The World of Chinese - - Bookmark - – JEREMIAH JENNE

Shang­hai be­tween the two world wars was a city of many names and rep­u­ta­tions—both the Paris of the East and the Whore of the Ori­ent. It was also a city of a refuge, and “a home,” writes Paul French in his lat­est book, City of Devils: A Shang­hai Noir, “to those with nowhere to go and no one else to take them in.”

Among the “flot­sam and jet­sam” were Euro­pean Jews flee­ing Fas­cism, Rus­sians es­cap­ing Bol­she­vism, Chi­nese peas­ants look­ing to get away from the grind­ing poverty and chaos of the Chi­nese coun­try­side, and, later, the surge of the Ja­panese Im­pe­rial Army. There were also ad­ven­tur­ers seek­ing their for­tune and es­caped con­victs look­ing to evade the long arm of the state.

Shang­hai was not a colony; it was a con­ces­sion. In the wan­ing days of the im­pe­rial era, it had been, at best, a lop­sided and fre­quently im­pro­vised col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the Qing state and var­i­ous for­eign pow­ers. With the demise of the Qing Em­pire in 1911, China en­tered a pe­riod of pro­longed in­sta­bil­ity, in­clud­ing pe­ri­ods where the term “failed state” would eas­ily ap­ply. De­spite the tur­moil and war of early 20th-cen­tury China, Shang­hai—nei­ther a for­mal out­post of colo­nial power, nor lo­cally gov­erned mu­nic­i­pal­ity—be­came both a zone of sta­bil­ity and a refuge for the stateless.

It was also a city of op­por­tu­nity and rein­ven­tion.

French in­tro­duces us to this wild world through two Run­y­onesque fig­ures, born to be char­ac­ters on a quirky binge­wor­thy BBC se­ries. (French’s ear­lier non-fic­tion work, Midnight in Pek­ing, is be­ing de­vel­oped for tele­vi­sion by HBO.)

Jack Ri­ley was an es­caped con­vict, born in the Amer­i­can West, who used a com­bi­na­tion of luck and grit to move up the ranks of the un­der­world from bar owner and bouncer to the slot king of Shang­hai. Joe Far­ren, born Josef Pol­lak in a Vi­en­nese ghetto, ar­rives in Shang­hai to be­come the city’s great showman and en­ter­tain­ment im­pre­sario.

The Shang­hai of these char­ac­ters is a world of equally col­or­ful char­ac­ters in­clud­ing gun run­ners and grifters, con men, gam­blers, ru­mor­mon­gers, madams, and drunks.

To re­con­struct this world, French re­lies on Shang­hai Mu­nic­i­pal Archives, con­sulate records, doc­u­ments from the US Court for China in Shang­hai, con­tem­po­rary news­pa­pers, and per­sonal in­ter­views. This is first and fore­most a story of the sub­al­tern. The less ro­man­tic term for “crim­i­nal mi­lieu” is “ur­ban un­der­class,” and ac­cess­ing such ac­counts through of­fi­cial archives can some­times be tricky. No doubt, in­ter­pre­ta­tions were made when it come to spec­u­lat­ing about the mo­ti­va­tions and even ac­tions of cer­tain char­ac­ters—a sim­i­lar nar­ra­tive strat­egy French de­ployed to great ef­fect in Midnight in Pek­ing— but these de­ci­sions work for the story, and rarely seem an im­plau­si­ble read­ing of the source ma­te­rial.

Those read­ers un­fa­mil­iar with Repub­li­can-era Shang­hai will ben­e­fit from the se­ries of maps, lists of street and place names, and a glos­sary of key terms and slang the au­thor has thought­fully in­cluded. Part of the charm of this world is the polyphony of lan­guages and ac­cents— not just Chi­nese and English, but Rus­sian, French, Ja­panese, Ta­ga­log, Ger­man, and a host of oth­ers. This mul­ti­cul­tural patois—and French’s nar­ra­tive style—are rem­i­nis­cent of hard-boiled de­tec­tive fic­tion of an ear­lier era.

This is also a book about end­ings. The open­ing chap­ter, set against the back­drop of the Ja­panese con­sol­i­dat­ing their con­trol around Shang­hai, im­me­di­ately alerts the reader that lit­tle good awaits these char­ac­ters. In­va­sion and war, the hor­rors be­ing per­pe­trated out­side the city and con­ces­sions lim­its—and in­creas­ingly in­side them—are a sober­ing back­drop for the gar­ish­ness of Jazz Age Shang­hai, re­mind­ing the reader that there are higher stakes here than the usual gangster tale (some­thing Hol­ly­wood, or the lo­cal equiv­a­lent, is sure to ap­pre­ci­ate too).

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