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Shanghai History

Originally little more than marshland, Shanghai was an insignificant village for much of its early history, and was inhabited by people from the Majiabang tribe from around 5000BC. Thanks to its proximity to the coast, it became a port during the years of the Eastern Jin and Tang dynasties, before being officially upgraded from village status to market town in 1074 by the Southern Song dynasty.

The Yuang rulers turned it into a city in 1291, with Shanghai becoming an important port and home to an Imperial garrison. Under the mediaeval Ming rulers, the city continued to develop, with the Huang River being dredged to allow more shipping and a city wall erected in 1553 to see off pirates. But for all the development, it wasn't until after the British opened their concession here in 1842 that modern Shanghai really came into being.

The British presence in Shanghai was soon followed by the French and Americans, and by 1853 Shanghai had overtaken all other Chinese ports. Built on the trade of opium, silk and tea, the city also lured the world’s great houses of finance, which erected grand palaces of plenty. Shanghai also became a byword for exploitation and vice; its countless opium dens, gambling joints and brothels managed by gangs were at the heart of Shanghai life.

The Kuomintang government cooperated with the foreign police and the Shanghai gangs, as well as Chinese and foreign factory owners, to suppress labour unrest. As a result, the poor of Shanghai developed an appetite for radical politics and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed in the city in 1921. In 1949, after numerous setbacks, they went on to ‘liberate’ Shanghai.

The communists eradicated the slums, rehabilitated the city’s hundreds of thousands of opium addicts, and eliminated child and slave labour, but when the decadence went, so did the splendour, and Shanghai soon became a colourless factory town. Shanghai’s long malaise came to an abrupt end in 1990, with the announcement of plans to develop Pudong, on the eastern side of the Huangpu River. The city's now famous neon-lit skyline soon followed.

Did you know?
• The hu character on Shanghai license plates come from the city’s original name – Hudu – which in turn came from the word used to describe wooden fish traps.
• From 1863 to 1865, Yu Garden was home to the Small Swords Society – a Triad group.
• The world’s tallest statue of Frederic Chopin is in Zhongshan Park.

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Featured Hotels



In the heart of the French Concession, the spotless rooms, great service and attention to detail at Quintet has been winning over visitors. As the name suggests, there are just five rooms, each individually designed to a standard you’d expect from pricier stays. The staff are super friendly too, with a wealth of knowledge about the area.

The Waterhouse at South Bund

Once a dockyard factory, The Waterhouse is now one of Shanghai’s sharpest boutique hotels. Lavish furnishings and the odd nod to the city’s shipping heritage offset its industrial chic. There are just 19 rooms, 11 of which are suites. Thanks to its location, views across the river to Pudong are stunning whichever one you bed up in.

Magnolia Bed & Breakfast

This cosy little bed and breakfast located in a 1930s French Concession home has art deco features as well as modern comfort and design. There are only five rooms so book well in advance.

Fairmont Peace Hotel

After more than three years of renovations, Shanghai’s definitive art deco building reopened in 2010 under the direction of the Fairmont group. The main challenge in modernising the building was balancing out the architectural integrity of its history with the need to upgrade a building that was not originally designed to be a hotel. Connoisseurs of old Shanghai will be pleased to know that the famous antediluvian jazz band is back in action.

Mansion Hotel

Combining historic charm and modern luxury like no other Shanghai hotel, this truly exceptional stay is housed in a beautiful 1930s building and was originally the residence and office of a trio of Shanghai gangsters. The lobby, corridors and even the rooms are filled with 20th-century memorabilia, but there's exquisite luxury too with super-soft carpets, beautifully upholstered wood furniture, big-screen satellite TVs, Wi-Fi and private Jacuzzis.

Pudi Boutique Hotel

This exquisite 52-room boutique hotel in Shanghai has trendy, ultra-modern rooms, professional staff and an elite, but accessible, atmosphere. The interior is super stylish and alluringly dark hued, while rooms are beautifully attired and spacious.