But it wasn’t always like this.
Two generations ago, this city of 11 million people, at the intersection of the Yangtze and Han rivers, 600 miles upstream, in central China, was known across the West as a major industrial city.
It was somewhere that many European powers had a consulate, a place where major Western and Japanese trading companies, and international textile and engineering companies, had factories and sales offices.
It was an expedition abroad for customs officers, captains of steamships, merchants and consuls. Wuhan was also a cradle of the Chinese revolution in 1911. A quarter century later, it stood defiantly as the war-besieged capital of nationalist China.
From the mid-19th century until the mid-20th century, Wuhan was a city that appeared regularly in the international press and, as a commercial center for tea and thirst among other raw materials, had a direct impact on people’s lives in the West – made tea in their teapots, egg powder in their birthday cakes, silk for their pajamas.
After the chaos and destruction of the Second World War, the communist revolution brought down the bamboo tent firmly. International trade stopped, the foreign business community left, and the western world largely forgot about Wuhan.
The Chicago of China
In 1900, the American magazine Collier published an article about Yanghan’s “boom city” of Yanghan, calling it “the Chicago of China”. It was one of the first times – if not the first – this moniker had been given to the Chinese city, and it had stopped.
In 1927, United Press Shanghai veteran correspondent Randall Gould used the moniker on an expedition for political unrest in Hubei province. After this, the term appears hundreds of times in almost every newspaper in the world.
Minnesota-born Gould was quite fresh from the ship in Shanghai when he first traveled the Yangtze to Wuhan. Gould was in town because a revolution was taking place, the second in Wuhan in 15 years. The nationalist government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, had split over the bloody suppression tactics used in its brutal war against the nascent Communist Party.
Left-wing sympathizers established Wuhan’s nationalist government, while Chiang formed his own majority government in Nanjing. The alternative government in Wuhan lasted only six months, but revealed long-standing divisions within the Chinese Nationalist Party. To foreign correspondents like Gould, the young Chinese republic seemed to be breaking up.
Their editors in London, New York, Paris and Tokyo agreed. Wuhan was front page news.
That editorial decision was partly influenced by the long list of companies with significant shares in Wuhan in 1927: Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank (HSBC), John Swire & Sons, British-American Tobacco, Standard Oil of New York, Texaco, Standard Banca chartered.
Wuhan was the main industrial power in China and produced iron and steel, silk and cotton, packaging of tea and canned food.
It was the Chicago of China.
The introduction of the West to Wuhan
The West met Wuhan in 1858 as part of the unequal treaty of Tianjin, extracted from the weakened Qing dynasty during the second opium war.
The treaty allowed foreign ships to go up the Yangtze River and the British had inspected the waterway to Hubei province. They examined in particular the river conglomerate of Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang, collectively known as the “Three cities of Wuhan”. Appreciating what they saw, they asked that the city be open to foreign trade.
Robert Bickers, a professor at the University of Bristol, who studies foreign presence in China prior to 1949, explains British thinking: “After the first opium war the British annexed Hong Kong as a colony and opened Shanghai, on the coast at the head of the Yangtze in eastern China, as a port of the treaty. Sixteen years later they understood better the importance of internal China and therefore zeroed on Wuhan and Tianjin “.
Wuhan became essential for coastal port cities by feeding them (tea, meat, tobacco etc.) and produced products (iron, steel, silk, etc.). Wuhan was China’s largest domestic enterprise.
Wuhan was already a huge city in the 1850s – roughly 1 million people lived in the three big cities half of the largest city in the world, at that time, London.
Starting in the 1860s, foreigners flooded, although the city always had a majority Chinese population.
The new arrivals gathered in Hankou creating a two-mile long tree-lined Bund, which remains largely today, building their warehouses, docks and offices, as well as a running track, clubs and public gardens all adjacent to Hankou’s waterfront .
The British Concession was adjacent to the concessions operated by the Germans, French, Japanese, a rather controversial Belgian concession and by the Russians, who had been active in the Wuhan trade since Siberia since the 12th century. All these nations, including the Americans, had consulates.
While Wuhan became a cosmopolitan place, it was always essentially a business city – it never developed nightlife or the film industry, publishing houses and art galleries that clustered in Shanghai’s most bohemian neighborhoods; it wasn’t exactly the academic center that was Beijing. Foreigners were present and their soldiers guarded the consulates, but the city retained a more dominant Chinese atmosphere.
Center of revolt
In 1911, the republican revolution that overthrew the last Chinese imperial dynasty was, although by accident, unleashed in Wuhan.
The initial catalyst for the uprising was the accidental explosion of a bomb that occurred when a neglectful anti-Qing / pro-Republican revolutionary dropped a lit cigarette in the workshop of some rebel conspirators in the Russian Hankou Concession.
The explosion that followed alarmed a nervous German butcher who called the police, who in turn discovered a revolutionary plot. Seals, plans and documents were seized involving members of the garrison of Chinese soldiers in the city as revolutionaries preparing for mutiny. As the police seized their list of members, the rebels faced a choice between arrest, torture and likely beheading or fighting. They decided to take immediate action to preserve themselves.
The anti-Qing rebellion took hold and eventually ended the 267-year Qing dynasty.
Overall, foreign affairs welcomed the new republic and viewed it as a harbinger of greater support for modern industries.
In fact, Wuhan was full of new industrial ideas and technologies. The city was home to several important Chinese industries: Hubei’s arsenal and dust, Hanyang Iron and Steel, a railway line to Beijing, regular steamboat services to Shanghai, a mass of silk spinning mills, cotton mills and cans. The city’s kilns produced a high percentage of the world’s horseshoes – an important product in the late 19th century like today’s tires.
Its stocks have boiled hundreds of thousands of pig carcasses to extract millions of pig bristles for export to Europe and America, the main and essential component in the booming toothbrush market. Wuhan was also an egg production center – fresh, preserved, powdered, liquid eggs – and exported them to food manufacturers, restaurants and bakeries around the world.
As Wuhan became more significant globally, his role as an export center gave the city national power.
Robert Bickers notes that the city “has entered discreetly into consumer life in Europe and America.” But some foreign buyers did not believe that China could produce iron, steel and food by Western standards.
Yet China produced steel and iron for its new railways, bridges and urban buildings, while increasing the armaments industry to create a newly organized modern army under the command of Chiang Kai-shek. Ways had to be found to get around these foreign prejudices. Relatively low prices were a way to convince cost-conscious shoppers, others were a little more creative.
Carl Crow, an American advertising executive who lived in China between 1911 and 1937, visited Wuhan regularly and saw how Chinese manufacturers got around this problem.
Crow recalled in his classic 1937 guide to doing business in China, “Four hundred million customers”, that steel mills often printed their “Made in Hamburg” products, while sewing needles read “Made in the USA”. In the United States, meanwhile, foreign eggs were considered to be of low quality, so they shipped them in boxes marked “England”, where the products were considered good. Nobody noticed anything.
Wuhan officials insisted that international trade agreements were concluded in Wuhan and not, as was often the case in other treaty ports, negotiated in the palace offices and private clubs in Shanghai. Therefore most of the money from this business remained in the city and did not go to Shanghai or Guangzhou.
He reinvested at least part of that money. Europeans and Americans may have modeled their concessions in Hankou, but Chinese Wuhan was also considered handsome. The vast garden campus of Wuhan University covers the city of Luojia Hil. This institution is the place where Virginia Woolf’s grandson Julian Bell taught English in the mid-1930s. He considered it idyllic.
But in the late 1930s, Wuhan’s strengths made him a target. The Japanese had long invested in the city, managing cotton mills, cotton seed oil factories and bean processing plants, and they considered it carefully.
Japan invaded eastern China in the summer of 1937. They bombed Shanghai and horribly raped the nationalist capital of Nanjing. The government was forced to withdraw further on the Yangtze in Wuhan. The temporary capital of Chiang Kai-shek has once again appeared on the front pages of world newspapers.
Eventually, Wuhan fell to Japan in October 1938. Much of the city’s industry was physically dismantled and transported higher to Yangtze in the last nationalist capital of Chongqing, where it formed the backbone of the heavy industry of the war in China.
After the war, even with heavily reduced exports, Wuhan resumed its position as China’s largest industrial center and inland port along the Yangtze.
In the 1950s, the Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge connected three major railway lines, again transforming Wuhan into the country’s main railway terminus.
But foreign affairs were now gone; the old Bund and the concessions had been closed or proposed again.
Wuhan has slipped from our collective memories. But life went on, the industry continued and, in the 80s, foreign affairs started to return.
Wuhan emerged as an automotive manufacturing center: Honda, Citroen and GM are among the main investors in the city, while pharmaceuticals and new environmental technologies flourished in the city.
But Wuhan has rarely gone back to the front page so far.