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City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai by Paul French

City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai
by Paul French


Though it was the fifth biggest city in the world in the years following the Second World War, there aren't nearly as many novels set in Shanghai as there are in Paris, Berlin and other international cities. Author and expert on modern Chinese history Paul French takes a look at the literary history of an often underwritten city from the 1930s through to the new millennium.

Interview by Alec Ash

City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai by Paul French

City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai
by Paul French

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Your new book City of Devils immerses us in the good, bad and ugly of 1940s Shanghai, a city you lived in for twenty years and have written about extensively. What is the nature of your obsession with Shanghai and its history?

Shanghai is not just another Chinese city, historically. It is a completely unique city in the world, in that it was, for a nearly a hundred years from 1842–1941, an International Settlement. It was a completely open city. You didn’t need a passport to go there; you didn’t need a visa. It wasn’t a colony like Hong Kong or Singapore; it ran itself. But it was also a possession of imperialism, created after the First Opium War by the British.

“It was a completely open city. You didn’t need a passport to go there; you didn’t need a visa.”

Despite that, it was also a place of refuge for so many people, not only for Chinese people escaping from poverty, flood, drought, disease; but also for the Russians that fled the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. And, in the late 1930s, for Jews that fled fascism in Europe.

So, it is a conundrum. It is an imperial city that was set up with no other great objective than to make money and to be very good at making money—and yet it became a port of last resort, a refuge. Much more so than Casablanca, which was really an invention of Hollywood, Shanghai was the real deal. And, along the way, it became the most modern city in Asia. It was the first city with elevators; the first city with central heating; the first city with a telephone system, trams, traffic jams. It loved modernity. It was the centre of contemporary literature and cinema in China, and a completely unique mix of East and West.

Shanghai is a city that is in China but not entirely of China. Beijing looks inwards, to the empire that it was at times (and is now) capital of. But coastal Shanghai literally means ‘on the sea’, and the city has always been more international. What, though, is its Chinese side?

It’s a port city, and China’s biggest port by a long way. Port cities are always different: a mashup of cultures, traditions, and backgrounds. They are transmission belts for ideas and products. Shanghai is where all the new products and ideas from the West come in, and where they get turned into something uniquely Shanghai—whether it’s fashion or jazz, with the so-called ‘yellow jazz’ fusions.

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I like mashups of cultures: taking a bit from here and a bit from there and creating something new. Shanghai is the epitome of that. You can see it in the art deco architecture, most of which in Shanghai was actually designed by Chinese architects and so has a distinct Chinese flavour to it, even though it stands within the wider art deco tradition. Similarly, its modern cinema used many Western techniques of storytelling and filming, but had a specific Chinese edge to it. The same is true of the great Chinese writers that spent time in Shanghai, such as Lu Xun, Mao Dun, and Lao She.

In Midnight in Peking, the book that you’re perhaps best known for, you bring to life Beijing in the 1940s: the dark years of the badlands of Peking. Now, in City of Devils, you do the same for 1940s Shanghai. Why did you focus on the stories that you choose, at this time period?

All of my work is really about the foreign presence in China. As foreigners that live there, we have lost our collective memory. In the forty years since the Second World War until the 1980s, we have forgotten that there have been lots of foreigners living and working in China, doing everything from diplomacy to missionary work to business to selling guns to warlords to being criminals.

I’ve always been drawn to the underbelly side of things. The 40s is a particularly fascinating period in Shanghai which encompasses not only the modernity and the excitement—the neon, the jazz, and the nightclubs of Shanghai—but also the very dark underside of a city with absolutely no social safety net. If you fell through the cracks, you died on the streets, literally. In 1940, the city was forced to collect nearly a hundred thousand dead bodies off the streets: old people, unwanted babies, white and Chinese. Shanghai was a city of contrasts, of great wealth and endemic poverty. I wanted to tell that story.

After the summer of 1937 (when the Japanese attacked inland China) through to Pearl Harbour in 1941 (when they took over Shanghai completely), there was a time where just about anyone who could have left, would have, given the Japanese invasion. But some people couldn’t leave. The Chinese in Shanghai faced leaving to endure the Japanese occupation of most of China. The Russians there were stateless—they had no passports—and the Jews were coming to escape and find safety.

I wanted to tell the story of those people, who have been forgotten both by China in its official histories and by us abroad. But they were our ancestors. In my case, my great grandfather was in Shanghai in the 1920s with the Royal Navy and had a pretty wild time there, I think. Even though he was pretty lowly in the Royal Navy, a stoker, he always considered Shanghai the best years of his life.

Tell us more about Joe Farren and Jack Riley, two chancers in the middle of this melting pot.

I picked two foreigners who represented this demimonde of Shanghai in the late 30s and 1940s. Joe Farren was an Austrian Jew, an exhibition dancer and a choreographer. He was very much involved in the modern modernity of the theatre and the cabaret in Shanghai, putting on chorus lines and the evening’s entertainment with jazz bands. He brought some of the first African-American jazz bands to Shanghai, which Shanghai went crazy for. He also introduced some of those musicians to Chinese musicians, who created a fusion jazz that was very big with modern Shanghai crowds as well. But his great dream was to run the biggest casino in Asia. Shanghai was very legally flexible. As far as anything went in terms of what you did with your time and how you spent your money, they were very few laws against drinking, carousing, licensing hours, drugs, prostitution, gambling. They didn’t bother regulating those things very much.

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Jack Riley was an American, and much more of a classic criminal of the 1930s. He escaped from prison in America and burnt off his fingerprints with acid so that they would never be able to track him down. He made it to Shanghai and started running bars on the infamous ‘Blood Alley’, which is where the foreign sailors and soldiers all drank. Then he brought in slot machines. Shanghai had no laws against slot machines. He put them everywhere, and the newspapers crowned him the “Slots King of Shanghai”, making vast amounts of money. So Joe and Jack, although they’re from very different backgrounds, had a common dream to run the biggest nightclub and casino in Asia. Jack had the money and could run the gambling side of things; Joe could make it the best floorshow in town, with dinner, dance, entertainment. And they did it against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of the city. But because all these displaced people couldn’t leave the city—and because Britain was cut off from many markets and had to get their goods through Shanghai and so kept trade flourishing—the party raged on, even with war breaking out all around the city.

The book is full of colourful characters and historical anecdotes, and what makes it come to life is the gallimaufry, the mix, the medley, the entrepôt that Shanghai was attracting from all over China and the world. That’s as true of its novels as it was for nightlife. What was it about Shanghai that attracted writers over the decades, both Chinese and foreign, that gave it its literary appeal?

We forget that Shanghai was on the circuit. It was a big market for Hollywood films, for western music and books. It was a big tourist destination. So there is a list of famous people who came through Shanghai: Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein. It did indeed attract writers too. Even people who didn’t write about Shanghai spent time there, like Langston Hughes, Aldous Huxley or Eugene O’Neill. Noel Coward wrote Private Lives in the Cathay Hotel (now the Peace Hotel) on the Bund. Other authors came and did write about the city—W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood, for instance. So writers were always passing through the city.

“It’s fascinating that there aren’t more novels set in Shanghai, given that it was the fifth biggest city in the world at the time”

In fact, it’s fascinating that there aren’t more novels set in Shanghai, given that it was the fifth biggest city in the world at the time, and certainly the most densely populated. Even compared to New York, it was probably the most cosmopolitan city in the world back then. But there actually aren’t that many novels about it, once you start taking out the pulp novels and the trashy ones. There are far more novels about London, Paris, New York and Berlin than there are about Shanghai, and I’m including both Chinese and foreign writers. So, it’s an underwritten-about city, actually.

Let’s rectify that now, and talk about some of the books that have come to define the city. The first novel on your list is Man’s Fate by André Malraux, published in 1933. Will you give us an introduction to this famous work, and tell us why should we read it?

Malraux was fairly young in his writing career when he wrote this. He had spent some time in French Indochina, where he had got into a bit of trouble with the French authorities in Vietnam for tomb-raiding. He was also in a leftist phase of his life at that time. Man’s Fate is about the suppression of the labour movement and the nascent Communist Party of China on April 12th, 1927, a massacre which at that time was on the front-page of every newspaper in the world. Left-wing strikes called across Shanghai were bloodily put down by the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, in league with local Shanghai gangsters. At least a thousand workers were killed, and some say it goes as high as three or even five thousand. People were literally shot and beheaded in the streets. Malraux tells us this story through the eyes of different Shanghai characters: Chinese that were involved in the revolution, as well as foreigners, French businessmen, women of slightly dubious occupation, and various others, including advice coming from the young Soviet Union to China.

“Malraux is showing us that the events of 1927, the revolution, the rise of the Communist Party, the labour movement, the trade unions, are all part of Shanghai’s modernity”

It’s an incredible novel, and has one of the best opening scenes of any novel I can think of. An assassin is waiting to strike his target by lying on the canopy above his bed listening to the man sleep, thinking about how he’s going to fall through and plunge his knife into this man. But, at the same time, it’s a novel of the modern Shanghai of the 1920s, so he’s listening and outside he can hear car horns and a traffic jam; he can hear the un-greased wheels of a trolley bus; he can hear a phonograph record playing somewhere; he can see streetlights coming in through the windows. So, we know that we are in 1927 and in the middle of a revolution in China, but we are in an incredibly modern city as well. Malraux is showing us that the events of 1927, the revolution, the rise of the Communist Party, the labour movement, the trade unions, are all part of Shanghai’s modernity.

This is also a time when Communism was, in many foreign observers’ eyes, an exciting, positive, fresh idea—it was romanticised, and yet to be disgraced by the atrocities of governments who espoused it. What are the politics of the book?

The politics are quite positive in that it reflects, like most Communist Parties in the world did, that communism is an outgrowth of the trade union movement—of the desire to have the eight-hour workday, weekends off and better health and safety. Shanghai had terrible cotton and silk factories which employed many children. The conditions were terrible, the wages were terrible. So there were genuine grievances among this nascent industrial proletariat in Shanghai.

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The Chinese Communist Party was very young; it was finding its feet, although some of the characters that were to be big players later—not Mao necessarily, but certainly Zhou Enlai—were very involved. Of course, the foreign authorities, the gangsters and the Kuomintang, all saw this as an attempt to make revolution. Already there was a split between left and right in China, and the Russians were involved in stoking it all up as well. In that sense, it does give you a picture of the Communist Party at a time when it was involved in very necessary things—in traditional socialist disputes rather than just nationalism and top-down control. It was a very different sort of politics, and it’s about the real roots of the Communist Party in China, when they were a long way from taking power. It’s also about how one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, which is very current. Every time I reread the novel, I take a different angle from it.

There’s also that mix of the public, political crises and the private lives of individual Shanghainese that defines so many Shanghai novels.

There are brilliant descriptions of the city, that are mostly accurate. There is really good characterisation and plotting. He does go off on a few tangents, some philosophical musings that feel a little dated now that we’re past a lot of existentialism. But generally, I think the book holds up. It’s also an incredible representation of Shanghai—pretty much spot on. It really captures the city at that time.

But it was written in 1933, after Malraux had only been in Shanghai, as far as we know, at most for three days in 1932 or thereabouts (later in his career, he dissembled widely about how long and when he had been in Shanghai). So the idea that you need to spend twenty years in China to write a novel about Shanghai is complete nonsense. Malraux writes the best novel about Shanghai, its characters and history, its flavours and sounds, and gets it all after three days!

Let’s move onto a Chinese author. Mao Dun is a famous writer—there’s even a literary prize named after him in China. Tell us about his novel Midnight, also of the 1930s.

Mao Dun is one of a number of contemporary modern Chinese writers who were left-wing, embraced realism, and wanted to write in the way that people spoke rather than in a more highfalutin, classical style. They wanted to be more modern, and a great number of them gravitated towards Shanghai. In order to create a contemporary Chinese literary phenomenon—the work of Lu Xun, Ba Jin, Lao She and others—what they wrote had to be published. And in Shanghai there wasn’t much censorship compared to the rest of China, where a lot of the books that they were writing would have been censored. The film industry centred itself in Shanghai for the same reasons, and the Chinese newspaper industry in many cases had its head offices in Shanghai. This is the conundrum of Shanghai as a semi-colonial city, yet somewhere with room to breathe and express yourself.

“Probably three million of Shanghai’s population of four million at the time were completely impoverished or on the breadline, but the wealthiest Chinese in China also lived in Shanghai”

There are a lot of books that you could choose from that group, but I think Mao Dun’s Midnight is the best Chinese view of the city in the 1930s. He’s less well known than Lu Xun and Lao She, certainly outside of China. With Malraux, you get an outsider’s view, but Mao Dun looks at the two sides of the Chinese experience in Shanghai: the terrible and awful conditions in the factories that lead to the organisations of trade unions and socialist and communist organisations; and, at the other side, the incredibly wealthy class of Shanghainese. Probably three million of Shanghai’s population of four million at the time were completely impoverished or on the breadline, but the wealthiest Chinese in China also lived in Shanghai. Mao Dun shows both those sides: the ones that are starving and losing fingers and eyes in the factories for pennies, and these others who are sending their feckless children off to university at Cambridge, living in great houses and grand splendour. They are also adopters of Western culture in what they’re reading, studying, wearing, and often in their religion.

What is the plot of the book, and is it didactically political in the way that other left-wing Chinese authors at the time, most notably Lu Xun, were?

I don’t think so. It’s not a plot that keeps driving forward in the way that Malraux’s does in Man’s Fate. It is more a slice of life, and the city is the major character. An incredible city with all its veins and the blood pumping through the it. Mao Dun shows you that city red in tooth and claw.

Is it a city which was very different for its Chinese rather than its foreign residents and writers?

Shanghai never had a true Western writing community, like Paris did after the First World War, or perhaps even Tangier around the time of Paul Bowles, or the Western writers like Christopher Isherwood who went and spent time in Berlin. There were a few foreigners in Shanghai, such as Emily Hahn, who crossed over and investigated things in more depth, but mostly people kept things separate between the Chinese and the foreign communities. That’s why Mao Dun’s book is really important, because it deep-dives into the different grades of Chinese life. It’s a very intimate portrait, particularly of the working-class life of Shanghai.

Let’s leapfrog a decade or so forward to Lust Caution, Eileen Chang’s famous novel of the Japanese occupation. It wasn’t actually published until 1979, but she wrote it long before that, in the 50s I believe. Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) is one of Shanghai’s brightest literary stars. Could you tell us more about her life of letters and how this novel reflects it?

It’s impossible to spend any time in Shanghai without picking up an Eileen Chang book. In my thirty years of involvement with China, she’s gone from being completely banned and not available—not even having a plaque on the building where she lived in, which is still there in Shanghai—to having some sort of acceptance.

She wasn’t exactly the Communist Party’s biggest fan.

Right. But I think, more so, it’s to do with the dark days of the Second World War. Her husband was part of the collaborationist puppet government, the Wang Jingwei regime. Lust Caution is one of the few novels that talks about that issue in China. Even today, it’s not something that’s talked about. You won’t see pictures of Wang Jingwei anywhere. The term that was applied to him and his followers—hanjian—is a very accusatory word.

Its meaning in Chinese is closer to “race traitor”, right?

Yes, exactly. It’s not just treason against your country, like Guy Fawkes—it’s an absolute attempt to undermine your entire ethnic race. That’s just one of the confusions between country and race that China gets involved in when politicians see a use for it. But this is a great novel about Shanghai, and also Hong Kong, at that period when people were forced to make choices. It’s very easy for us, I think—as it is when we consider the position of France and elsewhere in the Second World War—to say, ‘I wouldn’t have collaborated, I’d have been part of the Resistance. I would have fought to the end.’ That’s not how it works in real life.

What Chang does, in a novelistic form, is talk you through the two ways in which you can be led into such a situation. One is that you can make a conscious decision to pick the wrong side. It doesn’t always look like the wrong side at the time; you might think that you’re doing the right thing. The other is that you just slip into it because your husband or your friends or your family are part of the circle that becomes the collaborationist circle, that become the traitors.

Of course, it was then impossible for her to come back. So, she ended up going to Taiwan and eventually Los Angeles. Chang’s books are fascinating, and they keep coming out! She died in 1995, but a new one, Little Reunions, just came out recently. There seems to be a never-ending treasure trove of semi-autobiographical work by her. And you only have to look at the famous picture of her in a cheongsam with a short haircut, posing on her balcony in Shanghai, to see that she also embraces the incredible stylishness and modernity of Shanghai at that time.

What she does so brilliantly—what I love about Eileen Chang—is that she shows us the bigger picture through very intimate stories, often love stories. Some foolish readers dismiss her as “chick lit” but I think she does a much better job of bringing out politics in all its human intricacies than didactic male writers such as Lu Xun do in their “tell-not-show” style.

Yes. I think the people that make that accusation, which you hear a lot, just haven’t read her. I would suggest Lust Caution as a good way of getting into Eileen Chang because it is a novella, about the shortest thing that she ever wrote, and it’s very Shanghai. That’s why Ang Lee filmed it, and made Shanghai look so interesting and glamorous. And if you read some of the other books, right up to and including Little Reunions, there are quite long passages where she talks about politics and the context of the times. Those can be quite challenging sections of the books to read, if you haven’t quite got your head around the Chinese history of that period. So the idea that she’s just “chick lit” is nonsensical. I’m advocating that readers embrace her stylishness (in terms of both her personality and her writing), but there’s a lot more to her than that, and Lust Caution is a good way in.

Tell us about your fourth pick, Honeymoon in Shanghai by Maurice Dekobra. This was published right after World War Two ended, in 1946. Shame on me, but I’ve never heard of this novelist.

Maurice Dekobra was a French author, writing in the 1930s mostly, but much of his work has been translated into English. One book, Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, was a massive bestseller. Everybody read it, and it was referenced a lot. But then he was just forgotten. He wrote the most vividly evocative books about Paris and its demimonde areas—they’re really good fun as well. He is a very literary and fascinating writer in a populist way, and Honeymoon in Shanghai is one of his most interesting stories.

He writes about a foreign woman with her young attractive daughter, stuck in Shanghai. She’s almost pimping her daughter out, trying to find her a boyfriend or suitors—not necessarily husbands, but people who will take her out and give the family some money so that they can survive. Emily Hahn wrote a similar novel called Miss Jill, about an American girl in Shanghai living off her wits, as they say. They used to talk of the “white flowers of the China coast”—women who weren’t quite prostitutes, but were not quite legitimate. Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express is the perfect embodiment of this. And it was real, it existed. See, I’m very sentimental; I cry at films and things like that. His kind of writing appeals to me, but if you’re more strict in your literary tastes, you might find him a bit flamboyant, maybe lightweight, a bit overly nostalgic.

Can you give us more of a feel for the plot?

It casts back to the 1930s. The father is gone—dead, I think—and left no money to his daughter and wife, who are staying in a hotel in Shanghai. They have only got enough money to stay there for an extra couple of days. They have to survive on their wits, but they can’t do anything; they don’t have any skills and they don’t have any trades. They were fairly well-to-do, but fell on hard times. She’s not really willing to become a shop girl or a secretary or anything. So, she only has one way to make money; that is, to be pretty and attract men who will make a contribution. It’s a very entertaining book.

Let’s keep that trope in mind as we jump sixty ahead to a more contemporary Shanghai of the 1990s, with Wei Hui’s controversial novel Shanghai Baby, which was banned in China, or so the publicists claim. Tell us about Wei Hui’s Shanghai.

The book was published in 1999, but Wei Hui was really writing about the mid-1990s, which was the absolute apex of Shanghai in its second embodiment as a wide-open city, under Jiang Zemin’s administration of China. It was the Shanghai gang going up to Beijing and taking over. The Shanghai way of doing things was to build great skyscrapers and control the politics, but not worry too much about the details.

There were, by today’s standards, really no controls in Shanghai at that time, on nightclubs and bars and the underground economy. It was running rampant. When I go to China in the current more austere atmosphere, I meet lots of young people who look back on the Jiang Zemin era, particularly in Shanghai, as a sort of golden age. Yet I’m amazed by the number of Western twenty-somethings today who tell me this book is rubbish. These are people who could not possibly have been there, who could not have known these places. The places she talks about, such as DD’s bar, which was on the ground floor of a basement nightclub, and the people she describes, they were all real. Certainly, the foreigners she talks about were.

Tell us more about what happens in the novel that is so realistic.

The plot is that Wei Hui is a party girl in 90s Shanghai. It’s an amazing time. All of a sudden, you’ve got a bit of money; the world is starting to come to Shanghai; the city is open. There are nightclubs, bars, alcohol and drugs. You can sleep with whoever you want to. New fashions are coming into town. There’s so much opportunity, and Shanghai feels reborn. Shanghai in the 90s was a city that really never slept. Everyone went out all night and every night. They didn’t just go out on Fridays and Saturdays; they were out on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. I don’t know when we slept. And, of course, there were lots of substances ingested that ensured that we didn’t need much sleep. There were whole gangs of girls around who were part of that, and Wei Hui was one of them. You have to remember that China’s opening up was really beneficial for women. A lot of the guys found it more difficult, because their position was being challenged. But for women, it was a liberation.

“The Shanghai way of doing things was to build great skyscrapers and control the politics, but not worry too much about the details”

The foreigners who were there at the time, including myself, were small in number. It was a village in the city. The nightclubs that feature in Shanghai Baby were places everybody went and everybody knew. Basically, the story is that Wei Hui becomes involved with a married foreign man. She is testing the limits of her own newly discovered liberalism and internationalism; of how much she is a Shanghainese and open to the mix of East and West, and how much she is a traditional Chinese girl; and of this completely hedonistic life around her. But, of course, there’s always the transience of foreigners in Shanghai. In those days there weren’t so many full-timers; people were there on one or two-year rotations and so on. So people were always coming and going. Wei Hui captures that nightlife spirit. When I think of that book, I think of taxi rides through Shanghai when it was a much more compact, low-rise city, more to do with alleyways and laneways and small basement bars. If you weren’t there, you can’t know what it really was, so I don’t understand why people don’t like the book and attack it so much.

Well, let me try to help. I’ll swallow your bait and, for the first time after doing over eighty interviews for Five Books, break rank and lay into one of an interviewee’s book choices. You’ve convinced me of the historical merit of Shanghai Baby, as a record of the time when Shanghai was re-opening to the world. But I can’t help think it’s a novel of pretty terrible literary merit. I read it in translation, but dipped into the Chinese to get a feel for the original, and I still find the characters to be paper-thin stereotypes, written pretentiously as utter clichés: the virile German, the Shanghai dolls, the effeminate Chinese boyfriend. Not everyone could have been that two-dimensional in Shanghai of the 1990s.

And that is why you’ve spent so many years in Beijing, not Shanghai. You know what? Everybody was that two-dimensional. Everybody, myself included. We went to Shanghai because we were out to make money. Look at the foreigners of that generation who went to Shanghai: they’re a money-obsessed, fairly frivolous bunch. To have had lots of depth and thought about what was going on? There wasn’t time to think. There was so much happening. We just weren’t as stoical and as serious as later generations and, particularly, the later generations that went to Beijing.

“You know what? Everybody was that two-dimensional. Everybody, myself included. We went to Shanghai because we were out to make money.”

We came out of that crazy 80s decade in Europe and America, the go-go 80s, and went straight into the go-go 90s of Shanghai—it was a 20-year party that just moved from London to Shanghai. Of course, Shanghai itself had come out of nowhere all of a sudden. One day, it’s bloody Tiananmen Square, and then the next day, you can go to a disco every day of the week and take drugs and no one gives a shit. That’s an incredible thing within five years. So you could write the ‘right-on’ book about it, but this book instead feels ‘spot on’ to me. The Germans are spot on. The guys are spot on. The girls are spot on.

I’m not saying everyone was wonderful. We were, for the most part—there were some serious folk about, somewhere, I think—frivolous, lightweight, probably mostly arseholes. But that’s just the way it is sometimes. And she captures it in all its stupid ‘don’t give a shit about tomorrow’ fun. Between about 1994 and 2002, the Chinese and the foreigners under forty wandered around Shanghai wondering how they walked into this crazy thing.

Has Shanghai always been like that? Your description sounds like Shanghai of the 20s and 30s as well, or at least the romanticised 30s Shanghai of the novels we’re been talking about.

I think so. I was looking at a stat the other day: the Fourth Marine Corps of the US Army was always stationed in Shanghai, and they had the highest rate of desertion from the Marines. People got there from Depression-era America in the army and thought, ‘How did I get this fucking lucky to end up in Shanghai? I’m not going to stay here as a soldier!’

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Read Ralph Shaw’s graphic (in that he describes every sexual encounter in detail) memoir Sin City. He goes to Shanghai as a British squaddie in the Derbyshire regiment. He throws off his uniform, becomes a journalist, and starts hanging out in every brothel in the city within six months. It is a city that turns your head. If you’re a very serious Sinological sort of chap who really cares about the representation of Chinese men and Chinese women, there’s always a flight to Beijing. You can sit around with the others over your cheap noodles, share some filthy baijiu and have that conversation. If you just want to party, then you go to Shanghai. It’s difficult to expect novelists to turn around and go, ‘Oh, I’m being a bit sexually licentious here’you don’t think about that at the time. You just think, I’m in the greatest city ever. I used to sit in my office in those years, hungover from clubbing the night before, and it would be one travel journalist after another coming through. It was just Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai. That was the boom-time. That was the 90s.

Is it still the city it used to be? You’ve left now, for the muggier climes of London and East Sussex. Does the Shanghai of Shanghai Baby still exist, twenty years after it was written?

I think that that period just went through the millennium to about 2002. You should remember, all through the 90s, there was not a direct flight from the United Kingdom to Shanghai. It was the centre of the world, but it was still slightly off the map. Tourists rarely went to Shanghai; they were doing the Great Wall and everything else. You never met a western tourist in Shanghai. It wasn’t that type of town. I would argue with Beijing people who told me that Beijing was more authentically China. I say rubbish. I think Shanghai was the more authentic city—away from the falsity of politics.

“Then the travel journalists stopped coming. You can’t be the hot city forever.”

The expat conversation in Beijing was even more incestuous than in Shanghai. After 2002, of course, times changed. Shanghai used to be the king of the country at the time when Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji were running China. But in the new century, we moved into the Hu Jintao era and there was a correction away from that go-go urbanism and openness towards developing the countryside. Shanghai became a bit of a political backwater. There were a lot of corruption scandals, internal investigations and so on. The media moved on. It has cycles on these things, and it was time to write about Berlin, Seoul or wherever. I don’t know where it went next, but before Shanghai, it had been Prague. Then the travel journalists stopped coming. You can’t be the hot city forever.

And the literary history and legacy of Shanghai, the novels that we’ve been discussing—are they still being written, or is that a bygone era too?

I think that is also a bygone era. I don’t know, because I’m not reading everything that is published, but it’s a disastrous time for the creative arts all over the country. We never got back to the style that writers had in the 1930s and now Xi Jinping is demanding all art serve the Party once again. Wei Hui is only so spot on about the mid 90s because it was so ephemeral. I know you won’t agree with this but, to me, her book captures Shanghai in the same way that Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were capturing New York in the 80s and early 90s.

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When I recently re-read American Psycho, I thought the opening scene—where he’s talking about brands and going to a U2 concert and things like that—was spot on for New York in the late 80s. The English writer whose world is also populated with unpleasant people with unpleasant thoughts is Edward St Aubyn with the Patrick Melrose books, and that’s probably spot on too. I think Bret Easton Ellis and Teddy St Aubyn are both better writers than Wei Hui, but they all reveal a world to us that is very real: the drugs, the drink, and all the rest of it. These are historical records of a time that has now passed.

Well, thank you for bringing us into the crazy world of literary Shanghai, from the 1930s through to the new millennium. May the spirit of the city endure.

Yes, let’s party like it’s 1999 in Shanghai.

Interview by Alec Ash

January 18, 2019

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Paul French

Paul French

Paul French is a British author of literary nonfiction books about modern Chinese history, including the award-winning Midnight in Peking. His most recent book is City of Devils. French was based in Shanghai for two decades but now lives in London, and also comments on North Korea for the media.

Paul French

Paul French

Paul French is a British author of literary nonfiction books about modern Chinese history, including the award-winning Midnight in Peking. His most recent book is City of Devils. French was based in Shanghai for two decades but now lives in London, and also comments on North Korea for the media.