Just beneath the shiny veneer of China’s most famous port city, where glass and steel are the new currency of a city vying to become the world’s centre for business and commerce, Shanghai’s “tawdry” 1930s past is experiencing a revival.

In smoky jazz clubs, underground gay bars and restaurants that range from grand old mansions to humble street carts, visitors are transported back to Shanghai’s first golden era,  when it was the entertainment centre of Asia and a playground for the rich and famous. In its heyday, foreigners and mainland Chinese flocked to Shanghai to get rich fast and indulge in guilty pleasures, including brothels, gambling houses and drug dens fuelled by the opium trade. Gangs and triads controlled much of the illegal activity, with the most notorious being the Green Gang headed by Shangdai Du Yuesheng, “Big Eared Du”. But all of that came to an abrupt end with the Japanese invasion in 1937.

On a recent visit to the House of Blues and Jazz, the tall, blond hostess was dressed in a floor-length evening gown, with a bright red hat angled down the front of her face and an intriguing Russian accent. The eccentric club resides among dark streets and grey warehouses, just a block from Shanghai’s famous Bund river walk – a recently revamped symbol of the city’s return to glory. On any given day, the Bund’s bustling promenade is filled with tourists and local families enjoying the colonial-style architecture and views of the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower across the river.

Inside the jazz club, an eclectic mix of expats, tourists and locals — many of whom were sporting 1930s attire and gangster-like hats — sat around tables and along the long wooden bar. Conversations in Mandarin, Cantonese and a rich variety of accented English competed with the rhythmic beat of authentic Cuban jazz, courtesy of Roberto Santamaria and his band on tour direct from Havana. 

After the communist takeover in 1949, jazz was banned because of its association with drug lords, gambling and prostitution. Nearly three decades later, the ban was lifted, allowing a new generation of young Shanghaiers to enjoy the once forbidden art.

“We give our artists space to present their music without a lot of guidelines from club management,” explained Mila Dorosh, the assistant manager at the House of Blues and Jazz. “That way you get real, authentic jazz and blues imported from the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and even Cuba now, straight to Shanghai. A lot of musicians that first came to China through us stayed in Shanghai and continued to develop the Shanghai music scene.”

Even more recently, China lifted its laws on homosexuality in 1997 and removed it from the list of mental illnesses in 2001. In comparison to some western cities, Shanghai’s gay scene is growing at a steady rumble -- but its vibrancy is clearly felt at places like Shanghai Studio, an underground gay bar built among the passageways of an early 20th-century bomb shelter. Hidden away at the end of an alley, the only clue that there might be a bar here is a few men smoking cigarettes at the entrance. Downstairs, the labyrinth of small rooms with weathered white walls is filled with vintage furniture, giving off an ambiance that feels more like the basement of someone’s house than a bar.

For more evidence of the city’s decades-long culture clash, head back above ground to the chaotic collection of alleyways and back streets known as Old Shanghai, bordered by Renmin Road to the north and Zhonghua Road to the south. The area was once enclosed by a city wall that was 10m high and five kilometres in circumference, built in 1555 and torn down in 1911. Today, Old Shanghai is walled in by the apartment and office towers slowly and inevitably approaching from all sides. The red brick and stone, the smoke and soot, and the sounds and smells of Old Shanghai provide sharp relief to the shiny new Pudong financial centre across the river.

Few foreigners venture here, but for those who can spare a couple of hours, a walking tour will shed light on the Shanghai of a century ago, with its vibrant markets, street vendors and hidden restaurants  that once made this working-class neighbourhood the heart of the city. Scattered throughout the streets are family-run food stands and classic “hole in the wall” restaurants serving delicious home-cooked food. The smells of freshly made pastry, noodle soup and stir fry hang in the air. Peek into the cement and brick dwellings — stacked on top and beside another — where old men sit around tables, smoking and playing cards, and children chase each other in the courtyards while mothers are busy with chores. Outside, everyone looks busy, from elderly ladies selling socks to young men welding pipes and repairing used electronics.

Around every corner, glimpses of Shanghai’s rich history reveal themselves to intrepid travellers who are willing to scratch the city’s shiny veneer.