Old Shanghai, the city that existed between the two world wars, is a conundrum. Not strictly a colony but rather an International Settlement, a port city forced open by imperialist aggression in 1842 after the first opium war. The part of the city that was sectioned off came under foreign control, its residents subject only to the laws of their home countries. The irony is that as a result of this, Shanghai was to become a refuge during the 1920s and 30s for more than three million Chinese fleeing civil war, warlordism, disease, drought and famine. In the late 30s, it also became a port of last resort for some 30,000 Jewish refugees fleeing fascism in Germany and Austria.
From its inception the International Settlement and adjacent French Concession developed a unique culture that took from both Chinese and western trends. Haipai, or Shanghai style, saw cross-cultural innovations in dress, manners and social mores, as well as in literature, cinema, entertainment and commercial design. The undoubted glamour of Shanghai’s modernist aesthetic is seductive and lends a romantic appeal to the city of this period, but it was also a city of endemic poverty for many and it endured constant political turmoil.
City of Devils is the true story of two men who sought wealth and fame in Shanghai while attempting to put their past lives, in Europe and the US, behind them. The two men are representative of the aspiration and the chutzpah, as well as the avarice and amorality, of those who made Shanghai’s underworld their home. “Lucky” Jack Riley, an ex-navy boxing champion, who escaped from prison in the US, spotted a craze for gambling in China and rose to become Shanghai’s gambling kingpin. “Dapper”Joe Farren was a Jewish boy who fled Vienna’s ghetto for Shanghai and created chorus lines that rivalled Ziegfeld’s. Together they built the city’s biggest casino. The book is the story of their rise to power and their downfall; how they thought they ruled Shanghai but found the city had other ideas.
So here are 10 books – fiction and non-fiction – that reveal the unique cosmopolitan hybridity of Shanghai between the wars:
1. Man’s Fate by AndréMalraux (1933)
In recreating the bloody events of the suppression of the Communist party in Shanghai in 1927, Malraux wrote the best novel about interwar Shanghai. His cast of characters – both Chinese and foreign – reflect the city’s cosmopolitan population and its Jekyll and Hyde politics of being both a centre of rightwing bootstraps capitalism and the birthplace of the Chinese Communist party.
2. Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) (1979)
Chang recalls her own traumatic and adventurous wartime years in this novella that, because it is so personal and revelatory, took her more than 35 years to write. The long Japanese occupation of the city, the relationships that formed in those desperate times, and the terrible choices the Shanghainese were forced to make are at the heart of a book that became a fantastic movie directed by Ang Lee. Chang remains the pre-eminent bard of Shanghai.
3. Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise by Lynn Pan (Pan Ling) (1984)
Pan is a non-fiction writer living in Shanghai who was a child during the Japanese occupation. Her research and scholarship is exemplary, while her writing is both precise and lyrical. She evokes the interwar years of Shanghai wonderfully, portraying the city as a criminal free-for-all controlled by its all-powerful Chinese mobs, “Big Eared” Du’s Green Gang and “Pockmarked” Huang’s Red Gang.
4. Shanghai: A Novel by Yokomitsu Riichi (1931)
A marvellously evocative representation of Shanghai written contemporaneously by one of Japan’s leading experimental modernists, a member of the New Sensationalist group of writers. It reads like a hardboiled noir with fog, rain and dark, dangerous streets. Riichi spent time in Shanghai and his novel reveals the city as a melting pot of cultures, nationalities and ideas. He shows us Shanghai’s Japanese community before the second world war, the positive interactions between Chinese and Japanese intellectuals and artists, as well as the large number of often-grim Japanese-run cotton mills and silk filatures.
5. No Dogs and Not Many Chinese by Frances Wood (1998)
Wood, a former curator of the Chinese collection at the British Library, tells the story of Shanghai from its mid-19th-century creation as an imperial prize forced from China to its formation as an international treaty port. She describes Shanghai’s cosmopolitanism, wealth and modernity, which was often in stark contrast to the poverty of much of the Chinese and European refugee population.
6. Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard (1984)
Shanghai-born Ballard’s fictionalised memoir of his time in a Japanese civilian internment camp at Lunghua on the edge of the city annoyed many of his fellow camp inmates when it was published, as they didn’t come out of it very well. Ballard took the decision to fictionalise his experiences the better to show the often “casual surrealism” of war. While he reveals the ignominies and deprivations of the camp, the earlier chapters also provide a vivid description of life for a wealthy and privileged foreign family in the city before the war with Japan.
7. Midnight by Mao Dun (1933)
The best of the Shanghai-set novels by China’s leftwing realist writers of the 1930s – who also included Lu Xun and Ba Jin – which accentuated the harsh and often brutal capitalist face of the city and offered an intimate portrait of working-class life.
8. Miss Jill by Emily Hahn (1947)
The New Yorker correspondent “Mickey” Hahn lived in Shanghai shortly before the war and saw all sides of the city – she became an opium addict, was the mistress of a wealthy Shanghai poet (Shao Xunmei), got invited to all the best parties and knew everybody there was to know. Miss Jill is one of Hahn’s few novels and tells the story of an American girl roving the pre-war China coast and making her way in the city using whatever skills she has to attract admirers and pay the rent. Hahn herself spent much of her sojourn in Shanghai living close by a street frequented by American “streetwalkers” not unlike her protagonist.
9. Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945 by Leo Ou-fan Lee
A classic study detailing Shanghai’s interwar cosmopolitanism, modernity and urban style. Ou-fan Lee looks at the work of six writers of the time, including Shi Zhecun, Mu Shiying and Eileen Chang, as well as commenting on Shanghai’s vibrant movie studios and publishing industry. He shows that Shanghai’s modernity, while intrinsically Chinese and profoundly anomalous, mixed easily with new ideas into the “treaty port” from the west to create the unique haipai avant garde culture of Shanghai.
10. Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui (1999)
Opinion has always been divided on this semi-autobiographical novel set amid the go-go boom times of the mid-to-late 1990s. As one who was there for many of those years, I find Wei captures the city in all its frenetic and cacophonous glory. In these sterner and more restrictive times of Xi Jinping, many Chinese, including those not really old enough to remember, are now looking back with a certain nostalgic fondness on the Jiang Zemin era. They see it as a time of greater freedom, opportunity and creativity, at least in Shanghai.
• City of Devils by Paul French is published by riverrun, priced £14.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £12.89, including free UK p&p.