen. Neither passport nor visa was required for entry. An introduction to the city authored in the 1920s by an American expat gushed about its worldliness: "When a traveller arrives in Shanghai to-day he is struck by the fact that to all intents and purposes he might be in a large European city [on account of the] tall buildings, the well paved streets, the large hotels and clubs, the parks and bridges, the stream of automobiles, the trams and buses, the numerous foreign shops, and, at night, the brilliant electric lighting -- all are things he is accustomed to."
But for all that, this Shanghai was a place of danger as well as opportunity: The rebellious political life it cultivated would topple China's emperors just months after the young doctors' arrival. Their own venture collapsed just a few years after its launch.
The cosmopolitan Shanghai that lured them there had been born decades earlier when, in the 1840s, the rising Western powers forced the Chinese emperor to accept the first of the "unequal treaties." Within the city limits, foreigners were exempt from Chinese law; legally it was as if they'd never left home. Soon the peculiar legal principle of "extraterritoriality" became a physical reality as Britain, France, and the United States carved out concessions from the open land surrounding Shanghai's centuries-old walled city, then a regional hub of some 200,000 people in the fertile Yangtze River delta. The settlements the foreigners built starting in 1845 looked like their home countries in miniature. The French Concession became famous for its beautiful tree-lined streets and elegant cafes, the British for its sumptuous private clubs, and the American for the bustling commerce along its main thoroughfare, Broadway. Just a decade after its creation, foreign-dominated Shanghai was China's leading international port, displacing Canton on the Pearl River. Within two decades, Shanghai was the fastest-growing city on the planet.
But for its Chinese majority, the boomtown was a deeply demeaning place to live. In the foreign concessions, Chinese, who typically worked as manual laborers (called "coolies" in pidgin English, from the Chinese kwei-li meaning "bitter strength"), were demoted to second-class citizens. Jim Crow-style segregation laws passed by the all-white Shanghai Municipal Council banned locals (and dogs) from the city's public parks. Even white-collar Chinese working for leading Western firms were forced to use Chinese-only bathrooms. For all the city's dynamism -- a dynamism to which the Chinese elite, founding their own companies and forging their own modern culture, increasingly contributed by the early 20th century -- conditions proved so humiliating that the locals ultimately formed the Chinese Communist Party, which later closed not only Shanghai but all of China to foreigners for decades.
Today, that same Communist Party, founded in Shanghai's French Concession in 1921, is guiding the city's re-engagement with the wider world, hoping to prove that Chinese-run Shanghai can be bigger, better, and more globally important than the city ever was under Western domination. Mindful of the city's complicated history, the authorities have been trying to let it breathe economically while stifling the cultural, intellectual, and political openness that made the metropolis so vibrant -- and unruly -- a century ago. But they are all too conscious of what happens when you lift the lid on Pandora's box: The hubris of the first global Shanghai took down an entire country.
That happened after Shanghai had already been open to the world for 100 years. By contrast, Shanghai's current re-engagement is still young. Lobbied hard by Shanghai Mayor Zhu Rongji and impressed by his iron-fist-in-velvet-glove management during the Tiananmen Square crisis, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1990 authorized redevelopment of the city. On a visit to the city two years later, he doubled down on the project, anointing Shanghai the "Head of the Dragon," China's leading city, and supposedly uttering the exhortation "faster, faster" as he crossed a bridge between the old foreign concessions and the new downtown rising on the opposite bank of the river.