Shanghai Saga, John Pal

One of the few copies available
One of the few copies available

John Pal arrived in Shanghai from the UK to be employed by the Imperial Customs in 1920. At that time customs administration was delegated to foreigners, initially under the control of Sir Robert Hart. All of the customs officers were foreigners mostly British but also French, Italians, Scandinavians and Japanese. John Pal’s experience of the customs services organisation and his daily life make the book a really interesting read. China had only a 5% duty for import AND export thus, “Any Tom, Dick or Harry could afford to drink the finest wines and puff the choicest of imported cigards” and “liquor was so cheap that rum runners came from the United States” to buy liquor in Shanghai to export it back to the USA. At the same time, Shanghai saw a massive smuggling activity, mostly for opium and other drugs. John Pal certainly gives a first had account on trying to stop smuggling “continually up against some of the world’s trickiest smugglers”. “Ships from certain countries, or port of call, were always suspected of bringing narcotics” including Vladivostock and Haiphong in French IndoChina (today Vietnam). In his duty, John Pal also worked on the export side, inspecting ships departing and making sure that only the declared goods were loaded in.

Author John Pal
Author John Pal

John Pal left the customs administration in 1927, as China was taking back control of its administration… but his story does not stop here. He then became a reporter for the Shanghai Times, being invited to many parties and official celebrations. Each country was throwing parties for national days of celebration and other opportunities. “If a man cared to, he could live on the free handouts from Shanghai’s annual celebration – and live high. The numerous nationals of our city magnified their celebrative days into grandiose fireworks and champagne binges.” This does not seem so different from today permanent corporate and national parties occupying a lot of people’s social agenda. He also took a job as kernel manager for the French Canidrome, getting involved in the grey world of gambling in Shanghai. John Pal left Shanghai in 1939 as the War in Europe seemed inevitable and he could see how Japan would turn on Shanghai. I don’t think he lived long enough to see the new Shanghai as it is today. I am sure he would be amazed of the difference between Old Shanghai and the city nowadays but also of some the striking similarities. Somehow Shanghai spirit just never changed.

Shanghailanders leaving the city in the late 1930’s and 1940’s often left a home that they could never return to. Exiled from their Shanghai motherland, they recreated a life in other places, back in their original home country or moving on to new places like the USA and Australia. Life in Shanghai had such a strong mark on them that they could never forger the incredible city they left. Many wrote memoirs, creating books that were a true picture of Shanghai life, or sometimes mere fiction mixed with a few true facts. Besides Shanghai Saga, I also reviewed Sin City from North China Daily News reporter Ralph Shaw in an earlier post. It turned out that both Brits were probably competitors.

Shanghai Saga is an excellent source for information about Old Shanghai, although it was very rare and difficult to find. The book has been reprinted by Earnshaw books. More details in post “Shanghai Saga republished“.

4 thoughts on “Shanghai Saga, John Pal”

  1. Hello Hughes,

    thank you for the review of John Pal’s book. Your comments brought to mind another, more recent book about Shanghai, which deals with the same period:
    SERGEANT Harriet, “Shanghai, a history of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s”, Jonathan Cape, London 1991.
    Ms. Sergeant’s rendering of Shanghai in that period is one of the best I’ve ever read. You may wish to visit her website at

    At a much more modest level, I’ve written a few short pieces about cities, including Cairo, Chongqing, Mumbai and Shanghai:
    – on Chongqing,
    – on Shanghai,
    – on urbanization worldwide,


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