A look back at the myth of salacious Shanghai.

Shanghai is a city freighted with clichés. Lurid accounts of its urban zeitgeist under nationalist rule conjure up a whore of the Orient where East met West for a fin-de-siècle bout of decadence and depravity against a backdrop of violence and poverty. Others celebrate the cultural and economic dynamism that once made Shanghai China’s most diverse and cosmopolitan metropolis.

The city’s allure owes much to its original sin: when China lost the first Opium War in 1842, Shanghai became a treaty port, and the foreign interests who plied the waterfront later vastly expanded the territory under their control. Foreign law reigned across much of Shanghai, where foreigners were always a small minority, until the settlements were dissolved during World War Two. The outcomes of this arrangement continue to fascinate. Imagine how the United States might have developed if Manhattan south of midtown had spent a century...