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City Tries to Reclaim 'Whore of the Orient' Title

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Five alienated Chinese youths struggling to deal with the pressures of modern city life descend into a life of s_x and drugs.

So goes the plot of "Shanghai Panic," a gritty locally made film which offered viewers at film festivals around the world a bleak look at a lesser-known side of China's glittering commercial hub.

Flashback to the roaring 1920s and 1930s, when the city was a thriving colonial outpost known as the "Whore of the Orient" for its brothels and opium dens before the Communist takeover in the late 1940s.

Shanghai is rediscovering its uninhibited past after more than a decade of growth and liberalization.

Now it hankers to become an international city once more. As a regional shipping hub, it hopes to host the giant merchant ships of old. As the country's financial center it dreams of again housing legions of wealthy bankers.

But breakneck economic growth and advancement can come with an undesirable social corollary, experts say.

"Shanghai is emerging from its shell after the Maoist straitjacket, artificially imposed on the city for some 30 years, begins loosening," said Liu Dalin, sexologist and curator of the Shanghai s_x museum.

"It's all part and parcel of the market economy."

In its glory days, Shanghai was a frenzied melting pot of commerce and industry, filled with gangsters, warlords, peasant laborers and wealthy merchants.

Today, commercial s_x and drugs have been consigned to darkened bars, karaoke lounges, massage parlors and a smattering of strip clubs, residents say.

In the smoke-filled, packed underground nightclubs, peddlers hawk everything from marijuana to ecstasy at bargain prices while young girls in sunglasses dance to the music.

On the outskirts of the city, foreigners and locals can buy cocaine for a few hundred yuan a snort.

"Shanghai people are now very open and love to learn new things from the West. It's the same as the 1930s," said Shanghai author Mian Mian, 32, who wrote the screenplay for "Shanghai Panic." She makes no secret of her drug-filled youth.

SHOCK AND TITILLATION

Ever since Mian Mian's "Candy" and literary counterpart Zhou Weihui's "Shanghai Baby" -- both banned books in China -- a growing circle of local and foreign artists and cultural experts have chronicled the city's vibrant underground life.

In a country where s_x is still rarely discussed openly, Shanghai stands apart by running a government-sanctioned s_x hotline and tolerating the screening of racy films.

"Everything's for sale. Prostitution, mature content, you name it," said Liu, 71, of the s_x museum and a retired Shanghai University professor.

mature content, widely available from vendors of pirated DVDs for 25 yuan ($3) each, mark a step up from the street-side peep shows of old Shanghai.

Down in the older French Concession, a tree-lined district favored by foreigners as a quiet retreat from the more bustling downtown areas, s_x is on sale from people like Xiao Li, a petite 25-year-old from the eastern province of Jiangsu.

"I'm having to charge a bit more tonight. It's been hard with so many places closed due to SARS," she said in the wee hours of one Sunday morning, just one of a score of women grabbing onto the arm of foreigners strolling groggily past.

She, too, is a throwback to an earlier era.

ladies of the night in Shanghai were rounded up by the new Communist government after their profession was banned in November, 1951, and sent to be "re-educated." Some ended up as hat makers.

As Shanghai shocked and titillated writers like W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood in the 1930s, so the modern city's subculture is now inspiring a new generation of Chinese artists who work without official sanction.

"Candy" was pulled from the shelves in 2000. Zhou's "Shanghai Baby," a look at s_x and the city, was banned the same year.

"I wrote about homosexuals and drugs," Mian Mian told Reuters in fluent English. "They didn't think that was good for the young people."