The French concession of Shanghai was run by French and under French law, an enclave in the middle of China. Although French people settled it, many more nationalities were added on the way. Portuguese, Russians fleeing the revolutions, Jews fleeing persecutions in Europe and of course Chinese. I recently read a book about the French people that lived in the French concession, “Les Francais de Shanghai” (i.e. “The French people of Shanghai”).
This book is not a novel, it’s not a thesis or a real biography of Shanghai either… it’s a little bit of all. It is built in many small chapters, each of them telling stories and anecdotes about a particular French person or family of Old Shanghai. The author used a lot of research, old documents and interviews of people who actually lived in the old Shanghai, or their descendants. It gives little snaps of the daily life in old Shanghai, details that have not much importance taken one by one but together create an atmosphere, a moving picture of Old Shanghai.
I read the book within a weekend, losing a lot of sleep on it as I was fascinated by the characters and stories. It is full of information I had never seen before, including the history of famous institutions such as the university, hospitals and churches that one still can see today. It also give great information about the influence of the Jesuites priests in the development of the city, as well as more information about some famous people (de Montigny, Dubai, Moller). I particularly enjoyed the part about police and gangsters in the old Shanghai, discovering that a house very near from mine used to be the “Poste de police Pétain”, complement of the “Poste de Police Joffre” that I already knew of a little further on the road. I was sitting on my sofa while reading, in my 1920’s apartment in the heart of the French concession and I felt like being transported through time.
Readings occupied my mind fully, and when I had to go out for survival shopping it was a shock to re-discover XXIst century cars …when I was expecting 1930’s Renaults or Peugeots. This book was a great travel in itself, making old Shanghai even more vivid. After “Les Français de Shanghai”, I will continue looking for great books like this one, completing my knowledge of the past of this great city.