Fresh look at life in the old Shanghai

There are few places that have attracted as many writers in such a short time as the old Shanghai, the city that grew, prospered and exploited its way through the 100 years before the Japanese invasion.

That fact works both for and against Barbara Baker's anthology.

There was plenty of material for her to choose from, but the challenge was to avoid anything too familiar. So, while the Green Gang, the society flappers, the White Russians, the expatriate merchants, the sing-song girls and the sufferings of the poverty-stricken Chinese must make up the fabric of her book, as they made up the fabric of the city, they must also appear in fresh form.

A tough task, but Baker has succeeded. Shanghai, Electric and Lurid City is a splendid hotchpotch of varied writing; a fitting way to reflect a city that lived under such a mixture of influences.

Here you can find first-person observations from stuffy old bankers or a visiting Wallis Simpson looking for amusement after the breakdown of her first marriage; from the prostitutes who saw their trade as an alternative to a life in the fields while other sex-workers suffered violence and disease, to the White Russian princess who climbed out of poverty via a succession of short-lived marriages.

There are interviews with the women who had no choice but to obey the old restrictions of wealthy Chinese society and, on the other side of a well-worn coin, with those who suffered from the stark choices of a life of poverty - work for a pittance in the city or marry and move back to the country as your mother-in-law's inferior.

The sights, smells and architectural splendour are amply covered, as are the crime, barbarity and opportunism of those who made Shanghai work for them. There is even an extract from a Marlene Dietrich film script - 'It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily' - and a snatch of a 1950s song - 'Why did I tell you I was going to Shanghai . . . I'm even allergic to rice'.

Baker mixes the cloying racial superiority of the 19th-century British with fascinating glimpses of contemporary Chinese society. She makes few comments other than to provide context and at the end of 300 pages you feel you have at least been provided with a fresh peek at a succession of different worlds.

The writers themselves range from the familiar - Austin Coates, Harriet Sergeant, J G Ballard, Lynn Pan, Nien Cheng, Stephen Spender, Paul Theroux - to the unknown who passed through and left their impressions on paper, and those, largely Chinese, who lived and died there.

Baker starts at the beginning, when the land that Shanghai was built on was just swamp, moving on - rather quickly, it must be said - through a little local history to the arrival of Lord Amhurst and the merchant traders.

Then to the carving out of the international settlements, which was not an easy time, whatever profits might have been made. 'As regards the people who live in this region,' wrote an early arrival in an extract of a missionary memoir by Pat Barr, 'the dampness moistens them, the saltiness stiffens them, the wind shrivels them and the stagnant waters poison them'.

By 1927, American business traveller Frank Carpenter was writing of the Whangpoo river being filled with ships and lined with wharves. Yet Baker notes, life expectancy for a Chinese in Shanghai then was 27.

The Paris of the East also housed the red and green gangs, the latter run partially by former street worker Du Yuesheng, who, as Harriet Sergeant writes, had improved his reputation to such an extent 'that by the mid-30s the gangster who delivered new coffins to adversaries found himself described in Shanghai's Who's Who as 'Well-known public welfare worker' '.

There is a detour through a study of Shanghai birds, published by the North China Daily News and Herald, a walk past a New Year pavement fair with Osbert Sitwell, a description of American journalist Emily Hahn getting hooked on opium, and then cured of her addiction, and images of Japanese bombs dropping as Shanghai prepared for Armageddon.

It survived, of course, to become the thriving, modern hub of northern China. That and the rise of the Communist Party that saved and then almost destroyed it are well covered, with the most telling contribution being Nien Cheng's sufferings during the Cultural Revolution.

The last word goes to veteran China reporter James Pringle of The Times of London.

'The ghosts and memories of the 1930s that are reappearing are another sign that Shanghai has finally and belatedly emerged from the traumas of recent decades. Most here hope such times - and the romantic but brutal days of old Shanghai - never reappear.' True. But Baker's anthology keeps them alive and kicking for others to learn from.

Shanghai, Electric and Lurid City: an anthology Edited by Barbara Baker Oxford Univ Press, $145