'Night in Shanghai' recreates the city of the 1930s in tale of music, race, love and war

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm

Few cities in the world can compete with Shanghai for its sheer impact on public consciousness as a cultural, commercial, financial - and political - powerhouse. But the most exciting time in Shanghai's modern history arguably isn't now, but during the years leading up to the second world war. This was a period when "jazz, love, war - and the Holocaust" collided in China's largest city, says author Nicole Mones. Her latest novel, Night in Shanghai , is the story of an African-American jazz pianist who finds himself in the freewheeling prewar city - romancing an indentured Chinese translator who is also a spy for the Communist Party. A Los Angeles-based textiles entrepreneur who has been doing business in China for the past 37 years, Mones spoke recently about her book to Alison Singh Gee.

What made you decide to write?

China's struggle to modernise - personally, socially, economically, in terms of governance - has been the story not just of the current era but of the last century. And few settings illuminate that better than Shanghai in the 1930s. Still, it was not until I came upon the half forgotten experiences of black American jazz players in the era that the novel sprang to life in my head. Music was the key. In my own life I studied music, not creative writing; I see a novel as music - an opening as an overture, themes and subplots as lines in a fugue. The chance to write a novel about a musician boxed in by all kinds of limitations but who plays out his ultimate struggle for freedom at the piano was irresistible.

How did you research your novel and how would you describe the difference between the Shanghai of today and the period in your story?

In the 1970s and early '80s, Shanghai was quiet, cautious, a ghost of a once-great city - and yet physically, little was changed from its glittering heyday. When visiting, I enjoyed reading books on local history, and used my time off to scope out the former haunts of gangsters and jazzmen. In those years, a lot of the old buildings still stood, just repurposed to more acceptable uses. Shanghai's "Youth Palace", once a centre for all manner of pleasure and vice, still stands. I did go back multiple times while researching and writing the book, once to accomplish nothing but the purchase of a 1932 city map in a flea market. That map became my bible. The Shanghai I got to know, 40 years after my novel's protagonist arrived, was dormant, restrained, its history only half hidden. Now it's come full circle to be a great city again, but in a new way - complex, vibrant, fun, future-striving, and yet, for all its size, surprisingly approachable.

How did you come up with the idea of an African-American jazz musician in a romance with an indentured Chinese translator who also happens to be a spy?

Five years in the life of a young, single man would never pass without liaisons, especially in Shanghai from 1936 to 1941. But for my protagonist, Thomas Greene, to really fall in love, he needed a woman who was complex, full of secrets, intelligent, true, and also able to speak his language. Before I could even begin to try to fashion her, Song Yuhua showed up, stained by longing, bristling with opinions and resentments, and took her own place in the novel. Of course she would have been a spy for the Communist Party. It was the only way she could be free.

What was the attitude of the Nationalists in China towards those who were then known as negroes in America?

Obviously Chinese of that era would not have been colour-blind. But that aside, for both Nationalists and Communists, African-Americans seem to have been American first, black second. In the novel, Song fears that marriage to Thomas will jeopardise her future in the Communist Party, not because he's black but because he's foreign. The Nationalists were nominally in control of Shanghai but they never imposed race laws on blacks - only the Americans did, in the International Settlement they shared with Britain. It's worth noting that after Japan and the US were at war, African-Americans were rounded up and interned in Japanese POW camps, the same as white Americans and Jewish Americans. The Japanese also treated foreigners by their nationality during the war, not by colour or religion.

What's the most amazing discovery you made while researching?

You can't portray wartime Shanghai without writing about the Holocaust - about 25,000 Jews survived the Nazi death machine by taking refuge there. So the Shanghai ghetto became part of the novel. But then my researcher stumbled upon something incredible in a Chinese military history database: in April 1939, the Nationalist government, then headquartered in Chongqing, passed a law creating the Jewish Resettlement Plan. They set aside several counties in Yunnan province, bordering what was then Burma, to create a Jewish resettlement zone that would bring in 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe for permanent residence. The plan was launched, large amounts of money were raised and spent, and at least two lives were lost before Chiang Kai-shek finally caved in to pressure from Hitler and cancelled the plan. One can only imagine how different the world would be today if 100,000 European Jews had been permanently settled between China and Burma in 1939.