Six teeming floors of oriental pleasure - all yours for just 15p


In Shanghai did Huang Chujiu a stately pleasure dome decree. And almost 80 years later the "Great World" amusement mansion still stands at the south-east corner of Shanghai's People's Square, its "wedding cake" tower a monument to an enduringtendency over decades of political upheaval to the pursuit of a good night out.

Now, just as then, the masses queue for an entrance ticket to this multi- level emporium of entertainment. From the ground floor, with its dodgem cars and acrobats, one climbs balustraded staircases up six storeys teeming with every conceivable diversion. A ghost train, opera performances, video-games, a cinema showing a dubbed American B-movie, and even stock market teach-ins vie to attract the biggest crowds. In one booth a couple of middle-aged ladies in white coats wield an electric palm-reader with which they promise to diagnose troubled internal organs. Great World even offers a cheap shower, as betrayed by the succession of freshly scrubbed young women visitors exiting from the lift.

Thousands pass through Great World's doors each day, especially after 6.30pm when the basic entrance ticket drops from a daytime price of 20 yuan to 2 yuan (15p). For Shanghai's migrant labour-force, just arrived from the countryside, it offers the best value entertainment in town. Better-heeled Chinese visitors pay 13 yuan extra for a dancing ticket. Middle-aged unemployed locals, and old-aged pensioners come for the day. "It is the most famous place in Shanghai," declared the lift attendant, all of whose 25 working years have been spent within Great World's walls.

Of course, it must be admitted that the fifth floor of Great World is no longer quite what it was. After the Hollywood film director Josef von Sternberg toured the premises in the mid-Thirties, he noted in his memoirs: "The fifth floor featured girls whose dresses were slit to the armpits, a stuffed whale, story-tellers, balloons, peep-shows, masks, a mirror maze, two love-letter booths with scribes who guaranteed results, `rubber goods' and a temple filled with ferocious gods and joss sticks." These days, the fifth floor is home instead to a large children's playroom. Take a wander down to the fourth floor, however, and the old Shanghai spirit is alive and pouting. The modern day heirs to Great World's famed singsong girls are back in action in a packed auditorium with no room left for standing. The troupe is short on songs, but the exotic fashion show (the billboard stretches linguistic definition by calling it "dancing") has an almost wholly male audience straining to glimpse the midriff flesh.

Von Sternberg described Great World as a "condensed world", and it has remained so through the century. It was opened in 1917, then China's biggest entertainment centre, by Huang Chujiu, who had made his fortune from marketing a brain tonic. By the early Thirties, the pleasure dome had passed into the hands of one of Shanghai's leading gangsters, Pockmarked Huang, who made sure the vice quotient increased with every staircase climbed. An official Chinese history of old Shanghai published in 1985 described Great World in the years before the 1949 communist victory as "a paradise for monsters and demons and a den for enemy agents and traitors camouflaged by beautiful music and graceful dancing".

The local government took control of Great World in 1954 and it was converted into the distinctly more wholesome Shanghai Youth Palace. Even that was deemed unsuitable when the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966 and the building was slammed shut.

The lift lady remembered how in 1971, as a 20-year-old, she was sent to work in the kitchen of Great World, even though there were no visitors. Two years later, on 1 October 1973, the building was re-opened for politically correct entertainment for children. But it was not until 1983, when she moved from the kitchen to the lift, that Great World started to shelve ideology in favour of fun.

Shanghai in the mid-Nineties throbs with bars, clubs and restaurants, fiercely competing for customers. They change hands regularly, and go in and out of business. Great World is so far the great survivor, attracting both those who can afford nothing better, and others still compelled by its cornucopia of delights.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific