The second half of the year has been particularly hectic, so I used the last days of December to get back into my Old Shanghai passion. I bought Amy Sommers “Rumours from Shanghai” at publication sometimes in April 2021, but I only finished it recently after a very long interruption.
The story is set up in 1940-1941, the last days of Old Shanghai as they later were called. Although the war is coming fast, nobody seems to notice and Shanghai social elite continues the life of lesasure and party it had for decades.
The book central character is Tolt Gross, an African American law graduate who speaks fluent Japanese and Chinese. He is sent to Shanghai to work along the owner’s son of a major Seattle treadmill that has opened in branch to develop the Far East. The story is that he learned Japanese and Chinese from both company staff of his childhood household, which I found really hard to believe. Having an African American sent to run a large foreign company is also very improbable at the time. Tolt Gross mentions he had little chance to find a job for his qualification in the USA, I think his chances in Old Shanghai were even thinner.
Old Shanghai was made of two parallel societies run by powerful white men on one side and powerful Chinese men on the other side. They interconnected for business, but remained separated most of the time, and both communities saw any other race as inferior. There was a number of Afro-American in Old Shanghai, mostly musicians that brought Jazz to the city (See post “Night in Shanghai” for more about this). There must have been afro-american US Navy sailors stopping with ships or stationed as troops, but they were surely not many, as they represented 2.3% of the force in 1940, mostly at mess attendants, officers’ cooks and steward, as is one of the minor characters in the book.
Rumors from Shanghai being a novel, it is the author’s choice that create the story. Amy Sommers has lived many years in Shanghai and has long been involved in Historic Shanghai researching the city’s past, so the environment she creates is historically just right. The places, experiences and electric atmosphere of 1940-1941, the are well documented and rendered without becoming an history lesson in disguise as Old Shanghai novels sometimes turn to.
From a slow start depicting elite life in Old Shanghai, action really kicks in after Tolt talks with Japanese officer Takeda, and his plans for Japan’s attack on the USA. From that point, the novel really becomes a page turner with Tolt trying to convince sceptic officials that such an attack is really going to happen. As we all know, Pearl Habor attack took place on 7th December 1941. Tolt could not stop it, but a lot events happened to him and his friends in the meantime, making “Rumors from Shanghai” a really entertaining book, once you get into the author’s world.