Last Days of Shanghai: Jack Birns’ Photos Document a Glimpse of China from 1947 to 1949

These captivating photographs from the LIFE archives provide a unique window into mid-20th century China, during the period known as "Shanghai's last days."

The photos were taken by photographer Jack Birns, who was sent to China to photograph and document what was happening in Shanghai.

What they found was different from expectations – refugees, prostitutes, soldiers, beggars, street executions and scenes of urban protests.

The photos depict a city steeped in Western influences, including American neon-lit dive bars at every turn, businesses promoting their offerings in English, and Western expatriate communities living daily amid the challenges of war-torn China.

At the time, Shanghai, with a population of 6 million, had the distinction of being China's largest city, contributing about one-third of the country's total GDP.

However, despite its economic importance, the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek faced difficulties in stopping the advancing Communist forces under Mao Zedong.

Even as Mao's communists gained ground, the streets of Nationalist-controlled Shanghai were still dotted with Western-style billboards advertising various products from cigarettes to stockings.

In June 1949, there were 32,049 foreigners of more than 50 nationalities in Shanghai. Several foreign countries had more than 1,000 citizens in Shanghai – 3,905 British, 2,547 Americans, 1,442 French and 1,832 Portuguese.

After all these rapid political changes in Shanghai, most of the British and Americans left the city.

The US and some other countries imposed restrictions on trade and transportation with China, making it difficult for foreign companies to survive in Shanghai.

The foreign community in Shanghai, a mixture of colonial and feudal influences, was at its last phase during the Civil War.

Many refugees came to Shanghai from rural areas, caught in the fighting between rival armies. Unfortunately, their escape often made life difficult.

The photo story in the collection doesn't have captions, so we have to guess what Jack Birns' photos are trying to say.

But it feels like he wanted to show a stark contrast between how Westerners were doing in the last days of Shanghai and how Chinese people were coping in a society preparing for a new reality.

For the most part, migrants seemed to have it easy until they were asked to pack their bags.

Meanwhile, Chinese nationalists faced a very difficult situation, painting a picture of two contrasting experiences during these challenging times.

By the time Japan accepted the surrender terms of the Potsdam Declaration on August 14, 1945, China had endured decades of Japanese occupation and eight years of brutal war. Millions of people were killed in the war, and many millions more died as a result of hunger or disease.

Japan's defeat triggered a race between the Nationalists and the Communists to control vital resources and population centers in northern China and Manchuria.

Nationalist troops, using US Army transportation facilities, were able to capture major cities and most of the railway lines in eastern and northern China.

Communist troops captured much of the hinterland of the north and Manchuria.

The Communists gained control of mainland China and proclaimed the People's Republic of China in 1949, forcing the leadership of the Republic of China to retreat to the island of Taiwan.

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