Yvonne Wong reviews Paul French’s exploration of the genius loci of Shanghai.

Paul French, Destination Shanghai (Blacksmiths Books, 2019), 340 pp.

We saw that life does not narrate, but made impressions on our brains. — Ford Madox Ford

In the words of one of the countless sojourners that were drawn to twentieth-century Shanghai, it was a city to which “no one belong[ed].” Both “decadent” and “decrepit,” Shanghai was a “morbid dream” that engendered a term of her own: “haipai” (Shanghai style). Yet, the impression one might gather from Paul French’s Destination Shanghai (2019) – a successor to his immensely successful novel Midnight in Peking (2017) – is that Shanghai did not belong to anyone, either. Through its 18 independent-yet-interdependent records of Western sojourners to Shanghai, French’s tender endeavour explicates the genius loci of Old Shanghai – an undefinable in-between space where the unpredictable energies of people and place intersected.

While other works on the modern history of Shanghai have pivoted around the characters who inhabited the city – taking Shanghai itself as the backdrop against which stories unfold – French lets place take centre stage, making it the protagonist, while the flesh-and-blood characters become the secondary tool of characterisation. “Shanghai, in Mr. French, has its champion storyteller,” praised The Economist review of the work. The Bund, the International Settlement, Hongkew, Soochow Creek and the city’s many hotels, cafes, nightclubs and bars were places where characters from both ends of the socio-cultural and economic spectrums met and merged. We see how American playwright Eugene O’Neill – who sought a break from fame and fortune – fell further into gambling and alcoholism in Astor House and backstreet bars, sending the paparazzi into the state of frenzy. We watch how the golden couple of Hollywood, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, were “nearly snubbed by Shanghai” due to the unforgiving Nationalist government in Nanking. We read the words of the African-American poet Langston Hughes, who angrily exclaimed: “Laugh–and roar, China! Time to spit fire! … / To swallow up the gunboats in the Yangtse!” (134), referring to his not being allowed to enter the American-run YMCA because of the colour of his skin. Glamour, fame and talent, Shanghai swallowed them all, and with ease.

A city of gossip, lies and conspiracies, complicated by a crippled legal system full of loopholes owing to the presence of various foreign powers, Shanghai was preyed on by gangsters or scammers seeking to dig their last pot of gold or hitch their last ride to fame. One cunning thief who posed as a “Swiss banker” expropriated the wealth of several “Shanghailanders” (the name given to foreign residents in Shanghai). Where the money ended up was not known, but said “banker” ended up in the notorious Bridge House jail. Another individual used Dr Sun Yat-sen’s former bodyguard as the middleman in an attempt to purchase jet fighters for the Kuomingtang (KMT) during the Second World War. Fighter jets were not seen nor flown by any KMT soldiers because of his efforts, but his body was later found in the chair of his hotel room, collapsed, holding a bottle of pills. One well-read occultist, once a correspondent of Somerset Maugham and himself an Oxford man, was on the run from a murder committed in India and claimed himself “a professor at the University of Peikin” (159). When these men were not careful enough with the seemingly docile city, she did not feel obliged to be fair with them, either.

French is also sympathetic towards the largely nameless, and too often ignored, group of sojourners who had fled their homes and rebuilt their lives anew in this special town: namely, the Roma and Jewish communities. To them Shanghai was “the one city on earth that took in the outcast, the stateless, those without papers, émigré, refugees …” (205). Persecuted in Europe, especially in Nazi Germany, these two groups of people became cabaret entertainers, nightclub showgirls, poorly-paid manual labour and even professional beggars in the International Settlement or the French Concession. French manages to identify the major family groups that the Roma belonged to during the time when they were in town, and he is also keen to highlight their contributions to the cultural scene of Shanghai at that time, for example, the so-called gypsy rings and gypsy jazz.

For those interested in the city or the subject of Old Shanghai, this work will stir the imagination and tease the appetite. Reprints of the photographs and posters from that era, the spelling of place names in English not Pinyin and some familiar names who are regulars in history textbooks or literature anthologies – such as the Soong sisters and their famous husbands, O’Neill and Maugham – appear throughout the work, taking the reader back to the days of dashing neon lights, choking greyish smoke and deafening engine noise. Solid historical evidence and meticulous biographical details are weaved seamlessly into these tales, vividly visualising a portrait of Old Shanghai from the early days of 1911 Revolution to the fall of Maoist China, in all her beauty and brutality, marred or marvellous, where the skies could be filled with warplanes, the rivers docked with ships of various kinds, the dining and dancing halls decked with chandeliers. Old Shanghai was a place that lured people in and eventually rolled them back out, both gently and not so gently. She was, as always, a destination for the sojourners of the West, not the terminus: a bewildering liminality, a kaleidoscopic gyro shrouded in her own style, her own “pai”.

Yvonne Wong holds a PhD in English Literature from Durham University, UK. She has published on Dorothy Richardson and popular culture. She has taught literature in the UK and in Hong Kong, and is currently teaching at Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include modernism, phenomenology, women writers, space and place in literature and inter-arts studies. A cat and art lover who enjoys the company of nature and anything beautiful.

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