by Paul French
Paul French’s entertaining “Destination Shanghai” relates 18 stories of Westerners in Shanghai during the 20th century, some of them famous, others unknown.
The London-based French, author of the 2012 novel “Midnight in Peking”, is a former long-term resident of Shanghai, and each of the stories here is a mini historical investigation rendered in the author’s hallmark noirish reportage. French is fastidious in his research and provides much illuminating detail – both historical context and narrative minutiae – where it is available, so we learn, for instance, precisely which bars American playwright Eugene O’Neill visited on an epic pub crawl.
All but one of the stories take place during the first half of the century, and 13 of them in the 1920s and 30s – a lively period in Shanghai’s history as far as foreigners were concerned. They are of dramatically varying length; the opener alone, featuring O’Neill, takes up a full sixth of the book.
This reflects the unevenness of the historical record, with far more source material available on the famous than on the lesser known, but also the fact that some of Shanghai’s well-known visitors and residents were distinctly larger than life. O’Neill – who carouses around the city before going missing, spinning an elaborate web of misdirection with the aid of accomplices, and successfully hiding from view his companion: lover, Carlotta Monterey – is one of them.
Likewise, Elly “The Swiss” Widler – unsurprisingly, with a name like that, a criminal – was a ridiculously colourful character with an action-packed story full of heists, deception and pursuit. He was the kind of guy who could sell a load of knock-off bulletproof vests to the colonial police, surmounting the issue of his manifest untrustworthiness by donning a vest and inviting an officer to shoot him in the chest.
Equally dramatic is the tale of Hungarian-born American showgirl Terese Rudolph, whose run of bad luck included being caught up in the 1937 bombing of Shanghai’s International Settlement, an earthquake in Manila and outbreaks of cholera and typhoid in Hong Kong before escaping on a ship that was bombed and strafed. Amazingly, she made it back to the United States and lived to the age of 92.
But while French is an enormously engaging storyteller who can seemingly spin drama from any material, sometimes that material itself is a bit thin, and the drama a little forced. The story of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’ 1929 visit is a case in point: they were officially barred from entering the country by the Chinese government over an alleged infraction in Fairbanks’ 1924 film “The Thief of Bagdad”, for which director Raoul Walsh then stepped up to take the blame, and, er, everything was OK, so they went to Shanghai after all.
Likewise there is scant detail of British writer and occultist Aleister Crowley’s 12-day sojourn in 1906, during which he apparently did little more than try and fail to seduce a woman. And 1920s American actress Lyda Roberti’s tale takes place almost entirely in Hollywood, the only link with Shanghai being her having lived in the city before her career took off. French author André Malraux barely even visited the city; Shanghai was merely the setting for his best-known novel, “La Condition Humaine” (1933).
Foreign celebrities often fell foul of the Nationalist censors, who were, unsurprisingly, sensitive to Hollywood portrayals of Chinese characters, which were frequently racist. But they often took their work to extremes: “The Thief of Bagdad” was censored for a negative portrayal of a Mongol prince by a Japanese actor. And some double standards will be familiar: white Swedish-American actor Warner Oland, who played movie detective Charlie Chan, was welcomed in Shanghai with open arms while his frequent co-star, Chinese-American Anna May Wong, was censured for playing roles that were allegedly demeaning, and for the dreadful sin of praising the beauty of Kyoto’s temples.
It is the individuals usually omitted from the city’s grand narrative, though, that often make for the most interesting reading, helping to compensate for the preponderance of Western voices in a book about a Chinese city. French shows sensitivity for the less privileged: members of the hitherto obscure 30s-40s Roma community, for example, who mostly made a living in entertainment, and who we know of only because Romany entertainers were considered fashionable and so tended to advertise their ethnicity, rather than obscuring it to avoid prejudice.
Similarly, a section on poets Langston Hughes and Irene West casts light on the forgotten contribution of African-Americans to the culture of Shanghai in the 30s. Hughes’ 1938 poem “Roar, China!”, with its fierce condemnation of both Japanese militarism and Western colonialism, neatly pricks the bubble of golden-era Shanghai. French never neglects this side of the story, in particular the monstrous poverty and exploitation that underpinned the freewheeling international glamour of the city’s Western enclaves.
Socialist author Arthur Ransome, best known for his “Swallows and Amazons” children’s books, likewise excoriated the city’s British residents in his 1927 book “The Chinese Puzzle”. Based on his travels to the country, he characterises them as self-centred, spoilt and loyal to no one but themselves. Ransome also made the point that the Chinese authorities tended to read Shanghai’s English-language press and assume that it represented British opinion, whereas in reality it represented only Shanghailander opinion.
Many of the tales here involve sleaze, trickery, hedonism and dodgy dealings, reflecting the louche, opportunistic, frequently criminal nature of Shanghai’s international society during the first half of the century. The extraterritoriality laws that governed the city made it difficult to prosecute crimes, and almost impossible if they had been committed overseas.
The dark side of the city is starkly illustrated in the story of Eliza Shapera, a trafficked Russian sex worker who was murdered there in 1907. And the prevailing atmosphere of pre-second world war Shanghai is perhaps best captured by the fact that the pre-eminent American swindler of the 30s, C.C. Julian, not only fled there but remained for the rest of his – admittedly short – life.
The stories in “Destination Shanghai” might seem disjointed, their protagonists unconnected, scattered across history and divided by nationality and social background. Together, though, they add up to a rich biography of China’s biggest city in a time of extraordinary vibrancy, illuminating the impact foreigners had on the place, and the even bigger influence that it had on them.