The Other Shanghai: a sea voyage the hard way

“The year 1871 was not particularly important in the development of Shanghai as a physical place, but was noteworthy when it comes to historiography…the Oxford English Dictionary singles it out as the year during which “to shanghai” began to appear in newspapers.”

Jeffrey Wasserstrom,

Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments


Currently enthralled with all manner of 19th Century appurtenances, San Francisco is home to a second golden age of handlebar mustaches and historic cocktails served in period-specific bars.  Luckily for 21st century patrons, the fascination is all surface: absent are the trapdoors and opium-laced cocktails that made the city’s storied drinking holes famous for shanghaiing.  Precious little romance was involved in the process, as quite a number of men died while being taken, and unseasoned civilians were just as likely to fall to a drugged drink or truncheon.  Once aboard, a man dared not tell how he came to be there–his hope lay in being able to jump ship or find his fortune at the end of the line in Shanghai.

Also called “crimping,” the system was essential to early San Francisco’s maritime trade for the simple reason that more money could be made from the land than from the sea.  A sailor shipping out of San Francisco could earn many times more than at any other port of call, yet very few chose seagoing toil when a potential fortune was to be found on land.  The shortfall was made up the hard way.

The practice was hardly unusual or mysterious–the British impressed enough American sailors into their navy so as to cause ill feelings between the two countries.  But in its inimitable way, San Francisco found a way to put its own mark on this ignominious history.

For San Franciscans, Shanghai Kelly may conjure the image of a sports bar at Polk and Broadway.  Today, the only potential danger at that bar comes from drunken pick-ups.  But there was in fact a Shanghai Kelly, and his bar was reputed to have been built at the intersection of either Pacific or Broadway (albeit a bit closer to the Bay).  So many fabulous stories are associated with the man that it is nearly impossible to separate fact and fiction.  Whatever the truth, Kelly successfully found employment for a great many men who were not otherwise disposed to go to sea.

The oft-recounted tale (with little or no basis in fact, but enjoyable nonetheless) is that three ships sat in the bay, unable to sail with partial crews.  The captains of these vessels were so terrible that no conscious sailor would willingly sign on for what promised to be a hell-voyage.

Enterprising businessman that he was, Kelly saw opportunity.  He hired a paddler and invited anyone who wished to celebrate his “birthday” to come along for the ride–drinks on him.  The next day, all three ships set sail with full crews, and Kelly’s reputation as King of the Crimps was sealed.


If you’re searching for a truly pedigreed history, The Old Ship Saloon at Pacific and Battery offers a direct line to the city’s dark past.  When I first visited the bar on the pretext of rumor (who doesn’t want to drink in the hull of an old ship?), I was a little disappointed to find a quiet bar–a nice-looking bar, all warm wood and big windows–but certainly no 19th Century three-master.

Nevertheless, the bar you see today is built upon the ruins of the Arkansas after it was hauled off of the rocks of Alcatraz (then Bird Island) in 1849.  A door was cut in its side, casks rolled in, and for many years it served as a cornerstone of crimping history.  Curiously enough, James Laflin, the Arkansas’ former cabin boy, tended bar in the saloon–and for the next 50 years sent men to sea with his special cocktails.

Wild measures for wild times were the rule, but by the turn of the 19th century the city was changing, trade began to shift from the old wooden vessels, and San Francisco was striving to be a little less Wild West and a little more Paris of the West.  Gradually, the Port of Oakland and the Port of Los Angeles supplanted what had been one of the busiest ports in the world.  As the great Chronicle newspaperman Robert O’Brien recalls the story as it was told to him by his predecessors, “the earthquake and fire of April 1906 in Frisco [sic] would wipe out the shanghaiing warrens of the city.  And they would never be rebuilt.”

One Response to “The Other Shanghai: a sea voyage the hard way”

  1. Nancy  on September 4th, 2010 at 11:49 am

    When I read Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf,” I had no idea that it portrayed the reality of sailing at the time. I think that I prefer today’s cozy version to the reality of 19th century sailing. But, as grim as it was for the ordinary sailor, it was even more grim for the legions of Chinese and Japanese who came over to work in the gold mines and fields of both California and Hawaii. Then, there is the tragic and gruesome story of the women who ended up in the cribs in Maiden Lane. Truly, while looking at the past is fascinating and colorful, I would not have wanted to live there.

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