Old Shanghai, the paradise of adventurers

Book Cover, Shanghai, the paradise of adventurers
Book Cover

Old Shanghai is often associated with opium, prostitution and young western men seeking adventure. The police forces, army and other administration clearly took many of them to the Shanghai shore, with a new life in a vibrant city. I have written about several books illustrating the high life of Old Shanghai including Ralph Shaw’s Sin City, John Pal’s Shanghai Saga and the ultimate nightlife guide to Old Shanghai, Night Lights, tael Lights. One of the most famous is probably “Shanghai, the paradise of adventurers” by “GE Miller (Pseudonym)”. The book is really difficult to find as it was only printed for a short time. Reference to it can be found on Google books but the actual content is not available. It was translated in Chinese as 上海, 冒險家的樂園 and apparently still printed. It took me quite a bit of research to get my hand on this original 1937 copy.

The book starts with some background information about Shanghai and the concessions. One of the most interesting point is explaining the “shit” system where Shanghailanders once having established some credibility would not have to pay any service on the spot, instead signing a piece of paper, a “chit” with the amount collected on a later basis. Extraterritoriality protected the foreign residents, so some just never paid the bills and the whole city lived on credit. A whole section of the book also details how it was possible to get a fake passport to enjoy extraterritoriality right.

The main content is a series of portraits of shady characters, dubious, mysterious, mischievous and sometimes plain weird. The Spanish consul of the time is definitely a target as the book claims his great need of alcohol and Russian prostitutes, as well as total incompetency as a Société des Nations envoy in Manchouria, trying to assess whether Japanese invasion was justified… from the Japanese ministry of information office. It is very clear that the author used the book for some form of revenge on him. Similarly, the book has a strong anti religion theme, accusing Spanish priest of running gambling establishments as well as being very hard on missionaries. A full section is dedicated to Hungarian master of life falsification Lincoln Trebitsch. Although some parts of the book are difficult to believe if not totally wrong, the reading is very enjoyable. Characters in the book even remind me of real life characters of today’s Shanghai , still sometimes a paradise for questionable characters.

The book was written by GE Miller (pseudonym) who is self described as a diplomat. It did not take a long time for Shanghailanders to unmask the mysterious writer as Mauricio Fresco, the Mexican Honorary Consul. As pointed out by Robert Bickers in Empire Made Me, “The position had long been deeply implicated in the large-scale organized gambling in the city of the 1920″,   Further more “accusing the SMP [Shanghai Municipal Police] in print, and without evidence, of granting ‘full protection’ to British opium smugglers was a representative indiscretion”. “Fresco left hurriedly when his identity was revealed” in 1937, soon after publication of the book, and never returned. However, his book is still one of those that helped creating the myth of Old Shanghai. 

For a more recent book about Old Shanghai underworld, I recommend Paul French’s “City of devils, a Shanghai Noir”.

12 thoughts on “Old Shanghai, the paradise of adventurers”

  1. I’m pleased to say I have a copy of that book – my father bought it not long after he arrived in Shanghai and he liked to tell me stories from it. When he died, I decided the book was mine as Shanghai is my birthplace. Just noticed it cost $4.20.

  2. I was born in Shanghai in 1939. My father also Frank went to China in 1927 as an engineer and worked for Laddell bros and the Shanghai Power Co. as their Chief Engineer. The family left Shanghai for HongKong 1949. The ” chit ” system to honor payment was throughout the far east, it was even used by me as a kid in H.K. signing for food services at the clubs. I will try to get the book via google, if i don’t have any sucess is it possible for me to pay for a photo copy of “Shanghai the Paradise”.

  3. My mother would be familiar with all the hotspots in this book. She lived in China between the wars and has recently written her memoirs…would anyone be willing to copy this book for me to give to her? she still speaks of The Shanghai Club…and others…
    See below, regarding her book..(scroll down)
    Thank you,
    Alix Jacobs
    Haverford, PA 19041 USA

    From: Journal of the Shanghai Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society

    Peking Sun, Shanghai Moon: a Chinese Memoir
    Peking Sun, Shanghai Moon: a China Memoir by Diana
    Hutchins Angulo. Edited by Tess Johnston. Hong Kong: Old
    China Hand Press, 2008.
    Reviewed by Janet Roberts

    Like a contemporary Chinese scroll unfurling, this memoir by Diana Hutching Angulo, edited by Tess Johnston and
    Jean Anne A. Hauswald, provides scenarios in a series of quiet reflective moments in distant years. Savored hours of
    childhood memories in Beijing and youthful days in Shanghai are recollected in tranquility. Equal portions of the book are devoted to the two venues, Beijing and Shanghai. With the appearance of a rather “slight” book, only 142 pages in length, with 55 pages, devoted to family album pictures, the narrative still proves a satisfying read. The first third details life in Beijing, where the author’s father was a military attaché, and the last third discusses a brief interlude in Hawaii, but mostly, life among the wealthy in Shanghai, in the 1930’s-40’s when the author’s father was commander in chief of the Asian Fleet, – giving us snapshot views of people and occasions, and fashionable dinners.
    Among the luminaries who appear in the pages in Beijing are friends of her parents, such as a Mr. Rogers who
    eventually gives Wallis Simpson away in marriage; visitors at their home, include Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin;
    Roy Andrews and Sven Hedin; and notably, her mother’s friend Princess Der Ling, as well as Reginald Johnson,
    tutor to Pu Yi .

    With a father who was a military envoy, diplomatic circles are dramatic backdrops for eliciting from
    the experience of a small girl, recall of scenes with elegant characters in a strictly ordered world. The memoir conveys these impressions, filtered through memory. One of Diana Hutchins Angulo’s more striking travel
    reminiscences, rests in showing how common warlord violence, pirating and banditry were in the days they
    ventured out on excursions from Beijing. In retrospect, the author comments on the “frightening warnings of terrorist activities that discourage many international travelers. I sometimes wonder at the courage of the many foreigners who made a home in China during this troubled period of history.”

    Diana Hutchins recalls a mosaic of personalities, in both sisters’ lives, as well as life in the old French Concession
    in their home on 24 Ferguson Lane. Among the collage of a backdrop of clubs, balls, and parties in Shanghai – along with mention of her older sister’s friendships – including anecdotes of Emily Hahn – Diana remembers a “vibrant girl, Agnes MacGruder…who met and married in Paris,…the well known Russian painter Ashile Gorky.” Another young English girl, Peggy Hookham, who went to the same Cathedral School for Girls, trained with a former member of the Bolshoi in Shanghai, and became known to the world as Dame Margot Fonteyn.

    In a short pastiche, the essays detail quotes of books read, stories heard, cultural understanding gained, childhood
    memories of her parents’ friends, and her own school friends in Shanghai – the reflections of a woman in her 90th year, now living in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, USA, near her daughter and grandsons. Having departed from China in 1940, she visited China, in this past decade, with a group of French journalists and artists, the highlight being a visit to her old home, No. 1 the Bund in Shanghai. Diana Hutchins writes the “greatest gift from my China days was one of the most precious that my parents could have given me: the ability to mingle with ease in an international community. In the years to come I was to live with confidence and pleasure on distant shores and in faraway places.”

    The whole memoir is written with a sense of the light touch of a white gloved hand, leaving the reader with a sense of the author’s quiet repose.

  4. Message for Alix Jacobs,

    My own mother also attended the Cathedral School for Girls during the 1930’s.

    She passed away some years ago but this year I am going to Shanghai with my siblings on a sentimental journey to visit the places they lived and worked.

    Her name was Kathleen Clark at the time and I have a large page with photos of all the girls in her “Senior Year” I cannot find a photo of Diana Hutchins but they must have been in different years – she also told the story of being handed down text books with the name Peggy Hookham inside.

    We have had real difficulty in identifying the site of the Cathedral School for Girls – is your mother able to help?

    We have found all the other locations after several visits to Shanghai by my sister but the CSG remains elusive.

    I have the blazer lapel badge of my uncle who attended the Cathedral School for Boys – exactly as in Ballard’s film version!


    Michael Pether
    New Zealand.
    My email is mncpether@xtra.co.nz

  5. My great uncle Michael Radik was a schoolmaster at the Cathedral School for Boys c 1937, my aunt Norah Franklin Radik (nee Bass) wrote long letters home to her sister of their escape from the Japanese bombing in September 1937. I have two large posters Micheal painted advertising the school choir / plays. He taught English and drama. He taught J.G. Ballard, who during correspondence with him a few years ago, could remember my great uncle very well. If anyone can give me any information on the school or my great uncle and aunt I would be extremly grateful.

  6. I have the original copy of the book dated 1937. Who is interested to buy?

  7. Hello Tracey – I recently bought a painting that I think might be by your great uncle. It’s a watercolour of Chinese junks in front of a low coastline, and signed M Radik ’49 . There is no indication as to where it was painted, but when I came to replace the mount I found a section of a Chinese newspaper between the painting and the wooden backing that the framer had presumably used to protect it. I’ve only just started to try to translate it (using on-line freeware) but I think it’s dated 10th April 1938. I’d be happy to show you these or send you a photo if you’re interested.

  8. I’m looking for information about my grandmother’s cousin, Wilfrid Hayley Spark Hatten, born 1886, who was a teacher at the Cathedral School in 1939 and was interned by the Japanese from Feb 1943 till Sep 1945. He returned to England and died at the home of his sister in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, in 1952. Wilfrid left a handwritten will which requested that all his letters and papers be burnt,so that no-one would have the opportunity of reading them.

  9. Book is now available on some university websites for free download.
    Just to let you know.

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