“What should I read to learn more about old Shanghai?”
Historic Shanghai’s brand new book club, launching September 2019, is our attempt to answer that eternal question. The history of this cosmopolitan metropolis, where east and west, communism and capitalism, tradition and revolution coexisted could never be told with a single brush. Shanghai’s story is a mosaic of so many, many different ones. And since remembering the past had dangerous consequences, the stories of Shanghai’s past were often not spoken, not handed down.
What we’ll read: Our focus is Shanghai, and history. We’ll read as much original and contemporaneous material as we can, from many different perspectives. We’ll also read well-researched current books, historical fiction, and nonfiction in a variety of genres.
Who should come: Anyone interested in finding out more about the incredible history of this city. No prior knowledge of Shanghai history (or literature, for that matter) is required!
Book & Author Walks: Whenever possible, we’ll pair the book with a walk during the same month, so we can walk in the footsteps of our authors – and with the authors, when we can.
How It Works: Each meeting will begin with a bit of scene-setting historical background, followed by a discussion. We’ll rotate the discussion leaders each month. Simple as that. Do you have to read the book to come? It helps. At least part of it. It’s a book club, people!
Getting Books: The books selected are all available on Amazon, Kindle/ibook and in many cases, from Shanghai book suppliers. We’ll provide information and links under each selection. ALSO – and this is very important – **We Support Writers! Please buy the book!**
Interested? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the mailing list and WeChat group.
THE 2019-2020 READING LIST
3rd weekend in September, date TBC
News Is My Job: A Correspondent in War-Torn China by Edna Lee Booker (first pub. 1940), Paperback, 460 pages.
Edna Lee Booker arrived in Shanghai in 1922 and went to work as a “girl reporter” for the China Press. Her memoir, full of rich detail and humor, recounts her scoops and coups over 20 years, following the political tide – interviews with Marshal Chang Tso-Lin, Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong – as well as family life with her husband, John Potter, at their 10-servant home at Columbia Circle. Booker moved seamlessly from the upper echelons of Shanghai society to the old Chinese city – the rare expatriate who ventured there – from elegant entertaining to being an eyewitness to bombing.
To read our interview with Edna Lee Booker’s daughter, Patricia Luce Chapman, click here.
Life & Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng (1987), 516 pages.
In this first-hand account of the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai, Nien Cheng takes an unflinching look at those years of chaos, including her detention and six and a half years of prison, as well as life after the Cultural Revolution.
This detailed account provides invaluable insights into Shanghai during this period and the fate of the educated elite, like the London-educated Cheng. She’s a beautiful writer, which makes the painful parts even more painful – but there’s a reason this remains a bestseller.
Shanghai Lawyer: The Memoirs of America’s China Spymaster, by Norwood F. Allman, Annotated, Illustrated and Embellished by Douglas Clark 412 pages. (first published 1943)
Diplomat, lawyer, judge, soldier, spy, spymaster – just some of the positions American Norwood Allman, held in his 30 plus years in China. He was also a champion storyteller, and Shanghai Lawyer is Allman’s first-hand account of his amazing life, from his arrival as a student interpreter during WWI, to serving as a Chinese and Mexican judge, practising before the U.S. Court for China, commanding the American militia in Shanghai, and, finally fighting the Japanese army in the battle for Hong Kong in 1941. Allman has an easy, humorous storytelling style, that makes it an excellent read, and Doug Clark has added annotions and illustrations with information gleaned from public and personal archives – including identifying characters Allman veils through pseudonym – as well as an epilogue covering Allman’s time with the OSS and CIA.
Shanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family, by Jennifer Lin 333 pages (2017)
Jennifer Lin combines a journalist’s eye for detail with a scholar’s research and a novelist’s turn of phrase in this tour-de-force. Centered around the author’s grandfather, St. John’s-educated Reverend Lin Pu-chi, Shanghai Faithful is the story of 150 years of Christianity in China through the lens of the Lin family, from the first convert in a remote Fujian fishing village to the present day. Lin describes her characters and their Shanghai in fine detail – you’ll come to care for them deeply – but she had help: Grandfather Lin’s letters to her family, written while she was growing up. Lin says this book has been percolating for 30 years, ever since she first visited Shanghai to meet her family (her description of driving from Hongqiao Airport and her family home puts you right there), and it shows in the insightful and nuanced perspectives.
Available on Amazon & Kindle
China to Me: A Partial Autobiography, by Emily Hahn, 454 pages (first published 1944)
Much has been written about Emily Hahn, but it pales in comparison with what she wrote about herself – because no one else could be quite as smart, frank, or dryly humorous.
Famous for having an opium habit, a famous Chinese poet lover – Zau Sinmay – hob-nobbing with luminaries from Victor Sassoon to the Soong sisters, she was also a sharp reporter, with insights into the significant historical events of this tumultuous period.
Available on Amazon & Kindle.
400 Million Customers by Carl Crow, 276 pages (first published 1937)
Missouri-born journalist, businessman, and author Carl Crow spent a quarter century in China, and this bestseller is a distillation of his experiences. A sheer delight to read, for both being of its time, and timeless: In China, explains Crow, shopkeeper chooses his employees not for their intelligence, industry and honesty, but because they are members of important and influential families whose trade the shopkeeper desires; the women will not accept, even as a gift, a packet of assorted needles; orthodox poker is played as it was played in Texas thirty years ago; a man likes to conduct his business in the open so that every passer-by may see and comment upon his industry; an empty beer bottle is counted a precious gift….
Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels, by Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao, 308 pages (2018)
This is Isabel Sun’s story, the story of a girl growing up in a wealthy Chinese family during Shanghai’s first golden age, and filled with wonderful detail you won’t find elsewhere that brings old Shanghai to life. She attends McTyeire School for Girls, St. Mary’s Hall, and St. John’s University, gets her hairclips from Wing On, dates a dashing young man who rides a Harley, and has her own song at her favorite nightclub. Written with and researched by her daughter Claire Chao, it is equally a classic old Shanghai tale, a story of the rise and fall of a great family and the role of fate across five generations, all set against the dramatic, turbulent backdrop of 19th and 20th century China. (Special touch: The book is lavishly illustrated, with both vintage photographs and charming illustrations). A bestseller, the book has won over 15 literary & design awards.
For our review of the book, click here.
City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai, by Paul French, 311 pages (2018)
Paul French’s bestselling Midnight in Peking made him – and China true crime – famous, but City of Devils was the book we fans of old Shanghai were waiting for. And we were not disappointed: City of Devils pairs a gifted raconteur and old Shanghai historian with an incredible story, made all the more delicious because it exists on the fringes of all the better-known tales of old Shanghai. It’s the story of “Lucky” Jack Riley, the escaped convict who became the Slots King of Shanghai and “Dapper Joe” Farren, née Josef Pollak, a penniless Vienna Jew, their intertwined lives, their rise and inevitable, dramatic fall, all against the backdrop of the only city that could have nurtured it. Old Shanghai fans, take note: We love the tearsheets from Shanghai’s Shopping News that are interspersed throughout the book, giving another dimension to the flavor of old Shanghai.
Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Lives , by Jie Li, 280 pages (2014)
Inspired by the demolition of an increasing number of lanes, anthropologist Jie Li interviewed her family for this book, part microhistory, part memoir, salvaging intimate recollections by successive generations of inhabitants of two vibrant, culturally mixed Shanghai longtangs from the Republican, Maoist, and post-Mao eras. Author Jie Li has a unique insight into these lives within the longtangs: this is where her parents and grandparents lived, and where she spent her childhood. It’s a rare focus on the 1950s-1980s, and a look at the life cycle of a Shanghai lilong.
For our interview with Jie Li, click here.