Champions Day, the end of Old Shanghai

2019 James Carter book about Old Shanghai races was on my reading list for a while before I finally could go through it. Focus on Old Shanghai through the horse races and a very thorough research makes it an entertaining read full of new or rarely found information about my favorite topic.

Cover of Champions Day

Horse races in Old Shanghai

The book centers around horses races in Old Shanghai. Although this type of activity has gone out of fashion a lot, horses races were a major part of entertainment in Old Shanghai. The highlight of the season was the twice a year Champions Day, the main competition between horse owners. Shanghai would stop for the afternoon with large crowds joining for viewing and betting on the race. This made the Shanghai Race Course was the most important point of the city along with the Bund. The first main point of the book is to show the upmost importance of the event for the social life of Shanghai, that may be little difficult to grasp in today’s World of unlimited entertainment.

New information about race courses

The books also brings a lot of information about The Shanghai Race Club and the race course (that was located in today’s people square). What is really new is the in-depth information about the other major race course, IRC (International Race Course) located in Jiangwan district. Although started by Chinese who could not get membership in the Shanghai Race Club, both Race Courses had strong links and membership in one would bring access to the other, allowing Chinese and foreign horse owners to mix.

Many new characters

Finally, the book brings out a lot of characters that were previously little studied. The cast of horse owners competing for the main price gives is varied, showing different sides of the Shanghailander society. As opposed to what was mostly thought, some of those characters were Eurasians, children of (mostly) western fathers and Chinese mothers. The book also turn the light on the Chinese modern society that was created in Shanghai, with several inclination towards foreigners and political conviction. Whether they lived from or competed with foreigners in Shanghai, the whole development of Shanghai was influenced by the West, while trying to keep a distinctive Chinese character.

Although very detailed, the book lacks in pictures which will make it harder to comprehend for people unfamiliar with the topic. The other missing point is a transcription in characters of the main people and location. This would have helped research on them on the Chinese internet, where probably more information is available.

A great read about Old Shanghai

Champions Day is the result of an incredibly thorough research, compiling the whole English press from Old Shanghai, as well as massive research in existing academia on the topic. It definitely brings lots of information on many new characters in a very entertaining manner and definitely a recommended reading for anybody interested in Old Shanghai.

Le musical-hall des espions

French journalist Bruno Birolli was stationed in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Beijing for more than 23 years. After two non-fictions book about Asia history, he published “Le musical-hall des espions” in France in 2017. I have read and written about quite a number of Old Shanghai novels like The master of rain” or “Night in Shanghai“, as well a Paul French book on Shanghai Gangsters, City of devils. Since I also love reading crime novels, one taking place in Old Shanghai could only attract my attention.

Book cover

Birolli novel’s title, ” Le music-hall des espions”, could be best translated as “Theater of spies”. The novels takes place from 1930 to 1932 and focuses on French man René Desfossées, who is sent to political unit of the Shanghai French Concession Police. Main characters include his boss, Commandant Léo Fiorini along with Archibald Swindown, a colleague from the International Settlement police. As historical events unfold in Shanghai, their police work will make them meet various people including the chief of police for the Kuomingtang government, other members of the French police, a magician, and many more. The action is mainly located in Shanghai, the city could be considered also as one of the main characters, along with a short part in Hankou’s French Concession.

The author has spent years in Asia and it definitely shows in the book. I often found that Old Shanghai novels lack the climate, noise and smells of the city. They are all here. The dampness of the city after the rain, cold waves that freeze it a few days a year and other mentions of the city’s weather just feel like the real thing. Neither are missing the smell of Chinese food or of coal burning, the noise of people shouting in the streets and the honks of cars, giving a vivid portrait of the city.

Birolli’s interest in early 20th century’s Asian history and journalistic experience is also showing. This makes his version of Old Shanghai very accurate, taking into account the time of constructions of various roads and buildings. Actual historical events are developing in the background and are fully integrated in the story. One can also find numerous references to real history characters of the time, the most obvious one being the Commandant Fiorini, whose name is a direct reference to the real Captain Etienne Fiori who ran the French Concession police from 1920 to 1932. Characters have deep personality and there own history influences their actions and decisions in a very realistic way. Probably a little more explanations would be welcome by readers unfamiliar with the settings and Shanghai history, but the novel is making it a very enjoyable trip to Old Shanghai.

The real Capitaine Fiori receiving a medal

Although the background, historical events and characters are very credible, the books feels sometimes more like a photograph of an era, than a real crime novel. Having read many of those, I was expecting more speed in the story as well as a more sophisticated intrigue. Writing style is still very journalistic, as opposed the punch that one could expect from great noir novels, like “Perfidia” by James Ellroy or an historical spy novel like “Carnival of Spies” by Robert Moss.

In any case, I enjoyed reading the book and it highly recommended to anybody interested in Shanghai history. Unfortunately, it is only available in French so far.

Collecting memories

Having lived in Shanghai for more than 16 years, I have seen tremendous changes in the city and the mentality of its inhabitants, in particular regarding the city’s past. The attitude has changed tremendously, with a new trend for collecting the past and old artefacts, as shown in a recent Sithtone article on the topic.

During my first trip in 1998, Shanghai was for from being the trade center it is today. The city was still pretty much emerging from it’s 40 years sleep, at least in terms of architecture. There was many cranes and construction, and I did not pay any attention to the past.

My first book about Shanghai history

It’s a few months after I came back in 2004, that I started to get interested in Old Shanghai. It must have been on a March or April walk on the former Rue Lafayette (today Fuxing Lu), that things started to piece together. There was very few books on the topic, and finding them in Shanghai was not always easy. I remember that the first real book I read about Shanghai history was 2000 Stella Dong’s “Shanghai, the rise and fall of a decadent city”. I started to collect items from the old Shanghai period from 2005 or 2006, going to antique and later book markets. This lead to the creation of this blog in July 2006 (original called Shanghai Old and New, see opening post) and was weird enough to attract the attention of a reporter from Shanghai Daily, and a number of others later.

Having told the story of Shanghai many times, I can see that a younger generation of Shanghainese is getting interested in their own city and its history. Some of my friends believe that Shanghai antiques could become the new trend for people here. I am not sure about it, but I still enjoy researching this incredible period of Old Shanghai.

Taras Grescoe’s Shanghai Grand

Shanghai Grand Book Cover

Searching for “Shanghai Grand” on the internet leads directly to a Hong Kong action movie from 1996 set in Shanghai. Much more interesting is the new book from Canadian travel writer and journalist Tara Grescoe, focusing on the life and relationships of New Yorker writer Emily (Mickey) Hahn during her stay in Shanghai in the 1930’s.

Many books have been written about Old Shanghai and not all of them are good or interesting. Although published in mid 2016, Shanghai Grand only came to the attention of Old Shanghai lovers based in Shanghai, when Grescoe presented his book during the 2017 M Literary festival in Shanghai. I have to admit that I was very skeptical about an Old Shanghai book written by an author mostly known for his work about public transports and World overfishing and who never spent more than a few weeks in Shanghai. The presentation itself was of high interest, while the book turns out to be one of the best written and best documented book about Shanghai in the 1930’s and some of its memorable characters.

Emily (Mickey) Hahn, and her gibbon Mr Mills

Shanghai Grand tell the story of the most crazy years of foreign Shanghai, the late 1930’s. Emily (Mickey) Hahn arrived in Shanghai  in 1935, and through chances and connection got quickly in touch with Sir Victor Sassoon and the highest class of foreign society. As free and adventurous women, she defied conventions with her interest of the Chinese Society, that was exposed to her through her liaison with Chinese Poet Zau Sinmay (Shao Xunmei in modern PinYin, 邵洵美 in Chinese characters). The books centers on the love triangle between the three of them, while exploring Sir Victor Sassoon’s thoughts about the Shanghai political situation in those troubled times. 1930’s  Shanghai was a booming city,  but the party was abruptly interrupted by the Japanese invasion, Saturday 14th August 1937, that changed the city forever. Life conditions deteriorated rapidly and Emily (Mickey) Hahn left for Hong Kong, then taking a trip to Chongqing and write her first famous book, the Soong Sisters. She stayed in Hong Kong until repatriation in the US in 1943.

Sir Victor Sassoon

Instead of using local information and archives about the city, Grescoe focused on researching foreign based sources. He primarily used the hand written notebooks from Sir Victor Sassoon (now stored in a library in Dallas, Texas) that where previously unheard of by most people studying Old Shanghai. Another major source was writings by Emily (Mickey) Hahn for the New Yorker written during her time in Shanghai (1935 to 1939), her books written about China and the many letters she wrote back to her family as well as unpublished works, that Grescoe is probably the first person to have researched intensively.

Besides the main characters, Grescoe also cast a light on a few secondary characters that he managed to find new information about. Maurice “Two Guns” Cohen is definitely one of them as little was known about him apart from his work as body guard for Dr Sun Yat-Sen. Bernardine Szold-Fritz, who introduced Mickey Hahn to the Shanghai social life is also an exotic character. The background of Shao Xunmei is exposed thanks to his relatives who are still in Shanghai today. The background of the whole story, and nearly a character in itself it the Cathay Hotel (today Peace Hotel) on the Bund.

While researching the book, Grescoe also received support from Old Shanghai experts like Peter Hibbard and Andrew Field, as well as actually meeting with numerous authors of books about Old Shanghai or the life of his central characters. He also used a number of books written by Shanghai foreigners about their life in the 1930’s, most of them being mostly unknown or really difficult to find. The body of data collected is enormous and a large part of the work was surely to compile it, summarize it and cross references. Thanks to great writing skills, the result is a highly readable book that will satisfy readers that are not familiar with Shanghai history. At the same time, the depth of the research is a treat for Old Shanghai connoisseurs as the author has spread details and references all along the book, making it a great start for further research.

Borodin, Stalin’s man in China

Bookk cover
Book cover

Political instability, attraction for the orient as well as the protection of extraterritoriality attracted a large number of adventurers and shady characters to Shanghai and China in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Most of them came for the adventure, the money, or fleeing from justice, but some came for political reasons. Although mostly gone from history books, Russian agent Borodin’s years in China were the high points of his life as well as of highest importance for China. I had read his name in a few history books, but it took years to find and read his full biography, 1981 Dan N. Jacobs book, “Borodin, Stalin’s man in China”.

Mikhail Gruzenberg, best known as Mikhail Markovitch Borodin, was one of the most important Cominterm agent. Born in a small village in today’s Belarus, he managed to become a central figure in Riga’s communist party, working along Lenin during the 1905 failed revolution and participating in 1903 and 1906 Stockholm party congress. There he met Stalin, creating a relationship that would influence the rest of his life.

1906 failed revolution in Russia was followed by heavy repression. Borodin chose exile over prison and ended in London, before being sent to Boston and moving to Chicago. He then attended a low tier university in Valparaiso, Indiana for a short period before coming back to Chicago. He taught English for foreigners at the Hull House, the central point for immigrants communities in Chicago. 6 months later, he opened his own school, teaching English and practical skills in the evenings, while helping spreading communists revolution in Chicago during the day. Having not forgotten about the revolution in Russia, he simply waited until the right time came. In 1918, he was back in Russia to reconnect with his old friends. Being one of the few with extensive international experience, he became a Cominterm agent, in charge of spreading the Revolution all around the World. His first main mission was helping the revolution in Mexico, where he met Indian revolutionary M.N. Roy, coming back to Moscow in 1920. His second mission undercover in England ended with his arrest by the British police, and being expelled to Russia in 1923.

As attempts to spread the revolution failed in Europe, China became one of the points of attention for Moscow. Chinese Communist party was still very small at the time, so an alliance was brought with Sun Yat-sen and his Kuomintang party. Thanks to all his international experience and command of English, Borodin was sent as an envoy to Sun Yat-sen in Guangzhou with the aim of helping him becoming again the leader of China. With his skills and promises of Soviet military help that never materialized, he managed to run the Guangzhou government from the background. Among others, he played a pivotal role in creating Whampoa Military Academy , while putting many communists agents in Kuomingtang administration. However, soviet led communist revolution in China never took place, being stopped by Chiang Kai Shek (himself a graduate of Whampoa Military Academy) in 1927. Borodin barely escaped then but had to return to USSR with a massive failure, ending his extraordinary international career. Communists only took power in China in 1949 under the leadership of Mao ZeDong, but USSR was never able to control it.

The book is an in-depth research of the life of this mostly unknown and quite shady political adventurer. As interesting to read, as hard to find.

Final five Shanghai Walks

FInal five Shanghai walks
FInal five Shanghai walks

Books about old Shanghai are today numerous and one only needs to buy them to get information. In was not the case at my arrival in the city, in 2004.  Old Shanghai was not far from being a taboo topic for most people Chinese and foreigners alike. In the age prior to social media (remember Facebook was found in 2004), information was difficult to find beyond the extensive but not so user friendly Tales of Old China. Some of the Tess Johnston‘s and Deke Erh’s books already existed, but they could only be found in a few places.

A lot has changed on that topic since and many books have been published on the topic in Shanghai and abroad. I mostly write about foreign languages books, but numerous books in Chinese have also been published. Old Shanghai has become fashionable, and the Shanghai municipality is really doing an effort for preservation. Quite a bit has been lost in the meantime, but Shanghai still has enough of its past to have seen the World Art Deco Congress come to it in 2015.

The Shanghai walks series
The Shanghai walks series

The most popular series of books about Shanghai is probably the Shanghai Walk series, started by Tess Johnston in 2007. Practical and insightful, the original “Six Shanghai Walks” was a real novelty, combining in-depth research and often unheard information in the format of walks lasting about 2 hours. This is the perfect format enjoy walking the streets of Shanghai, alone or in a small group. The book became so popular that 4 more followed over the years, taking visitors beyond the concessions to further parts of the city.

Book presentation
Book presentation

Last Thursday saw the launch of the latest walk guide book, “Final five Shanghai Walks”, an event organised by Historic Shanghai. This last book contains walks centered around famous and infamous people living in Old Shanghai concessions. They including American journalist and publisher JB Powell, Chairman of the Shanghai Municipal Council Tirling Fessenden, Chinese architect Robert Fan, movie start Ron LingYu and many more. This walk guide is the latest and probably the last of the series as Tess Johnston will be retiring to the USA later this year. Another reason to grab it and enjoy the walks, now that good weather is coming back.

 

Midnight in Peking

Book cover in Australian edition
Book cover in Australian edition

Journalist and author Paul French is one of the most knowledgeable person about Shanghai. Although he now has gone back to the UK, he spent years in the city commenting about both the old and modern side of it. He is the author of The Old Shanghai A to Z (See link to my post on the book), the definitive guide about street names in Old Shanghai. It was then surprising to read a book from him about Beijing. Unsurprisingly though, Midnight in Peking tells a story that happened in Beijing in 1937, in the foreign legation or it surroundings. The atmosphere of old colonial China is very much the background of the story, very similar to the atmosphere in Shanghai at the same time.

The book is focused on the horrible murder of 19 years old Pamela Werner. Her body was found on 8th January 1937, as the bottom of the fox tower, Dongbianmen today. Daughter of a former British diplomat that was one of the best sinologist at the time, her death was the center of the media attention for a while. Unfortunately, international politics and Japanese troops surrounding the city did not help to solve the case. It is also clear that although some effort was made to find the murderer, a lot of energy was spent by well placed people to make sure that the guilty ones were never to answer their crimes.

As in previous books, French had a lot of research into the matter, including archives from the UK diplomatic services as well as other countries. The original inquiry was made by DCI Dennis, the chief of the Tianjin Municipal police, and inspector Han from the Beijing police. Nobody, apart from them and the victim’s father, had any interest in the police finding the murderer. The whole British diplomatic circle was focusing on protecting the honor of Britain and its privileges, be it by protecting the worst of its citizen. As the inquiry starts to raise questions, they are moved away to make sure they don’t find anything. It becomes obvious that the local little clique wants nothing of its secrets revealed, some of them really being horrible.

Where the body was found
Where the body was found

The book is also a dive in the badlands of Beijing, a territory next to the foreign legations that was controlled by nobody, where about anything was going on. Prostitution, gambling, drugs, human abuse and worse, all of it was flourishing at a time when nobody was sure of anything about the future. Japanese armies were coming and some people were left alone, satisfying their vices in the most sordid ways. It is also a place where the top and the scum of the foreign community mixed together. Every city has a dark side, but Beijing badlands were darker than most.

Midnight in Peking is the tale of a period, that was the end of a world. Atmosphere was surely very similar in the Shanghai badlands, after Japanese invasion a few months later. The book takes us straight to it, just like a crime novel and also helps solving one of the great murders of Old China. A great read for Old Shanghai fans.

Night in Shanghai

Night in Shanghai book cover
Book cover

Historical novels are a great way to get transported to the past. I have not had much time for my own research about Old Shanghai recently, but I still can find time for reading books about it. Having read a number of novels about Old Shanghai, like “The master of rain” or “Last seen in Shanghai”, “Night in Shanghai”was soon as on my list.

The novel takes an original point of view from the start as the main character is black American jazz player Thomas Greene, who ends up playing in the Royal, one of the Shanghai dance club. Jazz was the music of Old Shanghai and the city had many jazz bands. The most famous were brought from the USA, recruited by agents and sent all the way to China to play in the large ball rooms such as the Canidrome in the French Concession or the Paramount in the International Settlement. The story of these jazz band players has often been overlooked, making the novel stand out by choosing this main character.

Nicole Mones is a specialist on China and has clearly spent a lot of research on Old Shanghai. Historical facts are accurate and many secondary characters in the story were actual people. The book is the a great way to discover little known Russian composer “Aaron Avshalomov”, British envoy to help fixing China’s economy “Sir Frederick Leith-Ross” and many more. Old Shanghai nightlife is really well rendered, as well as the darkening atmosphere on the city coming with the Japanese invasion. Secondary characters, including crime lord Du Yuesheng are also coming to life in a very credible way.

Unfortunately, historical facts and characters often seem to have been added as matter of teaching the reader with little connection to the actual story. The flow of the novel is regularly obstructed by side plots and details that were surely very enjoyable to research and write about but add little to the action. In a same fashion, food and music are described in great details, but lacking explanation, feeling or taste. Moreover, characters tend to explain to each other points that would have been obvious for them in the historical context, seemingly as an explanation to the reader, making them sometimes really weird.

The central line of the novel, the love story between Thomas Greene and Song Yuhua seems over simplistic and not really believable. Characters regularly get an easy escape from trouble, and seem to be passing through dreadful events such as war and crimes without being really affected by them. Although I enjoy the historical research a lot, I have to admit that the story telling does not match it. Readers interested in Shanghai history will surely enjoy it, but other may be disappointed by the lack of depth and feeling of the novel.

Mr Loo, the novel of an Asian art dealer

Lenain's book cover
Lenain’s book cover

Old Shanghai was often the paradise for adventurers, due to the civil war raging in China at the time as well as lawlessness and multiple jurisdictions creating many places to hide. It attracted many shady characters, some of them becoming real stars of the city. Although he was born in ZheJiang province and was coming back to Shanghai regularly for his business, Mr Loo was not really part of the Shanghai as he lived mostly in Paris and New York. Nevertheless, his story is so fascinating and linked to China in the Republic time that it deserves to be part of this blog. It is the topic of Geraldine Lenain’s book, “Mr Loo, le roman d’un marchand d’art asiatique”, Mr Loo the novel of an Asian art dealer.

CT Loo was born in a poor family in Zhejiang but became the trusted companion of Zhang JinJiang , sent as 3rd secretary of the Chinese Embassy in Paris in 1902 who took CT Loo to Paris. This changed Loo’s life forever. Zhang also opened an antic store, that was soon in the hands of CT Loo. Having learned the trade in a few years, he left on his own to create his own company. He later one opened a company in New York, organizing a triangular trade of antic from China to Europe and then the USA, but he kept the relationship going with Zhang JinJiang who became a powerful part of Chiang Kai Shek Republican government. He exported large quantities of major Chinese historic art work to the West thanks to his powerful connection in the republican administration. In the process, he made the World discover Chinese ancient art including bronzes, carved jades, stone sculptures and paintings at a time when little was know about it in the West. He help build the Chinese and Asian collections of numerous world class museums, including Paris Musée Guimet, London British Museum, New York Metropolitan Museum and many others in the USA.

One of the Taizong horses in Penn Museum
One of the Taizong horses in Penn Museum

His personal life was really bizarre, marrying, his lover’s daughter while keeping the relationship running with both of mothe and daughter at the same time, and having 4 daughters later on. He kept his life in China, France and the USA disconnected, having nearly three parallel lives and keeping it secret to each other most of the time. The real dark side of him is that he organized the export of China historical treasures, through his connection in the Europe, USA and the Chinese administration. Though he claims that he never organized the theft from original locations, he clearly played a major role in the process. One of the most well known example are the two sculptures of the Taizong horses, ordered by early Tang dynasty emperor Taizong in the 7th Century with 4 of the 6 horses exhibited in Xian and the 2 remaining sold by CT Loo to the Penn Museum in Philadephia. For this he is still hated in China and considered a traitor. At the same time, most of the pieces he exported have been saved from later destruction during China recent history.

Geraldine Lenain’s biography of CT Loo is a very enjoyable read, carrying us through CT Loo work, his twisted personal life and historical events of the time. Though CT Loo was a real character, his life sometimes feels like a novel. The book was written in French. For more details in English, follow this link to the excellent FT article on the book and its writer. There is no English translation of the book so far, though I am sure it will come.

Peter Hibbard’s Peace at the Cathay

Peter Hibbard's new book
Book cover

Peter Hibbard has long been one of the leading scholars on Old Shanghai. He wrote the best (if not only) guide to the Bund: “The Bund Shanghai: China faces the West”, as well the privately published book celebrating the opening of Shanghai Peninsula, covering the history of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotel corporation. Peter Hibbard is also known to have revived the Shanghai Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society , an association that was at the center of cultural and intellectual life of Old Shanghai and has come back to life in recent years. With his years in Shanghai and is long term interest for city’s history, Peter always mentioned several book projects, with the most exciting surely an history of the Cathay Hotel (today the Fairmont Peace Hotel). Having started researching in the mid 80’s, the book has finally become reality.

Author Peter Hibbard
Author Peter Hibbard

With in-depth knowledge, historical photos, documents never seen before and years of passion in the making, Peace at the Cathay is the definitive guide to what is now known as The Peace Hotel. The book covers the history of the spot of its predecessor, the Central Hotel, as well as the competitor on the other side of the street, the Palace Hotel (now Swatch Peace Hotel). This is where is learned that the Palace Hotel was renovated in 1925 by Spanish architect, Abelardo Lafuente.

Obviously, the main part is focused on what became known as the Sasoon House (still known under this name in Shanghainese), and its most well known host, the Cathay Hotel that opened in 1929. With its revolutionary design, highest end service and luxury shops  offering the very best available at the time, the Cathay quickly became the center of the high class social life in Shanghai and a magnet for international tourists. Owner Victor Sassoon, with his office in the building and private apartments on the top of it, probably became the most famous Shanghailander ever and many celebrities stayed at the Cathay, as Shanghai was becoming part of the international scene.

Metropole Hotel
Metropole Hotel

Sasoon hotels also opened the Metropole Hotel n 1932 (and its sister building the Hamilton House). They completed the existing Cathay apartments in the French Concession, and were joined by another Art Deco icon of Shanghai, the Grosvenor house in 1935. All of them are also covered in the book, as well as the later use of the building after 1949.

Despite the in-depth research and the quantity of information it brings, the book makes a good read as well as a pretty coffee table book. Unfortunately, only a few hundreds of copies were made in the first print, so people interested in it should buy it fast (as far as I know, it can be bought at shop in the hotel itself as well as by contacting the author). Hopefully, as second print will be made on a larger scale, making the original copies even more valuable.

Peace at the Cathay is definitely the book about the Cathay Hotel, from the best source. We are lucky it is finally available.