Cinemas in Old Shanghai

CLAIRE: A behind-the-scenes look at the movies in Old Shanghai, by the legendary heritage advocate Tess Johnston. After reading this article for the first time and seeing Tess’ reference to the 1947 film The Perils of Pauline, I wasn’t optimistic when I asked my mother Isabel whether it rang a bell; after all, 73 years had passed since it was shown at Shanghai’s Grand Theatre, when she was all of 17. Her immediate response: “Betty Hutton, right? There was some kind of chase scene on a train and she was tied up. It was all very slapstick.” I should have learned by now to never underestimate my mom’s remarkable memory. Without it, Remembering Shanghai wouldn’t exist!

Tess Johnston and her co-author Deke Erh pioneered research into the western presence in Old Shanghai. She is the co-founder of Historic Shanghai and the author of over 25 books, including 15 on Western architecture and the expatriate experience in Old China. My favorite is A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai, now sadly out of print.

TESS: Back in 2010, I found in a local antique market an old ledger covered in brown wrapping paper, with a handsomely pencilled inscription on the front. It was a bookkeeper’s daily log for the two top movie theatres in Old Shanghai, the Grand and the Cathay. Both featured only English-language films, and—coincidentally—both were the work of Hungarian architects.



The Grand Theatre, on Nanking Road just north of the racecourse (now Renmin Square) was designed by Laszlo Hudec and the Cathay on Avenue Joffre (Huaihai Lu), by C.H. Gonda. Both are still screening films, although now seldom in English.

Photo credit: Virtual Shanghai

What the ledgers revealed was intriguing. Both cinemas had a daily report, numbered sequentially. I chose the ledger’s first entry as a representative example of the wide range of details revealed in this tattered log.

It provides a fascinating insight into Chinese cinema management—and its meticulous daily record keeping—in a period of the increasing chaos that was to end only six months later with the defeat of the Nationalist forces and the Communist takeover of the city.

Below is the information from the Grand Theatre log.

By the Numbers: Audience Attendance and Revenue

There were four shows, starting at 2:15 pm, with the 9:00 pm late show costing slightly more. The most expensive tickets were1.60 Gold Yuan (GY), and the cheapest were GY0.40.

When I read how many people attended this particular film on a fall Friday, and a work day at that, I had to check the figures several times as I simply could not believe them: 5,626 people attended, and the day’s take was GY4,113.40 (gross) from ticket sales alone. Even more mind-boggling: for the previous week, total attendance had been 45,005, and the cinema raked in GY26,897.99! That’s in just one cinema in Shanghai!

The Perils of Pauline (1947) was shown at Shanghai’s Grand Theatre in October 1948.

Attendance: Who’s Going to the Flicks? 

More surprising, perhaps, was the attendance breakdown: most of these English-language films were being seen by local Chinese; foreign cinema-goers made up no more than 10% of attendees. Even though many foreigners had departed Shanghai by 1948 due to the deteriorating economic situation, since they never comprised even 4% of the total population, these figures probably hadn’t changed much over the years.

Equipment Report

The Equipment Report reported that the film was “slightly scratched & strained”. This exact wording appeared daily for a month, suggesting perhaps that no new films were being imported at that late date.

The “Audience Reaction to Film” was “Good”, and both indoor and outdoor temperature was noted twice a day, hovering in the mid- to high 70s (Fahrenheit) for both. Remarkably, no complaints were recorded during the month, and no items lost or found! Probably the ushers, or perhaps fellow attendees, were scooping up anything left behind!

Cinema Staff

“Staff Changes and the Staff Absentees” reveals a great deal about the frustrations of running a cinema: every single day a number of staff were out sick, not unexpected in that era in pestilential Shanghai.

The employee listing includes house managers (one foreign, one Chinese), assistant managers, supervisors, cashiers (who signed off on all these reports), “Captains” (duty unknown, all Chinese), interpreters, ushers and usherettes, door boys, film operators, ticket sellers, carpenters, electricians, fitters, messengers, watchmen and coolies. The Grand and the Cathay were obviously sister-cinemas, as the staff was shifted back and forth between them to cover for absentees.


Photo credit: Virtual Shanghai

The Competition: Which Cinema’s Playing What?

This page included Competing Features, with the names of Shanghai’s seven major cinemas: The Astor, Cathay, Carlton, Majestic, Metropol, Nanking and Roxy. All but two always showed foreign films. The distributors for all but these latter two were Hollywood’s four major studios: Twentieth Century Fox (2), Columbia, Warner Brothers and MGM (1 each).

Advertising Slides Shown Today

Advertising Slides Shown Today includes two pages of advertiser names, a cross-section of Shanghai’s smaller businesses, and tells us that a whopping 180 advertisements were shown at each screening. That must have meant quite a wait before the audience got to the main feature—which was, by the way, introduced that day by the Overture “Beer Barrel Polka”.

Not only a fascinating insight into life in the declining days of the Western presence in the city, this detailed documentation also reveals how one ran a cinema in old Shanghai.

Fast forward to 2018: Tess and Claire, together at M on the Bund (with the Hongkong Shanghai Bank—scene of the heist by my ancestors, the irascible brothers #4 and #7—and the Custom House through the window behind them) during the Shanghai International Literary Festival, where Claire launched Remembering Shanghai.