On the occasion of the reopening of the Great World Amusement Hall last week, I think it is more than time for me to tell about the history of this amazing place. The Great World（Da Shijie 大世界）) was first opened in July 1917 by Huang Chujiu, a businessman from Ningbo region who made a fortune by tricking customers into buying local medicine at the price of imports. The 14 700 meter square large five storey building was initially designed to provide cheap traditional Chinese entertainments which included story telling, food shops, theaters, puppet shows, wrestling and sing-song girls. The most popular performance was Shaoxing opera, an adapted form of rural ballads mixed with Beijing opera. This type of show introduced stage scenery as well as dramatic characters like lovers or betrayed women. It was much appreciated among maids, grandmothers or shop assistants.
When Huang Chujiu went broke in 1931, the place was acquired by gang boss Huang Jinrong, "pock-marked Huang". Under the racketeer's management, the Great World soon extended its activities to gambling and prostitution. After loosing their last copper, unfortunate patrons were said to jump to their death from the top floor! When visiting the place in September 1936, Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg (Shanghai Express) placed the following comment: "On the first floor were gaming tables, singsong girls, magicians, pick-pockets, slot machines, fireworks, birdcages, fans, stick incense, acrobats, and ginger. One flight up were… actors, crickets and cages, pimps, midwives, barbers, and earwax extractors. The third floor had jugglers, herb medicines, ice cream parlors, a new bevy of girls, their high collared gowns slit to reveal their hips, in case one had passed up the more modest ones below who merely flashed their thighs."
French reporter and adventurer Lucien Bodard also gave this stunning description : "This hell on earth is scientifically designed to attract all kind of people, punks and thieves but also respectable Chinese, honorable women. The Great World is a factory where everything burns and sinks. The gamblIng rage. Windows are grilled to avoid suicides, not by pity but in a concern for order. Desperate players then would climb on the roof where there is no railing to prevent them from jumping. There is much shouting and flashing lights all around, coming either from the Chinese opera or from the hords of pimps and girls, who are classified into some twenty categories but still equally make a great deal of their butts."
On 14th August 1937, during the first days of the Japanese attack on Shanghai, two bombs fell on the crowd packed in front of the Great World, causing two thousands casualties. Some said the bombs were intentionally dropped from a Republican plane, in an attempt by Chiang Kai Shek to attract Western powers into the conflict. They preferred, however, to stay neutral in what they considered at that time an Asian war. During the Battle of Shanghai, the Great World served as a shelter for the Chinese refugees who fled the devastated zones (photo above). Japan was defeated in 1945 gambling restarted, although only for a short period as the Chiang Kai Shek regime tried to control nightlife more strictly.
After the communist takeover, it became the "People's Amusement Arcade" and renouned for children activities like the twelve deforming mirrors. those dating from the 1917 hall, or circus performances. It also staged revolutionary plays in the upper rooms. Of course, the gloomy days of gangsters, opium smokers and fortunetellers were long gone. In the heat of the Cultural Revolution, the center closed its doors between 1966 and 1973. In the 1980s, an updated version included karaoke and motion pictures. In 2003, because of the SARS pandemic, the arcade closed again.
For a couple of years, there were ongoing rumors of transferring the Traditional Handicraft Museum exhibits into the Great World. The building itself was undergoing a drastic face lifting but it was not clear what would eventually come out of it. I had the privilege to visit it on the very day of its reopening, last 31st March. Crowds of old Shanghainese had been queuing at the front door from early morning on, showing an obvious curiosity in the renovatIon. Many of them probably knew the place from their young age! When stepping in the doorway I noticed that the fun fair mirrors were still there. Inside the large piazza, now covered by a transparent roof, Chinese opera actors were also performing, just like in the past. The Chinese pavilion which faced the stage in the 1930s, however, had long disappeared as well as the window fences described by Lucien Bodard. On the upper floors, augmented-reality screens provided much excitation to the elderly as young children prefered to participate into drawing contests.
After pressing the top button of the elevator, I found a chain blocking the way to the roof. A security guard opened it and explained that I was the first visitor of the day in thIs part of the building. He told me about Huang Jinrong, happy to share his knowledge. Then, facing the iconic tower of the Great World, I thought of the unlucky gamblers who jumped from it. Who remembers them in a city that keeps transforming itself?