Shanghailanders

A look back at the myth of salacious Shanghai.

Shanghai is a city freighted with clichés. Lurid accounts of its urban zeitgeist under nationalist rule conjure up a whore of the Orient where East met West for a fin-de-siècle bout of decadence and depravity against a backdrop of violence and poverty. Others celebrate the cultural and economic dynamism that once made Shanghai China’s most diverse and cosmopolitan metropolis.

The city’s allure owes much to its original sin: when China lost the first Opium War in 1842, Shanghai became a treaty port, and the foreign interests who plied the waterfront later vastly expanded the territory under their control. Foreign law reigned across much of Shanghai, where foreigners were always a small minority, until the settlements were dissolved during World War Two. The outcomes of this arrangement continue to fascinate. Imagine how the United States might have developed if Manhattan south of midtown had spent a century under Chinese law.

By the 1930s, Shanghai was trading on its own legend. T.K. Chuan, writing for the China Critic, claimed in 1930 that it had surpassed the “terrible city” of western lore: “Alexandria was only morally decadent, but Shanghai is intellectually and culturally decadent as well.” The modernist writer Mu Shiying in 1932 invoked a hedonistic “heaven built on hell!” Mao Dun (later to become minister of culture under Mao), conveyed the shock of Shanghai modern by opening his 1933 novel Midnight with English words in neon: “LIGHT, HEAT, POWER!” Chuan’s colleague Lin Yutang eventually rolled all of these stock formulas into a mock-grandiose Hymn to Shanghai: “O thou city that surpasseth our understanding! How impressive are thy emptiness, and thy commonness and thy bad taste!”

When the communists won the civil war in 1949 they set about remaking the city. They drove out foreigners, reformed prostitutes and co-opted capitalists and, in doing so, stripped the city of much of its vitality. Once the epitome of modernity, “Old” Shanghai became, in New China, a figure of nostalgia.

The title (and cheesy subtitle) of Taras Grescoe’s latest book gave me pause: does the Shanghai legend still need feeding? Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue on the Eve of the Second World War relates some urban history on a grand scale, occasionally resorting to familiar comparisons:

In 1939, Shanghai presented the world with a glorious facade: the “billion-dollar skyline” of the Bund, whose centrepiece was, of course, the streamlined Cathay Hotel. Washed up against the rusticated cornerstones of the banks and shipping companies, however, was an awesome display of human wreckage: serried ranks of Chinese beggars displaying stunted limbs, gouged-out eyes, and festering sores, who were left to die public deaths of hunger and exposure.

Fortunately, Grescoe offers more than textbook history—and not just because of his stylistic flourishes: “while Qing-dynasty China reacted to the prodding of the West by retracting like a sea cucumber, Japan swelled up like a distressed pufferfish.” He also conveys a sense of what made the city so vibrant by tracing the intersecting lives of several remarkable individuals.

Central among these is one of the 20th century’s most adventurous writers, Emily “Mickey” Hahn. Hahn’s personal and literary magnetism still shine through in her writings, as well as in No One Said Not to Go: The Life, Loves and Adventures of Emily Hahn, Ken Cuthbertson’s excellent biography. Shanghai Grand focuses on Hahn’s whirl of activity in Shanghai, where she arrived in 1935, especially her friendship with the tycoon Sir Victor Sassoon and her romance with the poet Zau Sinmay, and interweaves their stories with a social history of Sassoon’s luxurious hotel on the Bund, the Cathay.

The hotel, as a storytelling device, lends coherence to variety. In films such as The Cocoanuts and International House (which is set in China), the hotel serves as a vaudeville stage for the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and an array of other virtuoso performers. In Grescoe’s book, the Cathay Hotel displays in close-up the lifestyles and personalities of all manner of Shanghai elites: royals, celebrities, politicians, socialites, flappers, artists and their various hangers-on.

These include “Princess” Sumaire, a bisexual gold digger from the Punjab who had affairs with various Axis agents before setting her sights on Sassoon; “Big-Ears” Du Yuesheng, a Shanghai gangster whom President Chiang Kai-shek appointed head of the Bureau of Opium Suppression; Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen, a cockney exile to the Canadian prairies who joined a Chinese secret society and eventually became the first foreign general in the nationalist army; and Trebitsch Lincoln, a Jewish con man turned Nazi collaborator who also did business as the Buddhist “Abbot of Shanghai.” (The nicknames do start to seem precious.) Grescoe’s profiles of these and other shape shifters render a composite impression of Shanghai as a city of dubious self-reinvention.

Victor Sassoon was this gay set’s social ringmaster. He was also a property magnate whose audacity is best symbolized by the physical mark he made on the city. After he relocated to Shanghai from British India, he had a road realigned to form a “V” and then built a building on it in the shape of an “S.”

Emily Hahn was drawn into Sassoon’s circle, but she was also an individualist for whom “iconoclasm was a point of pride.” An inveterate experimenter and exhibitionist, Hahn sported a pet monkey at social gatherings, wrote for the Chinese and foreign press, tried opium, and became a Chinese man’s concubine—crossing the bigamy line as well as the colour line—and then wrote about it all.

Zau Sinmay’s family owned a wide swath of Shanghai’s real estate, and he inherited what his playboy father had not squandered. After studying at Cambridge, he returned to Shanghai to write sensualist poetry, convene cultural salons and publish a crop of influential magazines with his Modern Press. Zau and Hahn were not just lovers but also literary collaborators on, among other projects, a bilingual journal.

Zau and Hahn’s affair, which ended when Hahn moved to Hong Kong and fell in love with a British spy, does not strike me as grand. But it does come across as vivid and complex, thanks to Grescoe’s extensive research. He draws on letters between Hahn, Zau, Sassoon and their various correspondents, as well as interviews with their descendants to supply revelations about their actions and motivations. The focus on the Cathay Hotel and reliance on English-language sources does mean that we learn less about Chinese protagonists, and one gets the sense that Grescoe himself is left wanting to know more about Zau.

Yet Grescoe draws on archival sources rarely touched by other historians, and his treatment of his subjects is balanced and empathetic. As a writer, Hahn’s “exhibitionism was tempered by her skills as an observer.” Her writings about China can be insightful, but also glib, disingenuous (“I never get habits”) and self-serving. In turning her lover Zau Sinmay into “Mr. Pan” to amuse New Yorker readers, for example, Hahn “engaged in appropriation of the most blatant kind”—turning friendship into literary fodder—but still managed to portray a modern Chinese family as “fully-fledged humans.” Sir Victor, too, appears in Shanghai Grand as a human being rather than a colonial-capitalist stereotype.

At 4:27 p.m. on Saturday, August 14, 1937, a pair of errant bombs literally blew open the Cathay’s doors of privilege. Sassoon would remember it as “the exact moment that the party had stopped in Shanghai.” The Cathay, overlooking the Bund, had a front row seat to some of Shanghai’s history. Its owner took his camera out to the streets, and journalists watched refugees, riots and bombings from its rooftop. Shanghai Grand taps into the enduring fascination with cultural institutions—including cities and individuals—at the moment of eclipse.

Shanghai, as Grescoe notes, “has done double duty as a symbol and as a real, fully-functioning city,” and his frequent use of the word “picturesque” seems to indicate his awareness of a key challenge in writing cultural history. To treat a grand hotel or human wreckage as picturesque is to risk reducing a living organism to stagnant abstraction. In the epilogue, Grescoe looks down from one of Shanghai’s new skyscrapers on the once great Cathay Hotel. Time diminishes even the grandest monuments, and we are fortunate when a talented storyteller takes the trouble to reconstruct them in such meticulous and compelling detail.