East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Joseph von Sternberg at the Great World

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220px-great_world_entertainment_center_in_the_1930sI’ve been re-visiting Shanghai, in these nights – both for my Ned Land story and for another project that was stumped by the chaos after my father’s death, and now has started again in earnest.

And so I was checking my details both in my library and online, and stumbled once again on the Great World Amusement Center, established in 1917 and bombed to hell by friendly fire in 1937 during the Battle of Shanghai… the place was full of refugees from the Chinese districts, sure they’d be safe as the Japanese were not supposed to attack the International Settlement.

The place was rebuilt, weathered war and revolutions, and is still going strong – even if I doubt it’s up to its old standard as a wretched hive of scum and villainy – and here’s an insider’s view, from Joseph von Sternberg’s Fun in a Chinese Laundry


The establishment had six floors to provide distraction for the milling crowd, six floors that seethed with life and all the commotion and the noise that go with it studded with every variety of entertainment Chinese ingenuity had contrived. On the first floor were gambling tables, sing-song girls, magicians, pick-pockets, slot machines, fireworks, bird cages, fans, stick incense, acrobats and ginger, One flight up were the restaurants, a dozen different groups of actors, crickets in cages, pimps, mid-wives, barbers and earwax extractors. The third floor had jugglers, herb medicines, ice cream parlours, photographers, a new bevy of girls their high-collared gowns slit to reveal their hips, in case one passed up the more modest ones below who merely flashed their thighs, and (as a) novelty, several rows of exposed (Western) toilets.
The fourth floor was crowded with shooting galleries, fantan tables, massage benches, dried fish and intestines, and dance platforms. … The fifth floor featured girls whose dresses were slit up to the armpits, a stuffed whale, story tellers, balloons, peep shows, masks, a mirror maze, two love-letter booths with scribes who guaranteed results, ‘rubber goods’ and a temple filled with ferocious gods and joss sticks. On the top floor and roof of that house of multiple joys a jumble of tight-rope walkers slithered back and forth, and there were seesaws, lottery tickets, Chinese checkers, mahjongg, … firecrackers, and marriage brokers.
And as I tried to find my way down again an open space was pointed out to me where hundreds of Chinese, so I was told, after spending their last coppers, had speeded the return to the street below by jumping from the roof…

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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