Until 1842, the "City Above the Sea" was a small fishing village. After the first Opium War, the village was carved up into autonomous concessions administered concurrently by the British, French, and Americans. As the most Westernized city in China after Hong Kong, Shanghai is at the forefront of China's modernization. Nearly a quarter of the world's construction cranes stand in this city.
Still, architectural remnants of a colonial past survive along the winding, bustling streets.
In its heyday, Shanghai had the best art, the greatest architecture, and the strongest business in Asia. With dance halls, glitzy restaurants, international clubs, brothels, and a racetrack, it catered to the rich. The Paris of the East was known as a place of vice and indulgence. Amid this glamour and degradation the Communist Party held its first meeting in 1921.
In the '30s and '40s the city suffered raids, invasions, and occupation by the Japanese. After the war's end, Nationalists and Communists fought a three-year civil war for control of China. The Communists declared victory in 1949 and established the People's Republic of China. Between 1950 and 1980, Shanghai's industries soldiered on through periods of extreme famine and drought, reform, and suppression. Politically, the city was central to the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four's base. The January Storm of 1967 purged many of Shanghai's leaders, and Red Guards set out to destroy the "Four Olds": old ways of ideas, living, traditions, and thought.
In 1972, with the Cultural Revolution still going, Shanghai hosted the historic meeting between Premier Zhou Enlai and U.S. President Richard Nixon. In 1990 China's leader, Deng Xiaoping, chose Shanghai as the center of the country's commercial renaissance, and it has again become a testament to hedonism and capitalism, one of China's most ideologically, socially, culturally, and economically open cities.
Shanghai is a sprawling city with large districts, but the downtown area is fairly compact, and the subway reaches many place you'll want to visit.