Slap bang in the middle of International Settlement, at the heart of high society – and on what is now People’s Square – used to lie a huge racecourse. Opened in 1862 it was actually the third incarnation of the track, moving westward and increasing in size as it went. And what a size it was – a twelve-acre plot paid for by residents’ contribution that curved round from Nanjing Lu to what is now Huangpi Lu, down to Yan’an Lu and back up Xizhang Lu.
The track and recreation ground on the left from a 1935 map. Image via Shanghai Race Club
The large inside field was used as an all-purpose recreational area, where a diverse set of sports were played, from cricket to football, tennis, golf, polo and baseball, while outside a bridle path was where the well-heeled would take their ponies for morning runs.
The back of the public stand and the administration building. Image via Shanghai Race Club
March 1934 saw the new Shanghai Race Club open in what is now the Shanghai Art Museum and Roof325. The grandstand was thought at the time to be largest in the world. The clubhouse, meanwhile, with its marble staircases, teak paneled rooms, oak parquet floors and coffee room – which was 100 feet by 47 feet with a huge fireplace – was as sumptuous as they came.
Image via Shanghai Race Club
The track running adjacent to Nanjing Lu and the still-standing Park Hotel. Image via Shanghai Race Club
Such was its social importance, that banks and businesses would close after 11 o’clock in the morning for ten days during the big biannual racing meets. Here, the thunder of hooves on turf would draw huge crowds of punters, bookmakers, trainers, scalpers and socialites. Ownership of a winning horse was one way for the socially ambitious to make their mark.
Sir Victor Sassoon with one of his horses. Image via Shanghai Race Club
Banker, businessman, hotelier and all-round bon vivant moneybags Sir Victor Sassoon, who had owned successful stables in the United Kingdom and India (“There is only one race greater than the Jews,” he once famously mused, “and that’s the Derby.”) wasted no time in buying up the best China ponies. He would also make sure he had the best seats at race meets and a fine filly of his own on his arm (another of his great passions – you can read about Sir Victor Sassoon's life in Shanghai right here).
When Wallis Simpson arrived in Shanghai in the mid-1920a, she looked up a British diplomat friend, Harold Robinson, who escorted her to cocktail parties, turf meets at the Shanghai Race Club and dances in the sunken courtyard of the Majestic Hotel.
The Racecourse, as depicted on a postcard from 1912. Image via Wikimedia
Following the example of their British counterparts, many well-to-do Chinese took up riding, and by the end of WW1 the Shanghai Race Club had opened its doors to the local population (motivated in no small way by the large share of revenue that they offered). However, even then Chinese were only offered honorary, rather than formal membership.
Racing fans, including Chinese, watch from the grandstand. Image via Shanghai Race Club
The Race Club’s long history of discrimination, as well as its use for colonialist political events and displays of military power, along with the moral implications of its function as a center for gambling, meant for many it came to epitomize the evils of imperialism once the People's Republic of China was founded..
And so it was that on August 27, 1951 the military control commission of Shanghai declared the area was to be transformed into People’s Square, People’s Avenue and People’s Park.
Historic Shanghai regularly do walking tours based around the old racecourse, for information on them, click here or scan the QR code.
For more This Day in History stories, click here.
[Cover image via Wikimedia]