A final day at the races, and the end of Old Shanghai

Society & Culture

On a November day in 1941, with Japanese forces moving in on Shanghai, the city gathered at the Shanghai Race Club to watch a running of the Champions' Stakes — not knowing how everything would change soon after.

This Week in China’s History: November 12, 1941

November 12, 1941 was a bizarre holiday in Shanghai. Much of the city was committed to celebrating, even though war isolated and menaced China’s largest port. It was the birthday of Sun Yat-sen (孙中山 Sūn Zhōngshān), though observing it was complicated by occupying Japanese armies. It was also Champions Day at the Shanghai Race Club, traditionally a day off for most Shanghai businesses: a gathering of the city’s foreign elite to race their horses, while many thousands of others — Chinese and foreign, wealthy and working-class — paid for a ticket to watch and lay down a wager.

I took this day as the subject for my book Champions Day, focusing on events at the Shanghai Race Club, especially the running of the last Champions’ Stakes before the Japanese occupied Shanghai’s International Settlement. It’s tempting to see the story as escapism, and to be sure, the men and women at the racetrack used the race to distract them from a challenging time. As the horses came to the starting gate, “All cares were thrown to the wind. The Far Eastern tension, the high cost of living, the rice problem, and all such worldly exigencies were forgotten. The issues at hand were of lesser gravity. Hot tips, fall frocks, surprises, dividends, pretty faces…These were the features of the day,” according to the China Press.

But I didn’t write the book to showcase posh colonials fiddling while Rome burned. It was a unique moment in time, and a bundle of great stories surrounding a single day, but with some lessons I hope we can take with us.

The Shanghai Race Club began just a few years after the settlement of the first Opium War made the city into a Treaty Port. An important regional port prior to 1842, Shanghai quickly emerged as the busiest of the several cities opened to European overseas trade in the mid-19th century. At the city’s center, an International Settlement, mostly Chinese in population but administered by European and American professionals, became an emblem of both European — especially British — power abroad and of China’s “century of humiliation” (a label first coined in the early 20th century before becoming the mantra of the Chinese Communist Party, which claimed to have ended it).

Undeniably, the Race Club was a symbol, and often an illustration, of racist colonialism. Chinese were excluded from membership, and briefly kept out of the grounds altogether. But the popularity of racing crossed national and racial boundaries. By the early 20th century, there were three racetracks in Shanghai, two of them operated by Chinese (one of which excluded foreign members). During the heyday of racing in Shanghai, crowds packed all three tracks, and on race days the grandstands were filled with as many as 20,000 spectators, only about 10 percent of whom were foreign.

Shanghai bobbed like a cork through the waves of turmoil that swept China in the early 20th century. Racing never even paused through the Boxer Uprising, the fall of the Qing dynasty, the warlord era, or the Northern Expedition that brought the Guomindang to power in 1927. Even the so-called “Shanghai War” of 1932 — several months of fighting between Japanese and Chinese troops — only postponed the fall racing season by a few weeks.

More fighting, in 1937 this time, had more lasting effects. Japanese armies took dozens of Chinese coastal cities during that summer and fall, including most of Shanghai. Not yet willing to provoke a wider war, however, they stopped short of the International Settlement and neighboring French Concession. The Settlement was now completely surrounded by hostile armies, and expecting to be overrun at any moment. Yet, this “Lone Island” (孤岛 gū dǎo) of neutrality persisted.

The city was still in that precariously absurd state in the fall of 1941. Rumors that the Japanese were about to invade were constant, and foreign consulates in the city had long been advising their nationals to leave, but life — and racing — went on. Each racing season at the Shanghai Race Club was highlighted by Champions Day, a holiday surrounding the running of the Champions’ Stakes: a race among the season’s winners, with a small fortune and bragging rights on the line.

Seven owners brought horses to the line that November afternoon hoping to win the top prize. Chief among them were Cornell Franklin, a judge from Mississippi who was the unofficial head of Shanghai’s American Community (and whose wife had left him for her first love, fellow Mississipian William Faulkner); Arthur Henchman (“Hench”), the manager of the Shanghai branch of HSBC; and Robert Aitkenhead, a Scottish engineer who owned the favorite, Cluniehouse, named after his lowland estate. Vera McBain, a former West End actress, was the only woman with a horse in this race, hoping to recapture the Champions’ Cup she had won years earlier.

Watching these races was a cast of characters that exemplified old Shanghai. Ing Tang (唐瑛 Táng Yīng) was an actress and socialite, who designed dresses that found their way to the members’ enclosure even though she could not join the race club. Another was Ma Xiansheng (better known at the racetrack by his English name, C.S. Mao), a member of the infamous Green Gang criminal organization who became such a fan of racing that he insisted on staying when the rest of his gangster friends had decamped to Hong Kong (a decision that would lead to his execution by the Communists for collaboration). Architect Dayu Doon (董大酉 Dǒng Dàyǒu) was there too, watching the action to take his mind off the destruction of the new Shanghai city center he had designed a few miles away, now in the hands of the Japanese.

By the time Alex Striker (born Alexander Strijevsky) rode the winning horse across the line, the sun was setting, though no one knew that it would be the last time it would set on Champions’ Day as Shanghai had come to know it. The Japanese invasion of the city came three weeks later — part of the same offensive that included Pearl Harbor, Manila, and Hong Kong — and ended British domination of the Settlement. But it did not end the races! Horses continued to run under Japanese management, with owners and jockeys from neutral and Axis nations, right until the end of the war. Even in August 1945, Shanghai’s newspapers advertised races to their readers.

I called November 12, 1941 “the end of Old Shanghai,” and certainly there is license in ascribing one day with that power, but let me defend my label. Although the races went on, this was the last day when the attention of Shanghai was focused on the race track, and the race track was the symbol of Shanghai. The end was slow, a spiky decline from the heyday of the 1930s through Shanghai’s nadir in the early People’s Republic, a time when the city was furthest from its international peak. Old Shanghai was a blend of China and the West, operating according to Western rules but thriving because it was Chinese. That was the racetrack in a nutshell: it was a Western institution, but it flourished because it was an institution among Shanghai’s Chinese population, too.

How should we feel about the demise of the Shanghai Race Club today? Certainly not nostalgia: it was a racist emblem of colonial exploitation. But as part of global Shanghai, it was more than that. Shanghai was a uniquely Chinese city, one that drew its energy from all across China and all over the world. In today’s era of tariffs, borders, deportation, and isolation, that sort of energy is something we can aspire to. One of the most important parts of my job as a university professor is bringing my students to China, to see how what they read on a page translates, at least a little, into lived experience. That’s been shut off by pandemics and politics, for more than a year now. We don’t want to replicate 1941, to be sure, but we might want to find a way we can bring the world together instead of splitting it apart.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.