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Laszlo Hudec alma mater

April 10th, 2016 | 1 Comment

Hudec uni 002m

Inside the main lobby

Having lived in Budapest for years before moving to Shanghai, I always felt a special connection to Hudec Laszlo, the Hungarian architect who did the same things about 100 years ago to become one of the leading architect in Shanghai. Hudec was totally unkown when I reached Shanghai in 2004, but his return to fame from 2007-2008 helped me getting back in touch with Hungary. I recently took a trip back to Budapest after a number of years of absence. Having met Hudec great grandniece at the Shanghai World Congress on Art Deco, it was obvious to go and meet her in Budapest and a great opportunity to visit Laszlo Hudec’s alma mater, Budapest Technical University also called Müégyetem.

Hudec mark book

Hudec mark book

Csedy Virág, Laszlo Hudec great grandniece has created the Hudec project in Budapest, studying the elements of Laszlo Hudec’s life available in Hungary, including correspondence with his family, in particular with his sister and brother in law. Originally from Bistrica Banya (today Banska Bistrica in Slovakia), Laszlo Hudec went to Budapest for studying at what was the main technical school of Hungary at the time, and one of the most advanced in the world. He lived in a place owned by the reformed church in Budapest VIII district and studied at Müégyetem. In this period before WWI, Budapest was a vibrant city, full of people from all corners of the empire. Art and crafts were celebrated and a massive transformation of the city had taken place in the previous 30 years until that time. As an architect student, Hudec surely walked around these buildings, along with Gresham Palace, the chain bridge, taking the tram 47 -49 over the Danube to city center.

Hudec uni 001m

Laszlo Hudec used to walk here

As shown in Hudec marks book, his teachers at the university were the best at the time in the country, many of them designed architecture wonders that still make the city beautiful today. Amongst many was Karoly Kos, who designed the Budapest Zoo. Another graduate of the same university was Imre Steindl who designed the Budapest parliament house. Being taught by the bests of his time, Hudec carried this heritage and skills to Shanghai, creating some the iconic buildings of the city including the Park Hotel, Grand Theater and many more. Having made it in Shanghai, he brought his younger brother from Hungary to help him, who unfortunately died after a few years. Hudec was planning of returning at some point in Hungary, purchasing land and a ranch in the area surrounding Budapest. Leaving China after World War 2, he never went back as it was occupied by Soviet troups and became part of the East European bloc.

Visiting Müegyetem was a great experience, as I had passed in front many time but never went into it during my time living in Budapest. Hudec Laszlo story of traveling so far and being one of the main architects in Shanghai, to be forgotten for decades is still a fascinating story, strongly linked to both Hungary and China. Hudec and his work are now famous again in Shanghai, unfortunately few people know about him in his homeland of Hungary. I hope this will change in the future.

Final five Shanghai Walks

March 6th, 2016 | 3 Comments

FInal five Shanghai walks

FInal five Shanghai walks

Books about old Shanghai are today numerous and one only needs to buy them to get information. In was not the case at my arrival in the city, in 2004.  Old Shanghai was not far from being a taboo topic for most people Chinese and foreigners alike. In the age prior to social media (remember Facebook was found in 2004), information was difficult to find beyond the extensive but not so user friendly Tales of Old China. Some of the Tess Johnston‘s and Deke Erh’s books already existed, but they could only be found in a few places.

A lot has changed on that topic since and many books have been published on the topic in Shanghai and abroad. I mostly write about foreign languages books, but numerous books in Chinese have also been published. Old Shanghai has become fashionable, and the Shanghai municipality is really doing an effort for preservation. Quite a bit has been lost in the meantime, but Shanghai still has enough of its past to have seen the World Art Deco Congress come to it in 2015.

The Shanghai walks series

The Shanghai walks series

The most popular series of books about Shanghai is probably the Shanghai Walk series, started by Tess Johnston in 2007. Practical and insightful, the original “Six Shanghai Walks” was a real novelty, combining in-depth research and often unheard information in the format of walks lasting about 2 hours. This is the perfect format enjoy walking the streets of Shanghai, alone or in a small group. The book became so popular that 4 more followed over the years, taking visitors beyond the concessions to further parts of the city.

Book presentation

Book presentation

Last Thursday saw the launch of the latest walk guide book, “Final five Shanghai Walks”, an event organised by Historic Shanghai. This last book contains walks centered around famous and infamous people living in Old Shanghai concessions. They including American journalist and publisher JB Powell, Chairman of the Shanghai Municipal Council Tirling Fessenden, Chinese architect Robert Fan, movie start Ron LingYu and many more. This walk guide is the latest and probably the last of the series as Tess Johnston will be retiring to the USA later this year. Another reason to grab it and enjoy the walks, now that good weather is coming back.

 

California Dreaming

February 28th, 2016 | 3 Comments

Art Deco in SOMA

Art Deco in SOMA

Having met several delegates from California during the last Shanghai Art Deco Congress was surely part of the decision for a trip to the sunshine state over the latest Chinese New Year. We were really lucky with the weather as the weekend of President Day was the one of blue sky and nicer than normal temperatures in February, best after exceptional good weather in Shanghai in the previous days (see pictures from those days). We had not even reached our destination that Shanghai had already caught with us, with a conference in Standford University by old Shanghai original re-discoverer, Tess Johnston attended by a friend we later visited.

california 002

Alcatraz light tower and prison

Expectations about Art Deco were definitely met from day 1 in San Francisco. The city is mostly famous for its rows of victorian style wooden houses bordering streets going up and down, but Art Deco is very well represented. Art Deco buildings can be found towering the hills of the city and in the Mission district and SOMA area, like the enclosed picture of the office of San Francisco Chronicle. The other major Art Deco sight is on the bay, with some of the piers and docks, Alcatraz prison… and the Golden Gate Bridge.

As expected, California has lot’s of Art Deco just like Shanghai, but another style very common in Shanghai can also be found in California, where it originated. Spanish Colonial Revival style was not so visible in San Francisco, but it only took a short trip South to see much more of it.

Spanish revivals in Palo Alto

Spanish revivals in Palo Alto

California was first scouted by Christian missionaries, who created a line of missions all the way up to San Francisco. The Spanish Colonial style of the 16th century missions, inspired a revival in the 19th and 20th Century. This style was used to make many villas and houses in California, creating a mix of Art Deco and Spanish Colonial Revival style that makes Shanghailanders feel just at home. The same mix can be found in many smaller cities in California like San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara. Having been built in the same time, 20’s – 30’s Shanghai and California, it should not be surprising that both had the same building styles then.

Stanford main corridors

Stanford main corridors

The best example of Spanish Colonial Revival style architecture is the main building of Stanford University, which main building from late 19th century is really inspired from Spanish architecture, overlooked by a very nice Art Deco tower.

Art Deco in San Luis Obispo

Art Deco in San Luis Obispo

One of the many example of great Californian Art Deco, is the San Luis Obispo Court House. It is located very closed to the original Spanish mission and Victorian style wood houses. Another great example of the California mix of architecture, that feels really familiar when coming from Shanghai.

 

mystery house on ChangLe lu

January 18th, 2016 | 8 Comments

Original Staircase

Original Staircase

Historic buildings in Shanghai have been badly maintained for many years and have sustained the lack of care fairly well. Many have been renovated in the last year, either with love and attention like Bund 18 or Kee Club. Many more have seen a ruinovation keeping only the external façades and totally destroying the interior with no respect for the original.  As a history enthusiast, I rarely agree with the transformations that often take place along with the renovations. It was then really interesting to find out about an unfinished art deco villa, in a location where I have been many times, but never noticed it.

Art Deco balcony

Art Deco balcony

The original building was an enormous house, on three floors with about 1200 sqm of surface. The facade was facing South, like most houses in Shanghai with a large garden on the south side, ending on today’s ChangLe lu. As the house was used by the army for many years, some buildings used as army barracks and offices have been built in what was the garden. A small park was also added on the ChangLe Lu side, closing the view and covering it up from the general public view. Without knowing, it was impossible to see the original modernist / Art Deco villa in the middle.

Versailles parquet

Versailles parquet

What makes it really special, is that this house was clearly never finished by the original team. From the style and the construction details, it was probably started between 1945 and the late 1940’s, but was not completed as planned. The staircase (first picture) and the second floor and balcony was completed, but the ground floor remained unfinished. It is clear that half of the ground floor terrazzos were high quality, but the rest was finished in a hurry using lower quality materials. Both the ground and first floors have a very large room in the middle, surrounded by small rooms. Only 2 of the small rooms, seem to have had the original Versailles parquet installed. The rest of the parquet is of much less quality, although age has colored it nicely.

art deco fireplace

art deco fireplace

Another nice touch is the Art Deco fire place on the second floor. Like most original fireplaces in Shanghai, it has been filled up with concrete (see post freezing Shanghai for more details). Renovation has turned it back into a nice, though useless, piece.

The general structure of the house is really interesting, as the central second floor is made of concrete (covered with a woodfloor), but the small surrounding rooms are parquet only. The original ground floor decoration was never made, altough the house was eventually finished-up at some stage and used as offices. Two more buildings were added in what was originally the garden. Since the house was never finished in its original style, the developers have spent a lot of effort restoring original details, while adding a very modern touch to it.The building is about to open again as center for design and fashion firms with the now usual addition of fashionable shops, bars and restaurant. The place will be called Mixpace and located on Changde Lu, close to the corner of Shaanxi Lu.

 

Gordon Road Police Station

December 20th, 2015 | 7 Comments

IMG_4168Although I now have spent nearly 12 years in the city, Old Shanghai still offers surprises for me. One of the latest one was my recent rediscovery of Gordon Road Police Station on Jiangning Lu (former Gordon Road). A walk in the North part of the International Settlement, looking for a famous new restaurant (The Commune Social) took me there. This is when I ran into what is called “The Design Republic Commune“, a major design store and display. The colonial style of the building was quite clear, surely a former colonial administration building, in the former Shanghai International Settlement. The style different, but the overall look is pretty similar to Hong Kong Central Police Station, currently under renovation. Like for many renovation in Shanghai, the interior of the building has been totally gutted to make space for the new usage of the space. In any case, the external cleaning makes it stand out in the area.

Gordon police station was a special place in the Shanghai municipal police organisation, as it was the place were all freshly arrived police officers were sent for training after arrival in Shanghai. The plate on the building mentions “about 1910’s” as a construction date., however the Shanghai Municipal Gazette of 20th March 1908, shows the completion of the “Police training school” Gordon Road to be completed in February of the same year. Since the area at that time was not densely urbanized, this massive police station and the police training school were probably the same building. It is mentioned in Robert Bickers'”Empire made me” (2003) as “Gordon Road Training (or Western) Depot”. As explained in the book, the building had a “large parade ground”. The training and drilling ground is long gone,  but at construction and during the 1920’s the area was pretty much countryside, with factories and houses being built around in the 1930’s. Sikhs and Chinese police officers were also stationed there for training, staying in dorms that have long disappeared. It is difficult to imagine the size of the ground surrounding the police station, but it was surely massive.

British Police ShanghaiFrom 1909, all police force arriving in Shanghai was sent to the Gordon Road Depot for a few months of training before being sent the operation. This was a new organisation, pioneered by the London Metropolitan, opening it’s first depot a year before. The training was close to military training, along with class about the city, police procedures and the Shanghai dialect. Free time as only allowed after diner, until the 1 am curfew. Learning Shanghai dialect was done using “Lessons in Shanghai dialect” by F.L Hawks Pott, president of Saint John University and author of “A short history of Shanghai“. Mastering Shanghainese was essential for promotion as most of the population that the police dealt with did not speak English… nor Mandarine Chinese.

After training, the police officers were sent to various police station around the International Settlement. Wearing the same uniform as in England, the “bobbies” were a familiar sight of Shanghai, with Sihks policemen as subordinates. Although pictures of the later are pretty common, the pictures of English policeman on the Bund is pretty rare.

Closing the Shanghai World Congress on Art Deco

November 22nd, 2015 | 5 Comments

WCAD 001The World Congress on Art Deco in Shanghai had been years in the making (see post Shanghai World Congress on Art Deco from 2012) and turned out to be a great event. Most of the organisation and preparation was done by Patrick Cranley (See article from New York Times about him) and his wife Tina, who are also running the Historic Shanghai association. The organisation was supported by an army of volunteers, including myself.

The World Congress on Art Deco is promoted by the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies. Started in Miami in 1991, it has grown into a worldwide organisation promoting awarness and preservation of Art Deco architecture and history. The Shanghai Congress brought together people from several cities in the USA and Australia, as well as France, Hungary, and South America. After two congresses in South America (Rio in 2011 and Havanna in 2013), the first congress in Asia really makes the organisation global. For a week, Shanghai was the center of attention for Art Deco lovers and the best place to exchange ideas about. Although originated from France with the Exposition des Art Decoratifs of 1925, it was so far mostly celebrated in the US as well as Australia / New Zealand. After South America picking , it is now the time of Europe as Art Deco societies are emerging in European cities, with Paris, Perpignan and Budapest being represented at the congress.
Besides the social aspect, the congress was really a place for discussion on Art Deco from various places. Conferences took place every morning with tours every afternoon, so workload was pretty tough for the ones attending every bit of it.

IMG_2770WCAD 002Being in charge of taking care of the French speaking delegates, we managed to make a small gathering of the French speaking Art Deco delegates. This unplanned event happened at the Cercle Sportif Français (today’s Okura hotel) after the presentation and dinner in the Art Deco ballroom. We took a detour on the old terrace that used to be an open air dance hall and went for a drink. As it should be with French events, it was full of discussion, drinks and Joie de vivre. Art Deco started in 1925 in Paris, so we all dream of making a 2025 Art Deco Congress in Paris to celebrate the 100 years of the exhibition, and maybe one more in another French Art Deco city before that. Lot’s of work in the planning.

WCAD 003From a Shanghai perspective, the real success of the congress was to bring together the largest panel of people interested in Old Shanghai ever. Old Shanghai fanatics all know about each other more or less, but this was a unique opportunity to have most of us together in one place and exchange about our favorite topic. The list was really impressive, including “Old Shanghai rediscoverer” Tess Johnston, Bund and Cathay hotel specialist Peter Hibbard, Shanghai Art Deco architect Spencer Doddington, French Concession specialist Charles Lagrange, Haipai researcher and author of “Shanghai Style” Lynn Pann as well as Shanghai White Russian specialists Katya Knyazeva were among the speakers, and I am surely forgetting some of them. Art Deco Shanghai furniture (and some previously unseen Art Deco Shanghai carpets) where on display, helping to look at Art Deco on various crafts.

The really surprising and maybe most interesting part was to see conferences on topics related to Shanghai, but about which little is known here. They included research about Old Shanghai Department stores on Nanking Road (including Wing On), tracking and giving great details about their roots back to Australia’s department stores. Another great surprise was research about Old Shanghai Chinese architect, including Liu Jipiao, who designed the China pavillon at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 and organised the 1st West Lake exhibition in Hangzhou in 1929, modeled after the Paris one. It also included a presentation of Old Shanghai architect Poy Gum Lee, who designed the Chinese YMCA building (today Metropolo hotel on people square) and later continued his career in New York’s China town.

WCAD 004The World Congress on Art Deco could not be over without an Art Deco closing party, that took place at the Art Deco masterpiece, the Sassoon House, host of the Cathay Hotel (today Peace Hotel). This was the opportunity to celebrate in style and to say goodbye to the Art Deco community. See you in Cleveland in 2017 for the next World Congress on Art Deco!

Sticking windows

September 7th, 2015 | 3 Comments

old windows

Putty and knife

Living in an old Shanghai house is not only about choosing a place to stay, it is also a life experience and even a life style. An apartment in an old house is often the only renovated part of the house, or with different owners, renovation has been made a different times for each renovated apartment. In any case, only the inside in renovated, as the outside and common area remains in the care (or rather lack of) of the local government office. So if the whole building needs maintenance, one cannot do it alone, but needs to wait for the officials to come in. Anyway, the neighbours often have no money to pay for repair and cannot be bothered to do anything but the quickest and cheapest fix possible. With lane houses, the situation is a little better, but if the neighbour does not repair his roof, sooner or later your roof will also be damaged.

Maintenance in China is often an issue, and maintenance of Shanghai old houses is no exception. First of all, it is clear than in Chinese culture, new is better than old and fixing is useless. Even the definition of restoration and protection of old building is totally different. Most Europeans, French in particular, have the romantic idea that trying to keep old buildings and preserving as much old parts as possible is best. Needless to say that I fully subscribe to this idea. For most Chinese though, renovation mostly means rebuilding something the old way… from scratch. The renovated  are old… but new. This typically done with old chinese temples remade from scratch, of for Old Shanghai buildings that are ruinovated to be modernized while keeping only the old outside (see post Plaza 353 ruinovation for a great example).

For old Shanghai houses, people who were allocated these apartments for free were also told that soon they would live in bright modern buildings instead of this horrible place. This often took place two or more generations ago, with many people still living in the same place. In the meantime, only the very minimum maintenance was every made… since soon people would move to a better place (soon sometimes lasted for decades… and is not always over yet). With so little maintenance, it is often amazing to see how well these old shags (as people thing they are) have resisted against time. Many 10 to 15 years old building in today’s Shanghai are in much worst status that those old ladies. Too be fair, I found the very same attitude in Central and Eastern Europe when I lived there… for the same reason.

My 1936 built flat is no exception. It requires maintenance… and I understand it. Having lived there for 10 years, my landlord still finds amazing that I like this old house more than his brand new other apartment. The flat is still in good condition, but any suggestion of improvement or anything more than what is urgent is most time received as a ridiculous idea of laowai. Although I told him many times, I don’t think he comprehends the fact that I have lived in and owned apartments much older than this place… and in a much better state of repair overall.

As the quality of his repairs has always been very low, I decided to take one matter into my own hands: window reglazing. The trip to the small neighbouring hardware shop was amazing, as I had no idea how to call window putty in Chinese. I started to explain that I needed glue for the window, but not the new silicon gel one, the old version. We really did not get anywhere until I found a putty knife and made the connection. I was surely the very first laowai to buy this kind of equipment here. Fortunately, window glazing is something I have done before… about 30 years ago in the family countryside house. I never thought I would use this skill again, surely not half way across the planet. Sure enough, the techniques applied in Shanghai in the 1930’s, are very similar to the ones in Europe around the same time. I spent a few hours fixing the windows, with the great satisfaction to have made life at home better and shown to my landlord than I can do as well if not better than him.

 

Midnight in Peking

August 31st, 2015 | 1 Comment

Book cover in Australian edition

Book cover in Australian edition

Journalist and author Paul French is one of the most knowledgeable person about Shanghai. Although he now has gone back to the UK, he spent years in the city commenting about both the old and modern side of it. He is the author of The Old Shanghai A to Z (See link to my post on the book), the definitive guide about street names in Old Shanghai. It was then surprising to read a book from him about Beijing. Unsurprisingly though, Midnight in Peking tells a story that happened in Beijing in 1937, in the foreign legation or it surroundings. The atmosphere of old colonial China is very much the background of the story, very similar to the atmosphere in Shanghai at the same time.

The book is focused on the horrible murder of 19 years old Pamela Werner. Her body was found on 8th January 1937, as the bottom of the fox tower, Dongbianmen today. Daughter of a former British diplomat that was one of the best sinologist at the time, her death was the center of the media attention for a while. Unfortunately, international politics and Japanese troops surrounding the city did not help to solve the case. It is also clear that although some effort was made to find the murderer, a lot of energy was spent by well placed people to make sure that the guilty ones were never to answer their crimes.

As in previous books, French had a lot of research into the matter, including archives from the UK diplomatic services as well as other countries. The original inquiry was made by DCI Dennis, the chief of the Tianjin Municipal police, and inspector Han from the Beijing police. Nobody, apart from them and the victim’s father, had any interest in the police finding the murderer. The whole British diplomatic circle was focusing on protecting the honor of Britain and its privileges, be it by protecting the worst of its citizen. As the inquiry starts to raise questions, they are moved away to make sure they don’t find anything. It becomes obvious that the local little clique wants nothing of its secrets revealed, some of them really being horrible.

Where the body was found

Where the body was found

The book is also a dive in the badlands of Beijing, a territory next to the foreign legations that was controlled by nobody, where about anything was going on. Prostitution, gambling, drugs, human abuse and worse, all of it was flourishing at a time when nobody was sure of anything about the future. Japanese armies were coming and some people were left alone, satisfying their vices in the most sordid ways. It is also a place where the top and the scum of the foreign community mixed together. Every city has a dark side, but Beijing badlands were darker than most.

Midnight in Peking is the tale of a period, that was the end of a world. Atmosphere was surely very similar in the Shanghai badlands, after Japanese invasion a few months later. The book takes us straight to it, just like a crime novel and also helps solving one of the great murders of Old China. A great read for Old Shanghai fans.

Shaving time

August 24th, 2015 | 4 Comments

On the edge

On the edge

Although they now have mostly disappeared, barbershops were a central point in men’s life until WWII, including in old Shanghai. Until the early 20th century, a single blade razor was the only razor available. It was quite dangerous and required to be really skillful to get a clean shave. With a double edge safety razor invented by Gilette in 1904, shaving got easier but still required quite a skill to cut a good shave without cutting oneself. This kind of razors became popular in the 1920’s and 30’s, allowing people to shave themselves every day and reducing the business for barbershops.

Barbershops were men only stores, offering services such a shaving, hair styling and other beauty treatment. They were also a a great place to socialize and have chat with friends while getting shaved or groomed. Barbershops were a social institution, as men had to go several times a week to keep a clean shave. For some, in particular business men, they were part of the daily routine, at a time when business was conducted over letters and telegram (see post Lost in transmission), much slower than today’s emails and mobile phones. It’s easy to imagine men in Old Shanghai going to the barbershop to get a clean shave on their way to the business district of the Bund.

There was surely many barbershops then as this kind business does not need much infrastructure. People would come and get a shave or an haircut, not appointment. As the time needed is much shorter than for women hairdressers sessions, one just had to come and wait for his turn to get serviced while drink tea or water and chatting to other patrons. The shaving process would normally include the nice hot towels applied on the face of the patron before starting the actual shaving.

Having seen this many times in movies, I tried to get a proper shave in Shanghai. Barbershops have long disappeared and it took a while before finding a proper man barber ready to cut my beard the old way. The shop I found (on the internet), is located in the same building as the paramount dance room (see post Paramount suicide for more details), whose upper floors are (again) in ruinovation. It is one of those state owned hair dressers that now tend to disappear in favour of the fancy private ones. Actual location is 230 Yu Yuan Lu. I’m not sure this always been a barber shop, but being a state owned one in an historic building, it is very possible. In any case, the barber has been shaving men for many years and he did an excellent job.

FullSizeRenderAfter the shave, I searched in an Old Shanghai phone book, I found only two barbershop with a phone line… in 1938. They were probably the most prosperous as having a phone line was not cheap at the time. I took me a while to realise that one of them “Parlow Barber Shop” was actually located in the same place than the place I went, 230 Yu Yuen Road. In Chinese it is cold Bei Le barbershop, just like Bei Le Men, the Paramount theater that was located in that building. The phone number has changed and “Marcel Waving” are not fashionable anymore, but this place is still a nice old fashion barber shop. I will be going again for a time travel and a shave at the same time.

I also looked up the second adress in the phone book. The Nanking barbershop was located at number 734-6 Bubbling Well Road. Today’s 734 Nanjing Xi lu is also a state owned hairdresser. In Shanghai, some things never change.

 

 

Perfidia

August 17th, 2015 | 1 Comment

perfidia

Book cover

I have been a fan of James Ellroy’s crime novel for years, reading his original “LA quartet” (the black dahlia, The big nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) in the early 90’s at publication. Although not set in the 1920’s and 1930’s that I am so fascinated by, they felt close enough. Ellroy’s novel are often more about the atmosphere and characters than about finding the actual murderer. I recently found latest Ellroy’s novel in a travel bookstore and could not resist reading it, particularly as the central period is getting even closer to my interest.

Perfidia, is located in Los Angeles (as always with Ellroy), during the last day of December 1941. It starts on 5th December 1941, two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although this is not mentioned in the book, the Japanese army invaded the Shanghai International Settlement on the very same date. This episode is the center of the Spielberg’s movie, Empire of the Sun. The Japanese invasion of China, in particular Nanjing massacres are often quoted in the book though Shanghai is not. In any case, the parallel with Shanghai history at the same time makes is an interesting read from a Shanghai perspective. Perfidia is also a song from 1939 that was very fashionable at the time. Becoming a hit in the US, it was also surely heard and played in Shanghai clubs then.

The central murder in the novel is of a Japanese family and a lot of the novel is focused on the reprisals and subsequent internment of Japanese American from early 1942. As always in Ellroy novels, there are many subplots and numerous characters of whom life and action are crisscrossing with unpredictable consequences. International politics and espionage are the new notes added to the usual complexity and dark ambiance.. Characters are never black or white, good or bad, but all of it mixed. The tone is dark and pessimistic, with a general background of corruption in US politics in general, and in LA police in particular.

James Ellroy’s LA often makes me think about the books and information I have read about old Shanghai. Corruption was massive, along with lawlessness, prostitution, gambling and drugs. People all tried to make money as fast as possible in any way they could, often ending up badly. There are not many winners in Ellroy’s novels, but all fight hard for it. The way Ellroy intertwines real life characters and his own fiction is magnificent, giving a real lesson in LA gangster and police history. The same thing with Old Shanghai characters has been tried before, but never really succeeded. I often wish that Ellroy would switch his focus from LA crime history to Old Shanghai. A James Ellroy novel taking place in Old Shanghai would be a perfect match between those two dark universes.