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

SHANGHAI DAYS

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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy