A Short History of Japanese Cuisine in Shanghai

Aversion of a Japanese culinary field appeared in Shanghai in the pre-war era, but its development followed a very different path than the current one. The 1880s ushered in a fashion for Japanese culture among urban Chinese, including patronizing Japanese teahouses and geishas in Shanghai. The former sold Western and Chinese dishes, but also some Japanese stacks.[1] [2] This Japanese nightlife boom in Shanghai fell victim to the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, during which most of Shanghai’s Japanese community returned to Japan.

After the war, Japanese restaurants reappeared, but they appealed largely to the growing Japanese population of the city rather than to local Chinese.11 One of the earliest and most famous was Rokusantei, a large full-service restaurant opened in 1900 by Nagasaki native Shiraishi Rokusaburo on Tanggu Road near the site that would soon be occupied by the prestigious Japanese Club in the heart of Hongkou District. The restaurant boasted dozens of geisha from Nagasaki, and a large secondfloor tatami-covered room with tokonoma (alcoves) featuring Japanese flower arrangements. The building still stands, though it is now used for public housing.[3] In 1912, Shiraishi opened a Japanese teahouse further out in Hongkou on Xijiangwan Road. This too became a landmark until it burned down in the Sino-Japanese war in 1937. It featured a lawn and garden known for its seasonal blossoms and was used by Japanese sports and garden club meetings. At least some Chinese also held banquets there.[4]

By the 1910s there were 50-60 Japanese restaurants in Shanghai. Twenty-four of them served alcohol and offered the companionship of geisha along with Japanese food.[5] Most of these restaurants were located in the Hongkou District with the largest concentration on a busy stretch of Zhapu Road directly north of the Suzhou River, the heart of Shanghai’s unofficial ‘Japantown.’[6] By the late 1930s Shanghai was home to over 25,000 Japanese, the largest population of foreign residents in the city, growing to 100,000 in the war years.[7]

Aside from politics, the greatest culinary obstacle to Chinese acquiring an interest in Japanese food in early twentieth century China, as in the USA, may have been the reluctance to eat raw foods.[8] Therefore, one of the most common Japanese dishes offered in Shanghai as in Hong Kong was sukiyaki, a cooked beef dish. This dish even made it onto the menus of some of the preeminent Western restaurants in Shanghai, including the German Restaurant Deda, which had sukiyaki on the menu in the 1930s. During wartime, even the famed Cathay Hotel offered sukiyaki, written in Japanese katakana on the otherwise English and French menu. For example, the menu from May 12, 1943

offered sukiyaki alongside ‘Veal Chop Vichy,’ likely a nod to the collaborationist French regime situated in Vichy, France.[9]

Japanese foodways undoubtedly influenced China in more subtle ways than restaurant cuisine, including the advent of the flavouring monosodium glutamate (MSG) by the Ajinomoto Company and its rapid spread as weijing throughout China[10] and the wide popularity of the electric rice cooker introduced from Japan.[11] But there is little evidence for a broad popularity of Japanese cuisine in Mainland China before the 1990s.

Even in Hong Kong, where the first Japanese restaurant opened in a Japanese hotel in 1892, a popular interest in Japanese cuisine did not emerge until relatively recently.[12] As late as the 1960s, Hong Kong people would complain, ‘There is nothing to eat in Japan’.[13] Starting in the 1960s Japanese department stores offered imported Japanese food products, but these were priced beyond the reach of most Chinese. The boom in Japanese restaurant cuisine in Hong Kong began when a Hong Kong middle class emerged in the 1980s, a decade in which Japanese pop culture influences were at a height in East Asia. Japanese supermarket chains introduced new food items, and restaurateurs began marketing cuisine such as teppanyaki tailored to the tastes of Chinese Hong Kongers.[14] Because of this head start in the 1980s, Hong Kongers were important customers in the first Japanese restaurants that opened in Shanghai in the following decade.

In Shanghai, as in other cities in Mainland China, Japanese food had disappeared from restaurant menus in the 1950s and 1960s, as foreign cuisines were condemned as bourgeois cultural affectations. And as China ‘opened up’ to foreign cultural influences again in the 1980s, most Chinese were too poor to indulge in restaurant foods except for formal occasions, usually reserved for traditional Chinese banquets. It was only in the 1990s that foreign-themed restaurants, including Japanese restaurants, began reappearing in significant numbers in the city.[15]

Unlike pre-1949 Western culinary culture in Shanghai, Japanese restaurant culture in pre-war and wartime Shanghai seems to have left little impression on the public urban consciousness. Most older Shanghainese would know the names of several of the famed Western restaurants of the 1930s and 1940s, the French Red House, the German Deda, or the Armenian bakery Laodachang, all of which continue on as state-owned ‘famous brands’ to this day.[16] In contrast, no one except historians and nearby residents likely remember the name of Shanghai’s once famed Rokusantei. The reputation of Japanese food in Shanghai thus could be - or had to be - completely reinvented in the 1990s.

  • [1] Iwama, ‘Shanghai no nihonshoku bunka’, 1.
  • [2] Ibid., 2.
  • [3] Interior and exterior photos of the contemporary building can be found on the April 4, 2014entry of the blog Mikyo: Shanghai joho http://d.hatena.ne.jp/ekobiiki888.
  • [4] Iwama, ‘Shanghai no nihonshoku bunka’, 2. Photo of the Chinese banqueters is at http://f.hatena.ne.jp/ekobiiki888/20160507005357. The location can be seen on ‘Shanghai Historical Map:’ http://historicalmap2010shanghai.com/%E5%85%AD%E4%B8%89%E4%BA%AD.
  • [5] Iwama, ‘Shanghai no nihonshoku bunka’, 2.
  • [6] Miyake, Shanghai inshdki. Zhapu Road would become one of the first restaurants streets tothrive in Shanghai in the 1980s, this time dominated by privately run Chinese restaurants.
  • [7] Fogel, ‘Shanghai-Japan’.
  • [8] Nakano, ‘Eating One’s Way’, 112.
  • [9] Menus are in Tina Kanagaratham’s private collection.
  • [10] Sand, ‘A short history of MSG’.
  • [11] Nakano, ‘Eating One’s Way’, 114.
  • [12] Iwama, ‘Shanghai no nihonshoku bunka’, 3.
  • [13] Nakano, ‘Eating One’s Way’, 112.
  • [14] Ibid., 114-118.
  • [15] The exception would be a few ‘Western cuisine’ restaurants? that reopened in the 1970s and1980s as state-owned enterprises. See Farrer, ‘Imported Culinary Heritage’, ‘Shanghai’s WesternRestaurants’ .
  • [16] See Farrer, ‘Imported Culinary Heritage’.
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