Sin City

Book Cover
Book Cover

I am not sure anymore where is the first time I heard about Ralph Shaw. It must have been about 2 years ago when I started to get really interested about Old Shanghai. I heard the story of this ex-journalist from North China Daily News (the most important English Speaking newspaper in Shanghai and the whole of China). I tried then to buy a copy of the book and this is where the difficulties started. It was not available in any English book store in China, then I started to look on the internet. Sin City was displayed on several book sites such as amazon.com but was listed as sold out. I finally got a second hand copy on the internet. The one I got is not the original publication of 1973, but a reprint in paperback from 1986. I had it shipped by the seller in England to my parents place in France and finally collected it in December.
I don’t think the book sold very well, certainly not helped by the cover of the paperback was definitely not representative of the content, slizy and in any case plain ugly. However, it is in the bibliography of most books about Shanghai including the biography of Carl Crow I reviewed in a previous article. I was really interested about and really anxious to read it. It did not last for very long, as I went trough within a few days of Chinese New Year 2008.
Sin City is the memoirs of Ralph Shaw, a Huddersfield (where I studied) boy that was sent to Shanghai as part of the UK military force and became journalist then night editor of the North China Daily News. He arrived in Shanghai in 1937 and left in 1949. Shaw was in his 20s in Shanghai and fully enjoyed all the pleasure that the city could offer in term of nightlife, drinking, partying and enjoying play with women. In Old Shanghai, like many men he found the perfect playground. His life in old Shanghai is depicted through a series of portraits, locations and actions. What is so interesting in this book is that he mentions all those people and all those places from the old Shanghai straight out of his memory. Shaw arrived in Shanghai a few days before the invasion of the Chinese city by the Japanese forces and witnessed the mounting tensions between the British forces and the Japanese, until the invasion of the settlement in December 1941, his arrest the Japanese secret police and incarceration as a prisoner of war. There are many books about this period, but reading the actual experience of somebody who went through it is quite a unique experience.
Shaw does not stop at places and people, his memoirs also include a lot about the vices of the city, prostitution, gambling and corruption. Once again, Ralph Shaw was definitely well informed and the light he casts on the city is less than flattering. Corruption, prostitution and alcoholism were normal practice for the most men in theĀ  foreign community in Shanghai and it reflects in the book. Once again, Shaw adds many details about places and people including portraits and funny anecdotes. The book is really good to take the reader in the Old Shanghai, into the smoky girly bars and opium dents. With cross referencing with other books, the picture of Old Shanghai really gets together while reading it.
What is more questionable and probably less interesting for most reader is the display of his own sexual performance, with a distinct preference for hand job and self help. Although it adds to the story, it also takes it away from the plot and take off some of the book’s credibility. Some pages of Sin City would easily find there place in men-only literature. This is where most readers probably get lost. The erotic pages clearly dominated the cover and marketing of the book though they are not that many. It’s a pity such a narrow approach was taken for a book that is so full of first hand details about the old Shanghai.

3 thoughts on “Sin City”

  1. I bought this book in a roadhouse in Western Australia.under the
    title ‘China Nights’,and it is a terrific read.It has also been published
    with the title ‘Sweet and Sour’.I bought it in 1981,and i still have it.
    Shaw gives us a very good picture of Shanghai,in those far off days.
    If you can find it,buy it.

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