“Death in Shanghai” by MJ Lee

I have read a number of novels taking place in Old Shanghai, but for some reason I missed MJ Lee’s “Death in Shanghai” until now. It is amazing I did not get to read it before, having been interested in both crime novels and Old Shanghai for a long time.

Original cover for “Death in Shanghai”

Piotr Danilov is the only foreign inspector in the Shanghai International Settlement’s Police Dept. Being Russian, he spent time in Scotland Yard, hence his excellent command of English. He also speaks French although where or how he learned is not clear. This conveniently helps him being sent to discuss with the French concession police when required. As a hard working cop, he is very much isolated among his moslty lazy, violent and corrupt British colleagues. Danilov also has his dark past that will be uncovered through the novel. Danilov’s sidekick, Strachan, is also an outsider being born of a British father and a Chinese mother and not being part of any of those communities.

The book starts with a corp discovered in the Suzhou Creek with inspector Danilov being put in charge of the investigation. The police hierarchy wants a quick found convict, but soon more murders will be linked to this one, both in the International Settlement and the French Concession. The books plot is complex but not overly so, making it a fluid read.

The main character of the book is not a person, but a city. MJ Lee has lived in Shanghai and definitely used historical documentation to write his novel. The city description is not limited to its buildings but also includes scents, food tastes and sounds giving a lot of atmosphere to the story. It is mostly accurate in its geography of the city giving a lot of credibility to it from an Old Shanghai enthusiast point of view. One of the twists of the story actualy comes from the Garden Bridge on the Suzhou Creek and the Shanghai Morgue, inside the Shanghai General Hospital, being located close to each other. Although the book has been historicaly researched, the novel does not become a show of the author’s knowledge of Old Shanghai like other ones I have read before. The story reads easily even if the reader knows nothing about Old Shanghai.

As an Old Shanghai researcher I could not avoid picking a few anachronisms. As an exemple, the author mentions “Art Deco” buildings and jewelery in 1928, when the term “Art Deco” was only coined in the 1950s or 1960s (see post “1925 when art deco dazzled the World“) . Another point is the mention of the “Shanghai Badlands” in 1928, an area that became known under this name only after 1937 Japanese occupation. I also noticed a small mistake in the French dialogs when a gard at the French police was called a “fonctionnaire”, meaning civil servant which sounds pretty weird in the story. The author surely meant a “factionnaire”, meaning a “soldier on duty”. This also shows that the author probably speaks French himself, as the French dialogues are very good in the book.

With its historical accuracy, its interesting plot and good writing style, “Death in Shanghai” is definitely a great read and a good introduction to Old Shanghai. I am looking forward to read the three other novels in the series. Having lived in the Shanghai at the same time as the author, I can only regret that we did not meet then as we would have had a number of common interests.

For those mosty interested in crime novel in new Shanghai, I can only recommend the famous Inspector Chen series from author Qiu Xiaolong (See post Red Mandarin dress for more details).

Farewell to Shanghai General Hospital

As foreigners created a living space in Shanghai from the 19th century, they introduced various services to support life in the new city. I mentioned schools with the College Municipal Francais and postal services in previous posts. Hospital was another of the public services that were created.

The first foreign hospital in Shanghai was the Shanghai General hospital opened in 1864 on the Quai de France, or French Bund, at the corner of Rue Colbert (See post “Rue Colbert” for more on this street). This building was a few steps away from the new French Consulate building also located on the Quai de France (See post “Former French Consulate” ). The hospital was staffed with nurses from Les filles de la Charite de Saint Vincent de Paul, a French Catholics order.

The original Shanghai General Hospital on the French Bund

According to “Histoire de la concession Française” by Maybon & Fredet, the ground rental was stopped in 1875, and the hospital had to move. It was then decided to build a new one. The hospital needed a large area for a reasonable price and ground price in central Shanghai was already very high. After much debate, a plot was chosen on the North side of the Suzhou River in the International Settlement. “At that time, it was nearly still the countryside. Few people lived there as it was away from the Shanghai city itself.” Like for the General Post Office next from the new location, the choice was difficult and it took a long time to decide as the move would add 10 to 20 minutes of transportation in case of emergency. It is very amusing to notice that the same area is now considered very central and desirable.

View of Shanghai General Hospital in the 1920s

The hospital building was of Colonial British Style, that as now mostly disappeared in Shanghai. As the city developed more capacity and space was needed and more buildings were added on the same plot, a red brick building on the right and a neoclassical building on the left. The left one is probably from the 1910s as it looks similar to other buildings from this time. The right one is probably from the late 1920s or early 1930s looking at its architecture. Above picture shows that the garden on the Suzhou creek side was already well maintained, long before the recent recreation of the Suzhou Creek promenade.

In the 1930’s the nurses were replaces by another Catholics order, the “Institut des soeurs Franciscaines”. The picture right shows an operation theater staffed with nurses from this order. The Shanghai General Hospital was still one of the main hospital in the International Settlement, along with “Hopital Sainte Marie” (today’s Ruijin Hospital), the German hospital (today’s HuaShan hospital), Lester Hospital on Shandong lu and Shanghai Country hospital (today Huadong hospital).

As for many historical buildings in Shanghai there was little maintenance over time. The original middle building was replaced by a concrete cube probably in the 1970s. Both side buildings got added floors and transformation to gain space. The left building can be seen on the righ side of left picture. It suffered the most. The right building was kept in better outside shape. Both did not escape destruction in April 2010, just before the Shanghai Expo opening. Only a small red brick building on the right has been kept, being the last remaining part of the former Shanghai General hospital. It was the former morgue of the hospital.

August 2018: A new building has been built on this location and just opened as the Bellagio hotel. The fake Art Deco style is supposed to match the location’s history but has none of the grandeur of the original. The remaining building has been renovated and is mentionned as the former Shanghai General Hospital.

From the top of Broadway Mansions

Bund from Broadway Mansion 2009
Bund from Broadway Mansion 2009

The Bund is probably Shanghai’s the most visited attraction. This strip of land has seen many transformations but has always remained the symbol of the city. In the run-up to Expo 2010, it is being remodeled again. The elevated walk created to stop flooding and used as a promenade is being expanded and renovated to welcome the expected millions of visitors. Similarly, the Garden Bridge (also known as Waibaidu Bridge, picture left) has been fully renovated for the 100th year of its construction. It is now open again for traffic and is a great ride in a sidecar. The re-opening of the bridge was followed by an official exhibition of photographs of the bridge and the renovation work that is well worth visiting. During the exhibition grand opening in Broadway Mansions (used to be called Broadway apartments), I had the opportunity to climb up the 18th floor terrace of the building and take pictures up there.

Bund from Broadway Mansion 1935
Bund from Broadway Mansion 1935

Looking in my own collection of pictures, I found this one that was surely taken from exactly the same place. This picture was taken probably in 1935 or 1936 as Broadways Apartments was finished (1934) but the Bank of China Tower is not yet visible (completed in 1937). The hotel staff showing me the terrace was so proud to tell me that Richard Nixon and Zhou En Lai had met on this particular terrace in the 1970’s. In any case, the view up there is stunning and not so much has changed ever since. Hopefully the new Bund promenade with an enlarged garden will bring back a lot to the old Bund Garden. The place I took the picture from is normally not open to the public as the room next to the terrace is the most luxurious room of the hotel’s restaurant. For years, this spot has been the best place to get a view of the Bund… and it is still one of the best.

British Consulate area 2009
British Consulate area 2009

Looking at another direction from the top of Broadway Mansions, I could not help not taking pictures of the area of the Old British Consulate.  I already had been interested in this area in a previous post, with pictures of the destruction of the Union Church. Although it has now been destroyed, the Church is still featured on all the rendering for the project, so I could even imagine that the intention is to rebuild “better and more modern”, though I somehow doubt it. Both buildings of the British Consulate are still there, currently being worked on to incorporate the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel.  Hopefully, this luxury establishment will take good care and create a nice balance between old and new. The old postcard below of the same area is difficult to date, but since the waibaidu bridge was on it, it dates from after 1908. The white building in the modern photo, the Capitol theater was built after the burning of the building before, i.e. 1924. So the card is from before 1924, when the whole Museum road was re-developed. My guestimation is mid 1910’s

British Consulate Area 1910's
British Consulate Area 1910's

Inside of the swimming pool
Inside of the swimming pool

The most surprising is the building along the river (with the tennis court above it in the modern picture). I never thought that this was a historical building until I managed to get into it. This was the swimming pool of the American YMCA round the corner and was surely still in use until not so long ago. The picture at the end of the article is the one of the inside of this building, featuring the pool itself. It is now used as storage for the bricks harvested on the Yuan Min Yuan lu work, but I don’t think the pool will return to its original usage. Too bad, that was surely a great swim. This riverside pool reminds me of a similar one in Paris, and Komyadi swimming pool in Budapest where I used to go.