The first days of electric Shanghai

Society & Culture

On July 26, 1882, the first electric light came on in Shanghai. The city would be China's only electrified city for the next six years, helping it attract industry — and imperialist forces — through the turn of the century.

Illustration for The China Project by Alex Santafé

This Week in China’s History: July 26, 1882

For an outside observer, especially one with experience in the city, one of the most unnerving aspects of this spring’s COVID lockdown in Shanghai (longer than the spring 2020 lockdown of Wuhan at the start of the pandemic) was the silence. The absence of activity in videos and photos underscored the energy that normally defines Shanghai and cities like it. Literally and metaphorically, Shanghai is electric, and has been for a long time. Going back to the 19th century, the buildings of the Bund — a mile of art deco and beaux-arts skyscrapers lining the Huangpu River — have been illuminated. Images of old Shanghai — especially the International Settlement — often rely on electric lights. The modernist fiction of Mù Shíyīng 穆時英, for example, depicts a city that buzzes with electricity — literal and metaphorical. So while the memory of Shanghai unplugged is still fresh, I thought we would go back to the moment the lights first went on: 7 pm, July 26, 1882.

Historian Ying Jia Tan describes the well-lit metropolis in his new book Recharging China in War and Revolution: “City lights accentuated the beauty of the European style buildings…Shops lit up their signboards with neon lights; restaurants and dance halls welcomed customers late into the night; theaters dazzled the audience with the astute use of lighting in their performances.” All that began on that steamy Shanghai evening, 140 years ago, when arc lights lit up the Bund for the first time, powered by 16 kilowatts of direct current provided by China’s first electric power station. The site would be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the city: the intersection of Nanjing East Road and Jiangxi Road. Today, it’s the Nanjing East Road subway station and an Apple Store, at the base of the pedestrian zone that runs up toward the old racecourse. Shanghai was at the cutting edge of electrification: 1882 was the same year that Thomas Edison started powering lower Manhattan.

Those first lights in Shanghai lit a route many visitors to Shanghai have traveled, their wrought iron towers extending from Nanjing East Road down to the river, then turning left along the Bund and over the Garden Bridge — now the Waibaidu Bridge — to what was the Astor House hotel. For six years, Shanghai was China’s only electrified city. The Forbidden City was next, in 1888, and over the next 10 years, electrical utilities were established not only in Shanghai and Beijing, but also Tianjin, Dalian, Qingdao, Harbin, Guangzhou, Hankou, and other cities.

Most of those early adopters of electricity were using them for lighting: carbon-arc lights for streets, parks, and public settings; incandescent bulbs for residential and commercial usage; neon for signs. Floodlights attracted public attention to Ciro’s nightclub, or a big event at the Race Club. Nanking Road was awash in neon. Historian Lu Hanchao’s pathbreaking book on everyday life in Shanghai even uses the city’s electric lights for its title, Beyond the Neon Lights. Shanghai led the way in lighting, and the dazzling illuminations helped define the city, but Tan makes clear it was not lighting that made electrification so significant.

Although that first power station opened in the heart of the International Settlement, it was Yangshupu — north of Suzhou Creek and then east along the Huangpu River — that became “the engine room of China’s early industrialization.” And not because of lighting.

Two oft-cited facts about mid-century Shanghai are that it was China’s wealthiest city and that it was the birthplace of the Communist Party. Sometimes presented as contradictions, they are of course just the opposite. The city’s wealth and its Marxist labor politics were linked inextricably. Industrialization was at the root of both, and electrification was the key.

As Tan shows, the expansion of electrification in Shanghai was driven by the British- and American-dominated Municipal Council, which by the turn of the century owned the electrical utility. The council was happy to see electrification lend their city an air of modernity and cosmopolitanism, but creature comforts and claims to modernism did not increase profits. The businessmen (all men) who ran the council were in it not for public service, but for business, and while bourgeois aspiration encouraged homeowners to electrify, expanding residential service did not mean greater gains. For one thing, private residences used relatively little electricity to keep lamps lit for a few hours each night; for another, as power expanded into residential neighborhoods, streetlights — which were on the utilities — were part of the process. “Electrical illumination alone would not deliver the high revenue growth that would fuel further expansion of the power sector.”

The critical market for electric power was Shanghai’s expansive and expanding textile mills, lining the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek in the northern end of the International Settlement. From their origins in the mid-19th century, the mills — owned by Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans — were a critical link between Shanghai and the global economy. Those mills, of course, began to industrialize before electrification. Steam engines fueled by coal were mechanizing the spindles and looms by the 1870s. Soon after that, some mills began to electrify using their own generators: effective, but at a cost far greater than what could be achieved by a central generation plant.

After several decades of trial and error, the Shanghai Municipal Council opened the Yangshupu Power Station in 1912. Close to the cotton mills, the station began pumping power to mills along Suzhou Creek. (Among the first mills to join the grid was Hengfeng Cotton Mill, under the management of Niè Yúntái 聂云泰, the grandson of Qing self-strengthener Zèng Guófān 曾国藩.) Soon, the availability of cheap, reliable electrical power for industry attracted even more textile mills to Shanghai, but the timing meant that the chief beneficiary of this new energy landscape was the newly imperialist Japan. Japanese firms from across East Asia relocated to Shanghai. Chinese firms, many of which were decades older than their foreign counterparts, often retained their pre-existing individual generators with obsolete technology, giving the efficient Japanese and British mills a greater advantage. Industrial production in Shanghai exploded, much of it controlled by foreigners.

The introduction of electrical grids to China is hard to overstate. In Ying Jia Tan’s view, “The electrification of cotton milling in China set the stage for…the massive expansion of human economic activity [and] the imperialist forces were responsible not only for introducing the carbon-intensive modes of industrial production by financing Shanghai’s cotton industries but also for creating the inequalities that increased the energy burden of China’s textile industries.”

It’s certainly not a straight line from the opening of China’s first electrical power plant in 1882 to its rise as the world’s foremost manufacturer, but the two events are not unrelated. It’s worth a moment to reflect on when the lights in China were first switched on.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.