Thanks to his title, this particular has been coming up in my research about Old Shanghai for years. Having been disappointed by Old Shanghai novels a few times, it took a long time before I tried my luck on this one, which turned out to be quite a good read.
“Shanghai Club” is an historic novel written by a French China researcher. Only available in French, it take the reader through the life of French man Charles Espagnac, a former soldier who got involved in the destruction of Yuan Ming Yuan in 1860. Little is known of him until 10 years later, when he comes to Shanghai and create a transport trading company that will become one of the power houses in Shanghai trade.
When many Old Shanghai novels take place in the 1920s and 30s, the author choose to take us back in the late 19th century, when Shanghai was really a small trading outpost, far from being the gigantic city it later became. What makes the novel really standing out if the quality of the research and how is it applied in the novel. Actual historical events like the Taiping revolution, or the 1884 Sino French war are integrated in the narrative. The book also escapes feeling like a history lesson, while showing in the author’s in-depth knowledge of the topic.
Life in the tiny town that was Shanghai then and the relationship between the French concession and the international settlement as well as their citizens is also in line with actual historical research about the period. The author clearly have a strong experience and knowledge of China, making the Chinese characters of the novel very real. The best example is comprador Joseph Lui, a Chinese catholic that was the interface between Charles company and the Chinese World. Besides real history, invented characters and events fit well in the story and the period.
The plot of the novel is pretty thin, with only a few characters. It is far away from masterpieces like James Clavel’s Tai-Pan, but the book really does bring the reader in the early Old Shanghai atmosphere. As opposed to my favorite genre, this is not a crime novel, though crimes take place in the novel. The book is a great read, giving a soft history lesson about a period that is less covered, while keeping the reader entertained.
While writing this article, I discovered that the book has a sequel “La Reine du Yangzi”, that I will try to find and read.