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

Click to follow
The Independent Online
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.