Reviving a Once-Raffish Shanghai Theme Park

Gangsters and secret society members once roamed the tiled corridors of Shanghai’s Great World, rubbing shoulders with European businessmen, prostitutes, fortune-tellers, magicians and gamblers.

The indoor theme park on the border of the French Concession and the International Settlement was described by one visiting Hollywood director in the 1930s as a “house of multiple joys” and "studded with every variety of entertainment Chinese ingenuity had contrived,” establishing itself as one of the defining monuments of old Shanghai.

The question is whether Great World, an iconic symbol of pre-Communist Shanghai’s decadence and vice which reopened for the first time in more than a decade, can compete with the thrill and spectacle of the latest generation of theme parks. A sampling of visitors makes it worrisome.

The latest incarnation opened on March 31 after being closed for more than a decade. It is no longer the chaotic house of pleasure described by Joseph von Sternberg, an Austrian-American filmmaker who visited Great World in the 1930s. Instead, it is seeking to rebrand itself as a modern showcase for Chinese culture. By focusing on folk art, Chinese opera, regional delicacies, and other cultural exhibitions, Great World is hoping to position itself as a player in China’s soft power ambitions.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the day after Great World’s official opening, a group of elderly guests milled around the covered courtyard between the two wings of the building, in front of an outdoor stage. A few rows of metal folding chairs were set up in front of the wooden platform, on which a woman in a white outfit and Chinese opera-style makeup sang and danced. Not far from the stage, a man named Ning leaned against a doorway, absentmindedly watching the performance while waiting for his wife, daughter, and grandchild. Through a translator, he talked about how Great World used to be 50 years ago. All the rooms back then were full of entertainment, he said, and he was left disappointed after he walked around upstairs earlier in the day. “It’s renovated really nicely,” Ning said, “but there’s nothing to do.”

On the fourth floor, along a wall filled with photographs of the old Great World, another elderly man named Peng pushed his wife in a wheelchair, reminiscing about his previous visit to the park. “The last time I was here, I came with my mother, when I was in my 20s,” he said in Putonghua, heavily inflected with a Shanghainese accent. Like Ning, the staid cultural exhibits and the lack of entertainment disappointed him. It was very different back then, Peng said, and he talked about the local artist performances and foreign movies that they used to show in different rooms throughout the building.

“Today, it was like a fake reproduction of what it used to be."

What it used to be was a "teeming labyrinth of theaters, distorting mirrors, shooting galleries, magicians, jugglers, acrobats, fortune-tellers, and much else,” and “Shanghai in miniature, a concentration of all the city’s warts and blemishes,” as author Stella Dong described in her book Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City.

Shanghai in the early 20th Century was a cosmopolitan metropolis, with significant European populations in the French Concession and the International Settlement, as well as immigrants from all over China. It was known simultaneously as “The Pearl of the Orient” and “The Whore of Asia,” a reference to its seedy reputation, due in no small part to the illicit activities rampant within the four floors of Great World.

It wasn’t always this way, though. Great World was founded in 1917 by a man named Huang Chujiu, a local millionaire who made his fortune selling medicinal tonics. For the first decade or so of its existence, it was an "innocent enough resort for the middle and working classes,” Dong wrote, until it caught the attention of Huang Jinrong. Although Huang was the chief officer in the French Concession’s Chinese Detective Squad, he was a notorious figure in the city's underworld and long had associations with the Green Gang, a powerful secret society that controlled Shanghai throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The officer-gangster wrested control over the park from the millionaire in 1931, and, as Dong writes, the park "changed into a notorious vice spot, a place which no male could walk past without feeling a feminine hand tugging at his elbow.”

Von Sternberg recounts his visit to the park in the 1930s in his 1965 autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. He moves from the ground floor to the rooftop with its iconic five-story tower, describing rooms full of gambling tables, pick-pockets, fireworks, acrobats, actors, pimps, mid-wives, earwax extractors, ice cream parlors, marriage brokers, and shooting galleries. Prostitutes walked the floors in “high-collared gowns slit to reveal their hips,” though the more modest ones “merely flashed their thighs.” Up on the higher floors, Sternberg even sees girls with dresses “slit to the armpits.” From the heights of the rooftop, the director is shown the courtyard below, 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.”

Those wild days of gambling and prostitution at Great World came to an end in the mid-1950s, when the municipal government renamed the site Shanghai People’s Amusement Park. Over the next several decades, the park plodded along, briefly adopting the name Oriental Red in the 1960s, before reverting to Great World in the late 1980s. Plummeting attendance numbers and the onset of SARS finally shut down the park in 2003.

The revival of the historic building began in 2014, when Shanghai’s local legislature approved a proposal to designate the park a heritage site. The purpose of the new Great World, according to an email from the cultural affairs bureau of Huangpu District, would be to showcase the local arts and customs of Shanghai, promoting the idea that they are part of the city's "intangible cultural heritage”.

Their use of this phrase echoes UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. UNESCO, the United Nations agency responsible for promoting international cooperation in culture, education, science, and communication, defines intangible cultural heritage as "a living form of heritage” that "provides a sense of identity and belonging in relation to our own cultures”. China currently has 39 items on the UNESCO list, with another 13 items pending.

In 2006, China created its own list of intangible cultural heritages, including the Shanghai opera, local Gu embroidery and bamboo carving from Jiading, a suburb of the city. Three additional batches of approved nominations were added to the list, most recently in 2014, the same year the Great World proposal was approved, according to the Huangpu cultural affairs bureau, as well as the year President Xi Jinping emphasized enlarging Chinese soft power in a speech given to the Political Bureau of the CPCCC. Promoting China’s cultural heritage and history, Xi said, would strengthen the country’s global reputation, and the park appears to have that exact purpose.

The opening of the site comes at a time when Shanghai’s theme park market is on the rise. Great World's folk art and Chinese opera will be up against the soft power and brand recognition of Disney, Lego and Six Flags in the coming years. The Huangpu cultural affairs bureau said that Great World was not comparable to the bigger international theme parks operating or planned in and around Shanghai, and China Daily quoted unnamed park officials last month that said that turning a profit would not be “a major concern.”

The ownership structure and park management provide a few hints as to why profitability may not be a priority. The renovation of the building was done by Shanghai World Investment Management Co. Ltd., a 10-year-old company that deals in building materials, electrical and mechanical equipment, clothing and textiles. The National Enterprise Credit Information Publicity System lists a Xue Peijian as the company’s legal representative, which is also the name of the Secretary and President of the Shanghai Communist Party Culture, Radio, Film and Television Group.

Daily operations are managed by Shanghai Huaihai Commercial (Group) Co., Ltd., a 20-year-old company whose major shareholder is the government entity Shanghai Huangpu District State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission.

Despite an intriguing past and nostalgic appeal, a mission that aligns with Xi Jinping’s call to promote Chinese soft power and extensive government backing, the reaction to Great World, at least on its opening weekend, was decidedly muted. Three white posters set up in the courtyard, to the left of the outdoor stage, informed guests of the intangible cultural heritages on display that weekend – acrobatics, cheongsam shows, musical performances with Chinese traditional instruments, folk music choruses, a leather-making goods studio, painting Chinese bottles, and a children’s fashion show.

One nearly empty exhibition hall on the top floor was set aside for a type of paper made in Yunnan, while one or two visitors wandered an adjacent room filled with white ceramics and wooden furniture.

Ning looked around the courtyard, describing how he had seen pictures of the reopened park at night on television, with strings of lights hung up around the open space outside. He was curious enough to come by with his family that Saturday, but none of the art or musical acts displayed on the schedule posters had any appeal for him. “There’s nothing to do,” he repeated, again and again. “If it stays like this, I won’t come back."

Peng shared his lack of interest in the rooms full of China’s intangible cultural heritage. The elderly man reminisced about the way things were, when Great World wasn’t so caught up in Chinese ideas of soft power and promoting local culture. "Back then, it was not just about Shanghai,” he said. "This place was about the world.”

Ernest Chan is a graduate student at the Hong Kong University Journalism and Media Studies Center. This was written as part of a publishing partnership with Asia Sentinel