Pit stops I was born in Enfield, in North London, in 1966, and come from a lower-middle class/working-class background and went to the local comprehensive school. My father worked for the Greater London Council. Whenever anyone wanted to dig below a certain level or build a new tube (underground rail) line, they had to consult him because he had maps marked with all the original plague pits (in which victims of the 17th-century bubonic plague were buried).
Everywhere else in the world, tube lines are straight. In London, they curve to avoid the plague pits. Because authorities were not quite sure of the lifetime of the bacillus, you still can’t go into a plague pit.
Shanghai connection My great-grandfather was briefly with the Royal Navy in Shanghai. He had lots of tattoos that he’d had done there just after the first world war. He organised the coaling stations for the Royal Navy ships that came to port. My father was very much into architecture, art deco particularly, so Shanghai was an interest of his even though he never travelled anywhere.
So you had a bit of art deco, a bit of Shanghai, and we used to go up to Chinatown for dinner with knives and forks, not knowing what we were doing; a combination of that and looking at all the Chinese writing ended up with me at university and going to Shanghai to do Chinese. It sort of all came together.
Memory game I did A-level history at Southgate Technical College, in North London. We covered the Cultural Revolution and that made me want to do Asian Studies, which really meant, for me, Chinese studies. I don’t have an aptitude for language but Chinese is different because it’s a memory game, and I have a very good memory.
There weren’t many people who did Chinese just because they thought it might be interesting, and there certainly was no one – whatever people of my generation say now – who thought it would get them a good job. The joke used to be that we would all be waiters in Chinese restaurants.
Sleeping tiger I was in Shanghai in 1987, and things were starting to change in China. The Deng Xiaoping stuff was starting to happen, but everyone who was considered sensible at that time studied Japanese, and everyone who did Chinese was either a Maoist or going to be an English teacher. Halfway through my course, Japan went pop and everyone who was going to be an investment banker in Japan became an English teacher, and all of us doing Chinese were being hunted down by HSBC. That was just luck.
Shanghai was the last city to open up because China’s leadership didn’t trust it – they knew what could happen when you had a tiger that’s been on sleeping pills for 50 years and is hungry. Shanghai was as if a dust sheet had been thrown over it in about 1952. There had been no new buildings since the revolution. The river was run down and people were living how they had been in 1949, but with a Maoist tinge.
The Western architecture along the Bund and in the old French Concession was all still there; people were living in it. It was all bicycles, and they’d switch the traffic lights off at 9.30pm. The Bund, amazingly, was completely dark. Nobody went to Shanghai unless they had a romantic notion of it from the past.
Eating crow After university, me and some other guys who had been studying Chinese went back to Shanghai. In 1996, we formed a market research company called Access Asia. We did really, really well out of it, but we had other things we wanted to do, including, for me, writing.
I thought I’d just write at the weekends, and I was researching foreigners in pre-revolutionary Shanghai. So, I wrote a biography of Carl Crow, who set up advertising agencies in the city in the 1930s, and that got me into more and more stories. We thought we were these great pioneers in the Wild East, but then I realised Carl Crow had done it 70 years earlier, and in much tougher conditions.
Capital letters I decided that if I was going to do another book, it would be something that took a China story from that period to a much wider audience, and I came across the Midnight in Peking (2011) story. I thought this is a really good story; it’s a true crime, literary-type thing, something I can take anywhere in the world, and it could be a TV show.
I had a eureka moment, realising it was going to be a book about how amazing Beijing was in the 1930s, and how the Japanese screwed it all up with the invasion, and how a murder never got solved, and how one death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic, or whatever Stalin said.
All of a sudden, it became a book that had a whole second half that was, arguably, the solving of the crime, although lots of people on the internet have different theories to mine. At the same time, a company in the UK asked if we would sell our market research business. We said we might, if the price was right, and actually they made quite a good offer in 2012. All I had to do then was ensure that Midnight in Peking came out and was successful, and then disappear for a couple of years and try to pull off the tricky second novel.
Tales of two cities There was this period [when French’s second novel, City of Devils, is set], between August 1937, when the Japanese attacked Shanghai but left the foreign concessions alone, and December 1941, when all the Chinese gangs left and the foreigners, along with the Japanese and the puppet Chinese politician Wang Jingwei, controlled the entire city. That was four and a half years when foreigners controlled all of the criminal rackets in Shanghai. These people were either escaped criminals or villains, or White Russians with no passports, or they were stateless European Jews who had fled to Shanghai. They had nowhere to go, they had to survive, so the city became this incredible inferno.
The Shanghai municipal police collapsed; stagflation meant their wages were not worth anything. You could hire a hitman for US$4, policemen were selling their guns to get out, or just became thugs because there was more money in it. It was completely lawless by the end. City of Devils ends with Pearl Harbor, and next up, I want to look at the period after the war, to about 1947, when the Americans had liberated the city and it became a very different sort of criminal Shanghai.
The Shanghai of City of Devils is neon lights, jazz, fast cars, girls dressed really wonderfully. Shanghai in 1947 is on its uppers, times are hard: it’s black markets, it’s American GIs rolling around town in jeeps, trying to control things; it’s the Communists getting closer, it’s the Nationalists falling apart and guys throwing their uniforms off, trying to steal what they can and getting out of town.
Rhyme and reason I’m always looking for ways to tell stories of Shanghai. China Rhyming is my blog that looks back in time at that city, and at Beijing and other places. The original idea was that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
I found that if you put stories out there, people come to you with photographs. Every time I put a shop name up there, somebody says, “That was my great-grandfather’s shop.” So you can trade information with them. I don’t do anything else. I have no interest in golf or football, or anything really apart from this. So I get up in the morning and start posting, and, hopefully, by the time everyone else is awake, people have noticed it and start sending me photos.