The story of Shanghai American School parallels the story of Shanghai itself.
On Tuesday, September 17, 1912, less than a year after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Shanghai American School opened our doors to 38 students in Shanghai’s Hongkou neighborhood just north of the Bund. It was a decade of great change in Shanghai – a description that could be aptly applied to every decade since.
In addition to the debut of SAS, the ensuing years would see the rise of a number of American institutions in Shanghai, including the American Chamber of Commerce in 1915, and the American Club in 1917.
Hongkou had long served as a popular home of American expats, but by the early 1920s, the former French Concession (then called “Frenchtown”) was gaining favor. This migration coincided with a reality SAS was facing: In our first decade, our campus had grown from 2 rented buildings on Sichuan Bei Lu to a collection of a dozen. It was time to build our own campus.
In 1923, SAS opened our iconic campus location at 10 Hengshan Lu. Our Victorian-style administration building, designed to echo Independence Hall in Philadelphia, still stands proudly today at the same location. It wasn’t Shanghai’s only architectural gem being built at the time. Down on the Bund, the HSBC Building was being completed that same year. The Customs House followed in 1927, the Grand Theatre in 1928, and the Peace Hotel in 1929.
The reputations of both Shanghai and SAS solidified throughout the 1930s. By 1936, Shanghai was the sixth largest city in the world, and known as the Paris of the East. SAS continued to strengthen its reputation as well, offering the finest international school education in the city as well as a strong athletics program and memorable traditions such as the Bust of Juno and Bag Fights. (Don’t ask.)
With the spread of World War II, the 1940s challenged Shanghai and SAS to unprecedented levels. The city spent the first half of the decade occupied by foreign military forces. The school, in the meantime, displayed our characteristic perseverance and continued to operate until 1950 under different “Bootleg SAS” names such as “American Private School.”
In 1950, Shanghai closed to foreign-owned businesses. Concurrently, SAS students took a 30-year recess.
By 1980, Shanghai once again opened up, and so too did Shanghai American School. SAS was re-founded with seven students, and temporarily housed in an apartment on Huaihai Lu until the completion of its new space on the grounds of the U.S. Consulate. Students loved going to school back then, explained Linnea Lauer, who oversaw the re-founding in 1980. “There was nothing else for them to do.”
The 1990s saw a jaw-dropping building boom and once again, both Shanghai and SAS were in lock-step. Downtown, the Shanghai skyline was transformed with the opening of the Pearl Tower in 1994. At SAS, the decade began with the school sharing space with the famous Shanghai Girls No. 3 School before outgrowing its facilities. For 2-3 years beginning in 1996, SAS entered the “Pit Stop Campus” Era, serving students from cultural centers in Zhudi, Pudong, and for a semester, from the Shanghai Center on Nanjing Lu.
At the start of the new century, Shanghai American School had built not one home but two, in Puxi and Pudong. Both have experienced major additions ever since. This growth echoed the expansion of Shanghai itself, and the next decade saw a 37% population growth on both sides of the Huangpu River.
Today, the stories of Shanghai and SAS remain intertwined. In 2011, FORBES magazine recognized the focus on innovation here and around the rest of the country and declared “Made in China” has become “Invented in China.” Across Shanghai alone, over 200,000 start-ups have been launched. This drive towards innovation is apparent in SAS as well, as seen by tech-forward learning spaces such as our maker spaces and design studios, and by Signature Programs such as our Innovation Institute.
109 years after our first school bell rang, Shanghai American School remains a reflection of both our American roots and our Shanghai location.