Sniffing Out the History of Modern Shanghai
Any pedestrian out for a stroll along Nanjing Road in downtown Shanghai in the late 1930s would have encountered a rich mélange of odors. The exotic aroma of coffee drifting from one of the street’s six cafés would quickly succumb to the overpowering odor of pickles sold at one of its five Chinese-style sauce shops; they might inhale the fragrant scent of French perfume in a department store, the pungent stench of Chinese herbal medicine wafting from an apothecary, and the calming smell of sandalwood incense emanating from a Buddhist temple, all in the span of a few steps. With the aid of a historical atlas of Shanghai, we could even produce an olfactory map tracing how the sensory experiences of Shanghai residents changed over time.
We could, you might be asking, but why would we? Why should we want to know what Nanjing Road smelled like? The urban theorist Kevin Lynch argues that our mental image of city spaces is of great practical and emotional importance to the individual. Smellscapes, like that of Nanjing Road, are part and parcel of this mental image. Whenever we inhale, we breathe in odors that help us understand physical and social space, store memories, and evoke desires.
Nanjing Road is a particularly interesting subject for such an analysis. Initially known as Park Lane, it was built from scratch by Shanghai’s earliest British residents on an open tract of countryside in the aftermath of the First Opium War (1839–42). To smell it is to smell Chinese modernity. I mean that literally. The mid-19th century saw the rise of the public sanitation movement in Britain. Stench was associated with disease, and a paramount goal of the movement was to “deodorize” urban environments. China, which was viewed in the West as a lethargic, filthy, and smelly place, became a target for foreign residents’ experiments in deodorization.
Prior to modern sanitation systems, human waste was a persistent source of malodor in the city. In the 19th century, households on Park Lane were called on to carry their “filth” down to the jetty and dump it into a boat stationed there between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m every day. The strict time slot served the dual purpose of disciplining the smellscape and reinforcing the modern mindset of deodorization. But the peculiar odor of Shanghai nightsoil carts lingered for a century. A French expat, going by the pen name Stinky, complained in a 1938 newspaper article about the unbearable smell of the ordure carts as they passed through the city during the morning rush hours. He said he could drench a handkerchief with perfume to protect his sensitive nose, but he wondered: “Would the French authorities pay for the perfume? If so, I think I’d choose a big bottle of Lentheric’s ‘Shanghai.’”
Stinky’s complaints notwithstanding, the implementation of sanitary measures and the building of the underground sewage system beginning in the 1860s vastly improved the smell of Nanjing Road and Shanghai’s foreign settlements in general. With the flowering of urban culture during the Republican era (1912-1949), Nanjing Road acquired a reputation for decadence, materialism, and cosmopolitanism that its distinctive scents helped reinforce.
The potent symbolism of smell is immediately obvious in literature from Republican-era Shanghai. Chinese writer Mao Dun’s famous 1933 novel “Midnight” starts with an old village gentleman’s first trip to Shanghai, a fateful encounter that eventually leads to his sudden death from a stroke caused by sensory over-excitement. Peering through the windshield of his millionaire son’s car as it races along Nanjing Road, his nerves are overcome by the sight of towering skyscrapers, flickering neon lights, and the heady perfume of his daughter, all pressing down like a nightmare on his frail spirit. He can choose to close his eyes, but he cannot switch off his olfactory nerves. Scent is omnipresent.
Liu Na’ou’s 1930 short story “Etiquette and Hygiene” offers a more detailed look at the comingling of smell and desire along Nanjing Road and the surrounding area. The story starts in the lawyer Qiming’s office on a spring afternoon. After meeting his eighth female client of the day, Qiming reflects on her sweet smile as the residue of her perfume lingers in the warm, stuffy air. He concludes that “spring’s melancholia” is to blame for his sudden sexual arousal, and he decides the best response is to leave work early.
Two minutes later, an elevator lands him on the street at the eastern end of Nanjing Road, not far from the Bund. From there, he embarks on a sensuous olfactory journey that only further titillates his lust. A blonde holding an armful of tulips walks out of a flower shop, giving off the fragrance of spring flowers; a woman alights from a car, her coat emanating with the scent of green grass. A Sikh policeman raises his baton, and Qiming crosses the tram track and enters a pharmacy to buy a German aphrodisiac. His nose catches the fragrance of fancy dishes, a sensation induced by an alluring Slavic saleswoman whose “primitive flavor,” Qiming ponders, is like “roast lamb from the Caucasus.”
The exotic encounter further arouses Qiming’s lust. He is now heading to his destination: a Chinese prostitute. Although she plies her trade just a handful of blocks south of Nanjing Road, the scenery changes radically. So does the smellscape. “A cold ghastly stench” emanates from stores that have never known the warmth of sunlight. “The mixture of grease, sweat and dust” pierces his nose and settles in his lungs, while “the pungent odor of ammonia” seems to waft from a stall selling erotic pictures.
Liu’s olfactory map showcases the sensuality of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan culture, but also the gap between rich and poor, hyper-modern and traditional. This semicolonial reality imbued Nanjing Road with meanings of exoticism, decadence, and debauchery, all of which needed to be removed, cleansed, and deodorized in the Mao era. The Communist history of deodorization was built on eradicating the stench of China’s colonial period, and Nanjing Road was a symbolic target for socialist transformation.
Both the stage and film version of the 1960s story “Sentinels Under the Neon Lights” illustrate how olfaction played a subtle role in reshaping the symbolic meanings of Nanjing Road. Set in May 1949, the story focuses on the Good Eighth Company of Nanjing Road, an army unit that participated in Shanghai’s liberation and was later tasked with securing the seat of Chinese capitalism for the Communist government. As old perfumes waft in the air, the city’s new rulers see building a new olfactory world as imperative.
The key is not to transform the nose, but the heart. When a PLA soldier says that the breeze in Nanjing Road smells “fragrant,” his commanders grow frustrated: “Alas! The die-hard capitalists in Nanjing Road are indeed detestable, but more disturbing is the perfume that assails our nostrils!”
The “fragrant breeze” line became a key political term in Mao-era discourse, a metaphor for the continued power and allure of the old, pre-Communist society. The intimate tie between sensory stimuli and desire needed to be cut, with the latter diverted to serve the great cause of communism. To deodorize Nanjing Road was to build socialism.
Perceived against the backdrop of societal changes, the elusive smells of Nanjing Road shed light on the nuances of Chinese history over the past 150 years. Colonialism, capitalism, and socialism — each period has its distinct odor. The scents change, but their power lingers. Now, China says it is embarking on a “new era.” So, the next chance you get, step outside, inhale deeply, and ask yourself: What do you smell?
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A view of Nanjing Road in downtown Shanghai, circa 1930. General Photographic Agency/VCG)