Carl Crow, A tough old China hand

Although the French translation of “400 million customers” seems to have been a strong success Carl Crown did not gain long term fame in France. I never heard about him before coming to Shanghai. The discovery came while listening to Paul French, author of his biography, Paul French, during the 2007 Shanghai literary festival. Having heard about the famous Carl Crow map of Shanghai before I bought the book after French’s speech at Glamour bar.

Book Cover
Book Cover

Carl Crow was a very important figure of the old Shanghai, where he spent two periods of his life. He first started the China Press in Shanghai, a newspaper that was bringing an American voice to a scene dominated by the British North China Daily News. After moving to Japan, he became famous for being the first journalist to publish the “21 demands” from Japan to China in 1915.

Coming back to Shanghai in 1918 he created what became one of the main foreign advertising firm in Shanghai, helping foreign companies to sell their products throughout China. Carl Crow Inc also maintained the first and largest advertising network in Eastern China, importing the concept of advertising and creating the famous Shanghai advertising posters with Chinese girls in QiPao. These posters have since become one of icon of old Shanghai. He also founded the Shanghai Evening Post in 1929, the Shanghai newspaper that mostly supported the Nationalist cause and the development of China. He finally left Shanghai on the last American refugee boat after the Japanese invasion of the settlement in 1937 and finished his life in the US as a writer and adviser on Asian politics. MOFBA recently published a great article about the different locations of the Carl Crow Inc in Shanghai.

Carl Crow is the author of many books including “400 Million Customers“, “The Chinese are like that” and “Foreign Devils in the Flowery kingdom”. He crossed the path of Sun Ya Tsen, Chiang Kai Chek and his wife, Zhu En Lai, various Chinese warlords and many Shanghai known figures. He was part of the Shanghai publishing scene along with fellow Missourians such a Tom Millard and JP Powell.

It took me while to finish the book, not by lack of interest but by lack of time. Paul French definitely spent an enormous amount of time to research it. He travelled extensively to the US, HongKong and other locations to pull together information, and the book really feels like a great study. As an Old Shanghai fanatic, I found in it many information that I missed, many cross references to things I had heard of and many points of high interest. Carl Crow’s life takes us to the tumultous Chinese’s history from the 30’s. At the same time, I sometimes felt that without all my previous knowledge of these events and characters, I would probably have been a bit lost. “A tough Old China Hand” is a highly interesting book, but not one for the freshers in the Old Shanghai.

Paul French has written numerous other books about Shanghai, including among others The Old Shanghai A-Z, City of Devils, Bloody Saturday and Beijing based Midnight in Peking, all of them Being the result of in-depth research.

This article was originally published in 2008, updated and republished in April 2021.

City of devils, a Shanghai Noir

British author Paul French has lived in Shanghai for many years, and is vastly knowledgeable about Old Shanghai. Known for his in-depth research, he is also the author of The Old Shanghai A-Z , a reference book for anyone researching Shanghai history. French turning to crime solving inquiry in previous book Midnight in Peking, turned to be really interesting. Being passionate of both crime novels and Old Shanghai, I could only be interested in his new book, City of Devils, a Shanghai Noir.

Just like Midnight in Peking, City of Devils is not a novel. French takes a character that attracts his interest and research it in all directions possible. City of Devils is the story two characters of the Shanghai underworld. Jack Riley was the king of the slot machines in Shanghai, while Joe Farren was running entertainment shows at the top places like the Canidrome ballroom and the Paramount. Their course in Shanghai crime met numerous times, while they became allied, fell out and got in business again. The stories of both characters is really fascinating, showing the opportunities and the lawlessness of Shanghai in that period.

Little was known about the two central characters before French started his research. Information from a great many different sources have been put together, starting the local press of the time, North-China Daily News, JB Powell’s China Weekly Review and (never heard of before) blackmailing newspaper Shopping News. Although the book does not include a bibliography, they are references to many books about the period or written by people who lived through it, including Ralph Shaw’s Sin City,┬áBernard Wasserstein’s secret war in Shanghai, Frederic’s Wakeman The Shanghai Badlands and many more. He also search the official records from the Shanghai Municipal police, and other Shanghai institutions as well as archives from foreign countries consulates that are stored in their home country. A number of well known Shanghai researchers have also contributed sometimes unpublished information that have been incorporated the book, including Prof Robert Bickers, Russian researcher Katya Knyazeva and many more authors on the topic. The amount of information and the number of sources is quite extraordinary. Researching this books must have been like a real police inquiry, with attention to all possible details.

Beside those larger than life characters, the most interesting part is the description of Shanghai foreign underworld including numerous people or location that are mentioned in books of the period but on which little was known. This creates a great picture of the darker side of Shanghai that mixes well with French detailed knowledge. From the known facts he create an entertaining story, by bridging the missing parts with very plausible and well informed details. City of Devils is an entertaining read about a side of Shanghai that is lesser known. It is also a very deep research that is presented in a very entertaining way.

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.