Turning one hundred years old is no mean feat, so Bespoke’s hearty congratulations go out to the lovely Great World building near People’s Square that was built in 1917. Now, whilst you’ve no doubt whizzed past this grand old dame countless times (and seen the bright white spire that looms over the elevated highway) you might not know that back in her youth she was a bit of a goer.
Opened as the city’s premier ‘entertainment complex’ and later taken over by corrupt-policeman-turned-mob boss ‘Pockmarked Huang’, the Great World was said to be teeming with life of every kind – contemporary accounts tell of everything from opera performances and tightrope walkers to fortune tellers, pickpockets and pimps!
As decadent as it sounds, the building has known hard times too, most notably when a bomb was accidentally dropped on it in 1937 at the start of the conflict with the Japanese with huge loss of life. While the building was repaired, it never really got its mojo back and lean years lay ahead.
Until now, that is. The government has given the Great World an anniversary makeover, and once again she has swung open her doors to the pleasure-seeking citizens of Shanghai (or anyone with 60RMB and a couple of hours to spare).
Could this latest reincarnation compete with the unbridled debauchery of the good old days? Curiosity piqued, Bespoke trundled along with a copy of a colorful 1930s account of the joint, courtesy of Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg, to see how it stacked up…
‘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.’
Aha! An ear wax extractor. OK, it’s a model but that’s as close as we were able to get on our visit. The lack of pick-pockets and pimps was probably for the best, we reckon.
‘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.’
A disappointing lack of ice cream but the sugar models that this chap were making were possibly edible. No hips on display here, though.
‘The fourth floor was crowded with shooting galleries, fantan tables, massage benches…the fifth floor featured girls whose dresses were slit to the armpits, a stuffed whale, story tellers, balloons, peep shows, a mirror maze, two love-letter booths with scribes who guaranteed results, ‘rubber goods’ and a temple filled with ferocious gods and joss sticks.’
A rather lackluster Charlie Chaplin impersonator was working the fourth floor crowd with moderate success. Not a stuffed whale to be found, we’re sorry to say.
‘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, and marriage brokers.’
This lady was certainly giving it her all. We would have preferred a tight rope walker though, if we’re honest.
If it’s the legendary seedy side of Shanghai that you’re after, you’re in the wrong place, bucko. Those looking to mingle with the city’s octogenarians are likely to fare better. And who’s to say, just like the Great World herself, they’re not hiding a few interesting stories of their own?
The Great World is at 485 Wusheng Road, Shanghai and is open daily from 10am-5pm. Tickets are 60RMB each. Want to see the real wild side of Shanghai? We can share it all with our Trip Customization Service.