It’s a Great World After All

Came across a special letter that I received during the early days of my research for Remembering Shanghai.

The Austrian-American filmmaker Josef von Sternberg was credited for introducing the gangster film genre and popularizing Marlene Dietrich among movie fans. An intrepid traveler, he wrote of his unforgettable time in Shanghai in the early 1930s.

Ten years ago I wrote to von Sternberg’s son Nicholas, also a filmmaker: “After several false starts with various publishers, I was finally able to obtain your email … My mother Isabel Sun Chao and I are co-writing a memoir about her childhood in Shanghai in the 1930s and ’40s … In his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, your father Josef wrote a fantastic passage about the Shanghai pleasure palace the Great World during that period. It’s a place my mother remembers well, and we would like to ask your permission to use an excerpt from your father’s book in our chapter on Shanghai entertainment. Your father’s description is unequalled in its immediacy and richness of detail, and would greatly enhance the texture of our book.”

Nicholas kindly gave us permission to use the passage, which reads in part: “On the first floor were gambling tables, singsong girls, magicians, pickpockets, 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, midwives, barbers, and earwax extractors. The third floor had jugglers, herb medicines, ice cream parlors, photographers, a new bevy of girls, their high-collared gowns slit to reveal their hips … The fifth floor featured girls whose dresses were slit to the armpits, a stuffed whale, storytellers, 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.”

Indeed, a pleasure palace without equal in size, scope, range, and inventiveness of offerings!

Nicholas wrote me when he finished reading Remembering Shanghai—some eighty years after his father’s visit to the Great World: “I truly enjoyed reading Remembering Shanghai. It evoked Shanghai so vividly I felt I was there. I felt that there are some unusual dates we have in common. Your grandfather was born the same year as my father, and died the same year. One thinks of my father wandering through the Great World, and passing by a member of your family. Your writing is masterful, and it brought tears and laughter to me for over a week.”

Thank you from our hearts, Josef and Nicholas.

(The Great World 大世界 was China’s largest amusement center, developed in 1917 and located at Avenue Edward VII 愛多亞路 and Thibet Road 西藏路, now Yan’an Road East 延安東路 and Xizang Road 西藏路, respectively.)

The Great World in a 1957 poster depicting traditional entertainment. (The Stefan R. Landsberger Collections, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. “The Great World in Shanghai” designed by Huang Shanlai 黃善賚, first published 1957; 1958 edition.)