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The Chinese

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 3 months ago

Chinese in Shanghai




Shanghai is a city of strangers. Even leaving aside the foreigners, the Chinese inhabitants come from all over the country and all walks of life, from those at the top for whom Shanghai is a foundation of their status, to those at the bottom who barely cling on to life in the city that they could not sustain elsewhere. The criteria for being categorised as Shanghainese are rather vague.


Being Shanghainese (note: “Shanghainese” means a Chinese resident of Shanghai; foreign residents are called “Shanghailanders”) is not determined by birth, nor by language, even though these are the two most important factors in defining local identity in the rest of China. The majority of Shanghainese were not born in Shanghai and they speak the Shanghai dialect with many different accents. On the other hand, the very notion of being Shanghainese is very distinct and definite – few can mistake what it means, even if they find it hard to express.



The Shanghainese believe, and with good reason, that non-Shanghainese can easily be identified on the streets of Shanghai, simply by their demeanour. The Shanghai person is thought of as experienced and knowledgeable. Those who raise their heads to look at a tall building, or stop to gawk at foreigners in the street or gaze at the stores and their goods in astonishment are, in general, not Shanghainese. All these things are nothing more than everyday sights for the locals.



The Shanghainese have got used to foreigners, even though – unless they work in the concessions – they may see them only rarely. Lower class workers such as rickshaw pullers and shopkeepers are able to speak a little English or French. Many foreigners live in Shanghai’s alleyway house neighbourhoods. Living next door to one another, the foreign and Chinese residents’ relations have become quite ordinary. Shanghai’s shop assistants do not bat an eyelid at receiving foreign customers. The Shanghainese have a mature attitude towards the West. Shanghai is a hotbed of many anti-imperialism movements, yet it is also portrayed in the rest of China as tending to “worship foreign things”. The reality is more nuanced and sophisticated that either image conveys. Living in a city where peace and prosperity have been brought by uninvited foreign powers, yet with a wounded national pride, they still admire the West in some ways and disdain it in others.



Shanghai is not prone to anti-Western xenophobia. Partly this is due to the encroachment of the Japanese, which has been shaping the course of Chinese nationalism. But also it is the years of living together that makes it hard for the Shanghainese to demonise their foreign neighbours. Familiarity, in this case, does not breed contempt. It would be naïve and disingenuous to say that Chinese and Westerners in the city live in perfect harmony, but at the very least people of different backgrounds are a familiar sight, and they generally live in peace with each other.



The Top Of The Heap



Assured by foreign powers, Shanghai's security and commercial prosperity makes it an ideal haven for wealthy Chinese, far from the vagaries of turbulent China. All sorts of rich Chinese come to the city in search of comfort and luxury - bureaucrats, warlords, politicians, landowners, literati and trade magnates. Around the time of the Taiping Rebellion, many wealthy landlords and merchants fled to Shanghai from Jiangnan. Some of these immigrants came to Shanghai for the comforts and the freedom that it offered. After a while, retreating to Shanghai became popular among the rich and the celebrities of China. Their goal was to live in comfortable exile in Shanghai, free of responsibility and concerns. Not every "hermit" like this was genuinely reclusive. It was quite common for politicians to retreat to Shanghai in order to restore their prestige or plan a comeback. These celebrities have built many grand houses in the city. Almost all the high-ranking officials of the Nationalist government also maintain houses in the tree-lined west side. Indeed, Shanghai is the site of many political backroom dealings that affect the entirety of China.



The other main kind of wealthy immigrants at this time were those looking to strike it rich in the healthy commercial atmosphere. They invested in various bisunesses and for the most part got even richer than they were before. It was from this type that the compradors and entrepeneurs of 20th Century Shanghai came. Big political deals are made in Shanghai, but they are outnumbered by the city's business dealings.



In the 19th Century, big business deals were seldom cut without the use of middlemen called compradors. These Chinese acted as agents for foreign companies. They were generally astute, spoke a foreign language (usually pidgin English) and had some knowledge of foreign customs and business practices. Without them, foreign companies would have found it nigh on impossible to do business in China. In the mid nineteenth century, few Chinese spoke a Western language and few Westerners spoke Chinese. Western businesses had an imperfect knowledge at best of the Chinese markets and ways of doing business. Many Chinese merchants simply would not deal with foreigners. Compradors were therefore crucial to doing business and were well compensated for their trouble. Their high salaries and higher commissions made them China's foremost nouveau riche group. Compradors in Shanghai were almost exclusively immigrants from Guangzhou and Jiangnan.



In the second half of the 19th century, Russell & Company (American, founded 1846) employed ten compradors in Shanghai. Jardine Matheson & Co. (British, founded 1843) employed fifteen and Dent, Beale & Co. (British, founded 1843) employed six. None of these was a native of Shanghai. Compradors for foreign banks were mostly from Ningbo and Suzhou, and had learned English in their youth before entering a foreign firm.


Compradors of foreign banks often had experience in a traditional Chinese bank before going to a foreign bank. The position of comprador was often passed down from generation to generation, leading to the situation today where Shanghai is home to comprador clans (maiban shijia). Their role is diminished today, but compradors are still very useful for their contacts and business acumen. Furthermore, most compradors of the 19th century simultaneously had their own businesses. As a result, they remain the wealthiest class in Chinese society. Currently, 45% of the board of directors of the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce (the most influential business organisation in the city) are both compradors and business owners. No matter what trade or industry they are involved in, the majority of entrepreneurs in Shanghai are not natives of the city. Looking again at the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce, 86% of the members are from Zhejiang. Only four of the thirty-five directors are natives of Shanghai. The reason this is important, or at least notable, is that Shanghai is the capital of modern Chinese industry. Aside from mines, more than a fifth of the nation's industrial enterprises are located in the city.




Aside from businessmen, another elite consists of educated professionals. Into this class fall doctors (of Western medicine), executives, accountants, attorneys, engineers and so on. All have received a higher education, often in mission schools and universities; some are so-called “returned students”, who have studied overseas. Professionals appear in public in Western clothing, socialise with foreigners and often speak a Western language. They live in the quiet and comfortable areas to the west of the city, typically in what are called garden alleyway-houses (huayuan lilong) or detached houses. The western part of Bubbling Well Road, Zhaofeng Road and the extra-Settlement roads (areas immediately west of the foreign concessions) are known for their concentration of elegant homes. Many of the residents have private cars or rickshaws, keep servants and are avid club-goers. In the eyes of their fellow countrymen, these west-end residents are a different kind of Chinese, a "superior Chinese" (gaodeng huaren).



Another high class is the cultural elite - writers, actors, painters, musicians, movie stars, etc. This group constitute the soi-disant Haipai (Shanghai school) culture, which is in general opposition to the Jingpai (Beijing school). As far as the Haipai are concerned, they are a vibrant liberal culture in conflict with the conservative, traditional group in Beijing. Financially, these intellectuals occupy the lower levels of the elite group. They cannot really compare with the financiers and capitalists, but their incomes keep them comfortably. A productive writer of popular fiction, for example, can earn as much as $300 a month. The income of a writer typically allows him or her to rent a house in an average alleyway-house neighbourhood, in the same circumstances as, say, a skilled worker or shop clerk. However, many a writer is able to rent a whole alleyway-house, while his neighbours may share a house with other tenants. The well-off and popular writers are at the top of the pile, which includes many young intellectuals who have come to Shanghai to earn a living as freelance writers. Such junior writers may or may not be part of the elite - their income from writing is not necessarily greater than that of the average shopkeeper. Many struggling writers rent a little room in an alleyway-house and live among the populace.






The "petty urbanites" exist between the elite and the urban poor, city people of the middle classes. The term is taken to include small merchants, clerks and secretaries, high school students, housewives, craftsmen and other modestly educated people. Major groups within the xiaoshimin class are white collar workers, shop assistants and factory workers. In modern Shanghai, the xiaoshimin are identified with a type of residence known as the shikumen house. First emerging in the late nineteenth century, shikumen houses began as dwellings for well-off families. Since then, the shikumen has undergone a number of simplifications, mainly a reduction of the size of the house and thereby of its cost. Nowadays, this type of house is the single most common type of residence in the city. Those who live in these houses are mostly middle and lower income people.



The Urban Poor



The urban poor are overwhelmingly former peasants. They have migrated to the city but are not quite urbanised, lacking a stable job and place of residence. It is difficult for these newcomers to find a desirable or stable job, as they do not have much in the way of money, sought-after skills or a good social network of contacts.



Most peasant immigrants are illiterate and unskilled. They also are blocked from many job opportunities as they cannot afford the lump sum payment of a non-refundable "deposit" that many places require before one can obtain a starting position or apprenticeship. The amount of this varies but is usually equivalent to two months' pay in the job in question. The poor simply cannot afford this, and so cannot even take the first step towards a permanent job. The best contacts these people have are generally relatives or friends form the same village who cam to Shanghai earlier. But these contacts are often occupying the bottom rung of the social ladder themselves, and so cannot offer much in the way of assistance.



The most sizable groups of urban poor are dockworkers, rickshaw pullers, beggars, and countless casual workers (though the difference between this last and being unemployed is often marginal). There are about 62,000 rickshaw pullers in Shanghai, 22,000 wheelbarrow and handcart operators and carriage drivers (called mafoos from mafu, "groom") and 35,500 dockworkers. There are something approaching 20,000 beggars in the city. These figures do not include the veritable army of casual factory workers and the unemployed. Not all factory workers are necessarily among the urban poor, but many are. While some skilled and semi-skilled workers obtain stable positions in factories and live in average middle-class alleyway-houses, casual workers remain at the bottom of society. Hiring of casual workers in Shanghai factories is increasingly common. As a result, a sizable proportion of the city's factory workers are poorly paid and under constant threat of unemployment.



Like the disadvantaged anywhere, Shanghai's poor are despised and discriminated against by the general public, but they cannot be ignored. They are important not only because of their numbers but because of their background. The poor move to the city for the same reason that most of the city's better-off people do - to find a better life. So the overwhelmingly rural backgrounds of these urban poor reflects a profound social movement in China at the beginning of the 20th century. For millions of peasants, an urban life - no matter how arduous - is a better life.







The Shantytowns




A stark counterpoint to the stylish edifices on the Bund and the foreign commercial areas, countless straw huts form the shantytowns of Shanghai. From the tallest buildings in the city, anywhere you look you can see these slums huddled together. The vast majority of shantytown dwellers are rural immigrants, outcasts in the eyes of Shanghai's other citizens thanks to the congested and miserable living conditions and the chronic unemployment of the shack settlements' inhabitants. Factory jobs are highly coveted by these people but remain beyond reach. In other world cities, industrial workers form the majority of slum dwellers, but they are a minority here. Those who do manage to land a stable, though low-paid, factory job flee the shantytowns and settle in the city's middle and lower-middle class alleyway-house neighbourhoods. The slums exist on Shanghai's periphery, often along the borders of the foreign settlements. Before moving into a shack in the slums, many newcomers live in the reed-roofed boats in which they arrived. When the boat becomes to decrepit to stay afloat, the family pull the boat onto the muddy bank. Then they either lived in the grounded craft or use material from the boat to make a hut.




The shantytown huts are not great places to live. Constructed of highly flammable materials, they are not wind- or rain-proof and so are hardly suited to the changeable climate of Shanghai. A heavy rain can leave the inhabitants of a shack knee deep in water. Sanitary conditions are bad, with waste and sewage left uncovered. Many slum denizens keep pigs, with pens adjoining the huts. Chickens are common, sleeping under the beds at night. These areas constantly reek of decaying garbage, animal waste and chronic damp.


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