By Abi Smith - AmeriCorps Member
Above: 1939 Lewisburg Shanghai Parade
The Shanghai Parade is a major event each year in Lewisburg, attracting thousands of people to gather and celebrate the start of a new year. Despite its popularity, this New Years event is shrouded in mystery. When did it begin? Who started it? and How did it get the name Shanghai? To figure out more about the parade, I did a little digging. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was not alone in my questions. Previous research into the Shanghai Parade was conducted by long time Greenbrier Historical Society archivist Jim Talbert in the 1990’s and historian Dr. H.B. Graybill in the 1930’s. Using this previous work as a foundation, I began to dive into the history of the parade.
One of the earliest mentions of the Shanghai Parade in newspapers is found in an 1896 article from the Greenbrier Independent. It is evident that the Shanghai Parade was already in existence for several years by 1896, as the article describes it as “the annual parade.” This timeframe is further backed up by interviews with community members taken during the 1930’s. One such interview was conducted with local historian, Marcellus Zimmerman, shortly before his death in 1937. In the interview, Zimmerman says that he remembers the parade happening “his whole life.” Other community members interviewed during the 1930’s by Dr. Graybill agreed that the parade was in existence for most of their lives. These interviews, combined with early newspaper mentions, suggest that the parade began in the mid to late 19th century. Despite the longevity of the parade, it has not operated every year. The parade has paused for bad weather, war, and even lack of interest. One of the longest cessations of the parade was the twelve years it was suspended between 1963 and 1976.
The inconsistency of the parade’s operation is due in part to the uncoordinated format of the parade for most of its history. It was not until the mid-20th century that a committee was established to arrange the parade. Even after the creation of the parade committee, the Shanghai Parade lacked the formal arrangement of floats and marching bands. Instead, members of the public would simply gather in costume the day of the parade. This grassroots nature most likely comes from the original form of the parade. In early years, groups would gather and travel from house to house disguised in costumes to welcome the new year. These were known as the “shanghaiers” or chaos causers.
This theory is strengthened by the appearance of Shanghai parades in other areas that would have had similar immigrant populations. The first reference is found in the Staunton Vindicator from 1893 detailing “The two ‘Shanghai’ parades on our streets”. A more modern article from Staunton in 2010 features a picture of a Shanghai Parade in Middlebrook, VA from 1899 in a discussion on local Christmas traditions. A third reference to a Shanghai parade is in The Gastonia Gazette describing the Shanghai Parade in Dallas, NC for the year 1900. Similar traditions can also be seen in the mummers traditions found in Pennsylvania where large, elaborate costumes are used in New Year’s Day parades.
Costumes have always played a central role in the Shanghai antics. Originally, participants wore masks and large, old clothing as costumes in order to conceal the identity of the individuals participating in the escapades. Eventually these traditional costumes transformed into more modern costumes, with characters like Elvis or Little Red Riding Hood. The importance of the costumes has led to the creation of several iconic Shanghai Parade costumes including the New Year’s Baby, or one of my personal favorites, Col. Ford’s “sooper-dooper-pooper-scooper.”
Above: 1995 Shanghai Parade ft. Col. Ford as "sooper-dooper-pooper-scooper"
Although the exact history of Lewisburg’s Shanghai Parade may never be known, it is certainly a unique celebration to welcome in the new year. If you have any stories or images you would like to share of past Shanghai Parade’s, please feel free to contact us at the Greenbrier Historical Society.