Shanghai's Most Haunted

By Robyn Hughes

Summer has drawn to a close and the nights are growing longer and darker. Chestnut vendors have begun to appear on the streets and our flip-flops and shorts will soon be replaced with thick coats and scarves. What better time than now to settle down in a cozy room, dim the lights and read about ghost stories. Talk Magazine met up with Daniel Newman, Managing Director of Newman Tours, to hear some of the more chilling tales from around the city. Welcome to Shanghai’s dark places.

Dancehall Spirits

Once one of the most decadent and notorious landmarks of Shanghai, it is no surprise that the Paramount Theatre (218 Yuyuan Lu, near Huashan Lu) has a few ghosts gliding around its once magnificent architecture. One, who has been seen haunting the fifth floor by workers on the premises, is the ghost of a young, beautiful Chinese woman.

In the late 1930s, during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, this elegant dancer was approached by a Japanese colonial officer and ordered to dance with him. After repeatedly refusing his advances, a fight broke out and the officer was ejected. Refusing to be slighted in such a way, he snuck back into the Paramount after closing, found his way to the dressing room and shot the young dancer down dead in cold blood.

It has been said that this tragic figure has been unable to move on from her violent passing and her quiet ghost has since been seen dancing alone, slowly and sadly, at the place where she met her tragic end.

A Dragon’s Tale

It may be that you have already heard of Shanghai’s most famous ghost, from the seemingly unlikely location of the Yan’an Elevated Highway. If not, you may have at least noticed and wondered about the ornate pillar decorated with nine golden dragons which stands out at the road’s junction with Chengdu Lu.

This modern legend states that during the construction of the highway, while holes were being drilled to support the massive posts that hold the road aloft, the drills hit something that they couldn’t go through. The construction team was naturally perplexed by the sudden failure of their tools and began searching, somewhat fruitlessly, for answers.

Having exhausted all avenues, they eventually consulted an elderly monk who explained that the problem was not with their equipment, but because they were trying to drill their way through a dragon’s tail. The monk assured the team that he would be able to communicate and negotiate with the dragon on their behalf.

After a few days of negotiation with the dragon, the monk confirmed to the bewildered workers that it did consent to moving its tail but only if the construction team would wait until an auspicious day on which they would build and decorate a pillar in its honour. Dutifully the workers waited for the date, on which the pillar was erected, the dragon moved its tail and construction continued without a hitch.

It is now not unknown for students in Shanghai to pray to the dragon when seeking luck in their exams.

Sounds of Sorrow

With its massive skyscrapers and air of uncompromising modernity, Xujiahui seems about as far removed from ghosts and superstition as you can get. As any good horror writer will tell you, however, it is the shadows that lurk underneath the trappings of normality that disturb us the most.

You may have, for instance, walked past one Xujiahui department store on Hengshan Lu at night and wondered about the rather disquieting children’s music that is often played at closing time (certainly a curious change from the usual bland elevator music which chases lingering browsers out onto the streets).

Maybe these shoppers would prefer not to know that the mall was originally built where an orphanage used to stand, where the unfortunate children homed were neglected and abandoned leading to more than one death. Playing children’s music, not only at closing time but all through the night, is said to calm the lost souls of these poor children, as well as helping the guards who patrol the site at night to drown out the children’s cries (which many claim to have often heard).

Perhaps it is best to leave you with these stories of our accommodating dragon, the ghostly dancer and children’s songs masking the cries of orphaned children. However before we do, one final thought from Shanghai based author Paul French: 

“In the UK, if you wished to build on a graveyard (given that foundations would need to be sunk through graves), you’d need to work with the relevant local authority and diocese to determine whether it’s a Protestant, Jewish, Catholic etc. grave. 

It seems unlikely to me that that happened in Shanghai, given the pace of construction. And, if it did, then the question is this: where did the remains (and the ghosts) go?"

The history of Shanghai is long and has often been brutal. As we go about our daily lives in the largest city in the world, it would seem wise to bear in mind the history that is buried beneath our feet and the restless spirits we may disturb.

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