Plane trees Shanghai. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

When I dream about Shanghai, I see the Bund, the Pudong skyline, the plane trees of the old French Concession. People from every nation once strolled under those trees. Japanese, Brits, Russians, Americans, Portuguese, German, French and more. In my dreams, I hear their strange speech. I can taste their odd foodstuffs: pretzels from Germany, Russian borscht, a bloody steak for the Americans.

a melting pot

There were so many foreigners in Shanghai that it’s tempting to think that they represented the bulk of the population. Not so. There were roughly 60,000 foreigners in a city of more than three million inhabitants.

But that’s not to say that all those Chinese were native to Shanghai. Almost from the moment Shanghai became a treaty port in 1842, it was a magnet for internal migration. Some of those migrants were poor, fleeing conflict or famine. Others belonged to the landed gentry, who brought their money and cultural tastes with them. As Lynn Pan so succinctly observes in Shanghai Style:

The foreign settlements became what they were not meant to be: safe haven, immigrant destination and melting pot.

My maternal grandmother was one of those migrants. Her family came from Fujian Province. Fujian is a mountainous region in southern China with the sea on two sides. As the crow flies, it’s the closest point to Taiwan, a mere 180 kilometers away.

a guild

In Old Shanghai, a Fujianese merchant was as much a foreigner as any barbarian from Leeds or Calcutta. He needed to establish himself, form business alliances, get credit. Joining forces with others from Fujian was the way to do that.

In 1909, a group of Fujianese fruit merchants built Sanshan Guild Hall. It’s an imposing red brick building south of the old walled city of Shanghai. The site was close to the go-downs and docks that once lined this bend of the Huangpu River. Or maybe a necromancer had divined that this was an auspicious spot for a temple to the Queen of Heaven.

Fujian goddess
Mazu on a train to Taipei. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The Queen of Heaven goes by many names. Her official title is Tianhou. But tradition is to address her as Mazu. You don’t want the goddess to feel obliged to dress for the part of a queen. It could take ages before she grants your prayer!

an opening

Sanshan Guild Hall has a large courtyard lined with finely carved alcoves. I imagine those cunning nooks and crannies were ideal spots for revealing a confidence or closing a deal. In the privacy of their own guild, the fruit merchants would have conversed in the dialect of Fujian, Fujianhua.

Fujian guild
Sanshan Guild Hall courtyard. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

Outside the doors of Sanshan Guild Hall, these merchants would have switched to the local dialect of Shanghainese. Or, in the days of Old Shanghai, business would be conducted in that peculiar form of English known as pidgin, the lingua franca of the treaty ports.

There must have been compradors in Fujian with its treaty ports in Amoy (now: Xiamen) and Foochow (Fuzhou). The name comes from the Portugese word for buyer. Compradors were the go-between for barbarian traders to conduct business with their civilised customers. They amassed fortunes as, with each trade, a little money always stayed with the comprador to grease his palm.

Definitely, Fujianese populated the Shanghai underworld. As Fredric Wakeman, Jr. notes in Policing Shanghai 1927-1937, they held the monopoly on opium, thanks to the protection of the mobster Du Yuesheng.

secret languages

A secret language like Fujianhua would have come in quite handy in the bad old days. To agree prices or drop-off points or enemies for elimination.

Then the Communists came to power. They swept away the drugs and the triads. When putonghua became the new national language in 1955, dialects like Fujianhua went out of fashion.

Since the 1980s, massive infrastructure projects have created superhighways into areas of China long isolated, including Fujian Province. Nowadays, neither language nor geography could hinder a Fujianese from doing business in Shanghai.

And yet, the mountains are still high and the emperor is far away. Interest in the old dialects like Fujianhua has revived in cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. Perhaps it’s a political statement. Or maybe an expression of nostalgia, not unlike the experience of the vast Chinese diaspora.


The first generation abandons the mother tongue in its haste to adapt to the new world. The second generation grows up in ignorance. The third generation, suddenly seized by a desire to discover its roots, embraces the old language and all that implies.

It’s hard to get to Sanshan Guild Hall these days with all the scooters and buses that crowd its entrance. Some tourists come to see the site of the Third Armed Uprising of Shanghai Workers in 1927. Others want to admire the only well-preserved building of the late Qing dynasty still standing in Shanghai.

fujian guild
Sanshan Guild Hall. Photo credit: Karen Kao

They should be thronging Sanshan Guild Hall because it’s a monument to migration: internal and external. It’s a story in stone of the Fujian people. They worshiped in their own way and flourished wherever they went, speaking their secret language Fujianhua.