The Falls of Shanghai

By James Carter

In the center of Shanghai stands a clocktower. It was once one of the city’s tallest buildings, but today it is overshadowed by much taller neighbors. No longer noteworthy for its height, the tower stands out for its unusual design, a dog’s breakfast of neoclassical, Italianate, and art deco, that makes it distinctive if not quite beautiful. This was the clocktower of the Shanghai Race Club, an institution that for more than a century symbolized Old Shanghai; and nearly eighty years ago, on November 12, 1941, that tower overlooked a horserace that marked the end of an era.

My book Champions Day uses this moment to tell the story of Shanghai Race Club and its role at the center of China’s distinctive city, sitting at the junction of East and West. Like all of China, Shanghai experienced so-called Revolutions in 1911, 1913, 1949, and 1966, but dramatic changes that might also be called revolutionary took place in many more years besides those, none more dramatic than in the fall of 1941, when the tension that had surrounded the city flooded in.

Cover of James Carter's book "Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai"

War surrounded Shanghai in 1941, yet the city persisted in believing it was separate and apart from its surroundings. That myth had begun a century earlier, when Shanghai was one of six Chinese ports opened to European overseas trade. The center of Shanghai became an international concession controlled and administered by European and American business interests in an arrangement that was colonial in every way but its name. Part of that arrangement was the principle of extraterritoriality, which permitted foreigners like the men who founded and directed the Shanghai Race Club to be subject to their own, not Chinese, laws. This principle enabled people—mostly, but not only, white men—to get rich in Shanghai. It also made the city a political haven for dissidents and revolutionaries. And part of the foreign style imported to Shanghai was racing. The Race Club itself restricted its membership to whites only, but the races became popular among all aspects of the city: not only were most of the spectators at the Race Club Chinese, but two Chinese-operated race courses opened in the city as well. Champions Day—when all the season’s winners would race one another to be crowned champion of Shanghai—became a holiday in the International Settlement.

Through the Taiping War of the 1860s, the Boxer Rising of 1900, the 1911 Revolution, and the advent of warlordism, Shanghai bobbed like a cork on China’s tumultuous sea. Affected by its surroundings, but maintaining its own equilibrium, Shanghai’s special status began to break down even while it was at its peak. China and Japan had fought intermittently throughout the 1930s—war had come briefly to Shanghai in 1932—and by the summer of 1937 the two countries were fully at war. But not Shanghai’s International Settlement. Japanese armies invaded most of coastal China, but since neither Britain, France, nor America were at war in 1937, they claimed neutrality. (Even after September 1939, none of those countries were at war with Japan, and so continued to resist involvement.) There were exceptions—a pair of accidental bombings that killed thousands in the busiest parts of the city on August 13, 1937, was the deadliest—and the effects of war were visible as flames and smoke surrounded the city center, but Shanghai remained a “Lone Island” (gudao).

For four years, the “Lone Island” persisted, and the races symbolized it, the perverse spectacle of racing horses while the surroundings country suffered. Champions Day 1941 was the last, best example of the Old Shanghai that had emerged in the 1840s, as 30,000 spectators packed the grandstand to take part in this world out of time. Just three weeks after Champions Day, Japanese forces occupied the International Settlement, overwhelming the handful of British and American sailors still in the city. For the next four years, Shanghai and its racetrack existed in a sort of twilight zone, caught between empires. The British Empire, which had first extracted the foreign concession from China, was in decline. Certainly its time in Shanghai ended in 1941, initiating a process that would end with Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Japan’s empire had been ascending and expanding across Asia for 50 years by the time of the last Champions Day, and the new conquerors kept the races running throughout the war, hoping to demonstrate that Shanghai could carry on as before, but less than four years after marching into Shanghai, the last Japanese troops surrendered and Shanghai was for the first time in more than a century wholly under Chinese administration.  

The last gasp of colonialism in Shanghai was not British or Japanese but American. Though shut out of formal colonialism in China, the United States emerged from World War II uniquely able to project power abroad. Cornell Franklin, a lawyer and unofficial head of Shanghai’s American community before the war—his horse, Phantom, was first out of the starting gate in the last Champions—returned to Shanghai in 1946 determined to reopen the club and resume the races. Popular opinion, and the new city government embracing Chinese sovereignty over the city, rejected the idea, wanting no part in an institution that for many was a reminder of foreign colonialism.

It was not coincidence that China’s Communist movement began in Shanghai, where extremes of wealth and power gave rise to both the excess and style of the Shanghai Race Club and the grinding poverty of China’s largest industrial workforce. When the Chinese Communists, led by Mao Zedong, marched into the city in 1949, there was never any question that they would put an end to old Shanghai, and its racecourse, once and for all. Founded in 1921, the Communist Party fought against its Chinese rivals, the Nationalist Party (guomindang), then Japanese armies during the 1930s, and again against the Nationalists in a Civil War from 1945-49. In one of its first acts, the new People’s Government in Shanghai disassembled the racecourse at the city’s center, replacing the immense turf track with the city’s largest public space, divided into People’s Square and People’s Park. Even today, you can see the outline of the old racetrack amid the downtown’s regular street grid. The ornate, architecturally eclectic clubhouse built in the 1930s, survived, becoming, at first, the Shanghai Municipal Library.

At least as unlikely as the appearance of a racetrack there to start with, is the fact that the clubhouse survived the second half of China’s twentieth century. In the 1960s, China’s Cultural Revolution targeted western monuments and relics with xenophobia and violence. Yet the race club survived. And the madcap development in Shanghai since 1992 has been even more destructive to the city’s architectural heritage, seeing building after building fall to wrecking balls, yet the clubhouse remains.

Today, the Race Club houses Shanghai’s history museum. Amid the colonial décor and the vestiges of empire, the museum raises the question of whether the city’s past is its future. Can the city regain the cosmopolitan energy of its prewar peak without also replicating the racism and injustice of the colonial era? Or will its future hew to the current authoritarian trend in Chinese (and global) politics, one where national borders are stronger, and foreign influence is viewed suspiciously?

We live in a moment when, pundits are fond of repeating, history is being made and eras are coming to an end. There is little doubt that the thousands of race fans—Chinese and foreign—who crowded the Shanghai Race Club for Champions Day, 1941, felt the same. In just a few weeks, their questions about what the future held were answered, and not positively. We can only hope, and work, for a better answer, 80 years later.


James Carter is the author of Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai (W.W. Norton), which uses the events of November 12, 1941 to tell the story of China on the eve of World War II. In this and his previous books, Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a 20th-Century Monk (Oxford, 2010)and Creating a Chinese Harbin (Cornell, 2001), he explores the interactions between China and the West through the lives of individuals. His writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the LA Review of Books, ChinaFile, and the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, among other venues. He is Chair of the History Department and a member of the Nealis Program in Asian Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Title Image: Shanghai Race Club, photo circa 1934.

Further Readings:

Bickers, Robert. Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

French, Paul. Bloody Saturday: Shanghai’s Darkest Day. New York: Penguin Specials ebook, 2017.

Harmsen, Peter. Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze. Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2015.

Jackson, Isabella. Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N. Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments. New York: Routledge, 2009.

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