Historic Shanghai’s Best Books of 2015

Our annual roundup of the year’s best books on Shanghai’s history. 2015 has produced an exceptional crop of books — several that have been in the works for many years, by authors with impeccable Shanghai creds, and an unparalleled knowledge of Shanghai history. Instant classics!

When True Love Came to China, Lynn Pan

When Love Came to China

When it comes to thinking and writing about pre-1949 China, Lynn Pan is in a class by herself – and so is her latest book. When True Love Came to China questions the premise that romantic love is universal, and illustrates it beautifully with examples drawn from literature, history and philosophy, deftly showing how love’s profile in China shifted over time, rejecting arranged marriages and concubinage for the Western model of free individual choice, monogamy and romantic love.

What makes the Shanghai-born Pan such a great scholar of this period is that she is equally well versed in Western literature, philosophy and culture as she is in their Chinese equivalents – a quintessential Shanghainese – and one of the great triumphs of this book is how it inspires comparison between Chinese and western traditions and culture.  To top it off, she is a beautiful, engaging writer, a genuine pleasure to read. As with nearly everything Pan writes, there is much Shanghai in this book, from its title – inspired by a Zhang Ailing/Eileen Chang short story — as well as the stories of many of our favorite Shanghai characters, from Chang herself to the poet Xu Zhimo, writer Emily Hahn, scholar Hu Shi, and many more.


Shanghai Old Town: Topography of A Phantom City / Volume 1: The Old Docks, by Katya Knyazeva & Adam Sinykin


Shanghai’s ‘old town”, the old merchant city that declined into an overcrowded slum as the foreign concessions developed, is documented in fine, poetic detail in this groundbreaking two-volume book.

The first volume, The Old Docks, is a stunning photographic atlas of the ancient lanes and historic relics of Dongjiadu, the port outside the city wall. Each street is documented beautifully, and we’re told of the stories found in their lintels and bricks, in the ghosts of former buildings: the stories of the region, the trades, the cults and the clans that once lived here and made Shanghai a merchant capital long before the western powers first appeared. This book is a gift to Shanghai, a survey and an epitaph of 900 years of an untold history, as the neighborhoods are being methodically erased.

The second volume, The Walled City, will be out Fall 2016.

Katya Kynaveza will speak to Historic Shanghai on Sunday, January 17 and lead a walk through the old city on Sunday, January 24; for details, please visit our Events page.


Shanghai Nightscapes: A Nocturnal Biography of a Global City, James Farrer & Andrew David Field

Shanghai Nightscapes

Perhaps nothing defined old Shanghai so much as its nightlife: the jazz cabarets that fused Chinese and Western culture; the dance halls, the nightclubs and ballrooms. This rich, comprehensive work draws on over 20 years of fieldwork, archival documents and interviews, to tell the story of Shanghai nightlife, from its beginnings in the 1920s to its 1980s revival and into the present.

Farrer and Field — the latter is also the author of Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954  spotlight a largely hidden world of nighttime pleasures — dancing, drinking and socializing that has flourished in Shanghai over the past century. Shanghai Nightscapes highlights the continuities in the city’s nightlife across a turbulent century, as well as the importance of the multicultural agents of nightlife in shaping cosmopolitan urban culture in China’s greatest global city — and completes an important piece of the story of old Shanghai.


Tea on the Great Wall: An American Girl in Wartime China, Patricia Luce Chapman

Tea on the Great Wall-Cover-750

Patricia Luce Chapman’s vibrant memoir is a valuable addition to the pre-1949 histories of Shanghai, describing both the romance of old Shanghai – society parties, doting servants and tea on the Great Wall – alongside the fear and uncertainty of a changing world, as Nazi flags go up at school, Japanese warships crowd the harbor and emaciated opium addicts crowd the streets.

Chapman’s lively tale captures Shanghai during its first, legendary, “Golden Age” with the freshness of a child’s perspective. Little Patty Potter wonders if the warships anchored by the Bund hold teddy bears for her, plays warlords with her brother, and becomes indignant at the plight of the city’s rickshaw men. Throughout, she is a keen observer of her beloved Shanghai, of the people, of Chinese ways and etiquette, and of the news of the day, which deeply affected both her businessman father and her journalist mother.

Drawing on her own memories, her mother’s writings and father’s well-documented scrapbooks. Chapman brings to life a China long past, including rare glimpses of the northern China summer resorts of Wei Hai Wei and Shanhaiguan. It is Chapman’s gift for telling this story of a place and a people she loves, and the insights it offers into China today, that makes this a must-read.

For our interview with Patricia Luce Chapman, click here.


Gunboat Justice: British and American Law Courts in China and Japan, 1842-1943, vols. 1-3, by Douglas Clark

Gunboat Justice Cover-Vol1_0

Douglas Clark, a lawyer by trade, tells the story of the British and American court systems in China, which arose as a result of the extraterritoriality rules that accompanied the treaties that forced China (and Japan and Korea) to open to trade.

Clark, fluent in both Mandarin and Japanese, extensively researched this three-volume series over many years, and as a result, this book comes to life with a fascinating cast of characters on and before the bench, and brings the period to life with the many challenging issues the courts faced: war, riots, rebellion, corruption, murder, infidelity, and even a failed hanging in a British jail in Shanghai.
Adding to its richness, the book contains over 300 contemporaneous cartoons, illustrations and photos of the judges, lawyers, court cases and historical events that affected the courts.

French Concession: A Novel, by Xiao Bai


Shanghainese novelist Xiao Bai makes his English language debut with this heart-stopping literary noir, a richly atmospheric tale of espionage and international intrigue, set in Shanghai in 1931—an electrifying, decadent world of love, violence, and betrayal filled with femme fatales, criminals, revolutionaries, and spies.

The action, revolving around an assassination attempt, involves a photojournalist (half French, half Chinese) who finds himself unwittingly caught in various conspiracies, with two love interests: Therese, a White Russian arms dealer, and a Chinese woman revolutionary.

What makes this book so delightful for fans of Shanghai history is the author’s use of rich and correct historical detail – it’s clear that he has tapped English, French, and Chinese archival materials, from newspapers to diaries and official documents; photographs from the 1920s and 1930s, maps, films and novels.  Streets, shops, makes of cars, and foreign items are mentioned; you can almost see it as a film …


Books we’re looking forward to in 2016:

Ultra-Modernism: Architecture and Modernity in Manchuria, by Edward Denison

The Where’s Where of the Who’s Who of Old Shanghai: Final Five Shanghai Walks by Kate Baker, Patrick Cranley, Spencer Dodington, Tess Johnston, Tina Kanagaratnam & Carolyn Robertson

Shanghai Old Town: Topography of a Phantom City: Volume II, The Walled City, by Katya Knyazeva & Adam Sinykin

2 responses to “Historic Shanghai’s Best Books of 2015”

  1. Pearl Wang says:

    Hi! I wonder if you sell these books online.

    • Tina Kanagaratnam says:

      Hello Pearl! Thanks for reading the blog! We don’t sell the books, but if you click the links in each title, it will take you to the Amazon or an online bookseller page, where you can order the book. Happy reading!

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