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Historic Shanghai’s Best Books of 2018

Shanghai’s history could never be painted with a single brush, a single perspective, a single tale. Perhaps that’s true of all cities, but it’s especially so in this cosmopolitan metropolis, where east and west, communism and capitalism, tradition and revolution, coexisted. And to complicate things further, Shanghai’s is not an easy story to tell, because it is not one single story, but a mosaic of so many, many different ones. And remembering the past had dangerous consequences, so the stories of our past were often not spoken, not handed down.

So we count ourselves especially lucky to have this particular crop of books to tell Shanghai’s fascinating story. Each one reveals a different aspect, a different layer of old Shanghai – from the unsavory to the holy, the imperialists to the Communists, the lawyers, the Indians, the Chinese, the expatriates, each one casting new light on our city and her people.

Shanghai Lawyer: The Memoirs of America’s China Spymaster, by Norwood F. Allman, annotated, illustrated and embellished by Douglas Clark

Shanghai Lawyer

Norwood Allman’s memoir alone makes for a delightful and insightful read: Allman, the “Shanghai Lawyer” of the title, was also a diplomat, judge, politician, soldier, spy and spymaster, and a champion storyteller. First published in 1943, the book was out of print for decades, so we’re lucky to have this newly republished edition – and even luckier to have Douglas Clark’s embellishments, improving on an already excellent read. Clark, a former Shanghai lawyer himself and the author of Gunboat Justice, has added annotations 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.

In November 2018, Doug Clark led a Shanghai Lawyer walk for us – we’ll try to persuade him to do more walks and talks in 2019!

Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels, by Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao

RememberingShanghai-6x9-CV-FTWe’re big fans of the memoir genre at Historic Shanghai, and this one is one of our favorites, because  Remembering Shanghai is more than just a single-story memoir. 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). To read our review, click here.

Author Claire Chao led a Remembering Shanghai tour in March 2018, and she will join us again in March 2019 to lead another – stay tuned for details!

Goong Goong: from Tuscany to Shanghai: The Story of a Chinese Patriarch through the eyes of his Italian Daughter-in-Law by Patrizia Chen

Goong GoongWhen Italian native Patrizia Chen married her Chinese-American husband in the 1980s, she became captivated by the photographs of her in-laws’ glamorous life in Shanghai: the elegant soirees, the fancy cars, the fashionable people, the beautiful homes. But like so many who left Shanghai in the 1940s, her father-in-law, shipping magnate C.Y. Chen, was reticent about the past. Goong Goong is her journey of discovery of what lay behind those photos: a story of loss and rebuilding, of traditions transplanted.  The author of Rosemary and Bitter Oranges – a delightful culinary memoir about growing up in a Tuscan kitchen – Chen has a wonderful eye for detail and anecdote, and her descriptions of the family’s Shanghai food culture are reason enough to read this book.

City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai by Paul French

City of Devils

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 Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family by Jennifer Lin

Shanghai Faithful

ne of the most remarkable books we’ve read this year – or any year. 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.

Shanghai Occupied: A Boy’s Tale of World War II, by James G. Ling

Shanghai OccupiedJames Ling’s delightful memoir recounts, with wonderful detail, growing up in wartime Shanghai. The son of an American mother and a Chinese Ivy League-educated father with a doctorate in industrial chemistry. Ling’s was a privileged upbringing, with servants and vacations in Kuling, music and art lessons and time for building forts and playing with his tight group of best friends. His richly detailed anecdotes add color and life as only eyewitness accounts can, from heroin labs in his Verdun Gardens neighborhood to his Japanese-controlled school, food shortages, and his underground Boy Scout troop.

Imperial Twilight: Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt

Imperial TwilightThe Opium Wars opened an important chapter in the Shanghai story, and historian Stephen Platt (Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom) does a masterful job of telling the epic tale of how an ascendant, powerful China capitulated to the foreign barbarians.

This is no dry retelling of a worn story: Platt researched deeply and writes beautifully, and by weaving in historical characters – missionaries, drug smugglers, even a pirate queen – and novelistic detail, he creates a compelling narrative that makes for a great read, challenging the standard stereotypes with fresh perspectives.

Stray Birds on the Huangpu: A History of Indians in Shanghai, edited by Mishi Saran and Dr. Zhang Ke

Stray Birds on the HuangpuIndia, and Indians, has been part of the Shanghai story since the Opium Wars (where, after all, did the opium come from?) but until the publication of this bilingual anthology, their story was largely untold.  Chock-full of brand new historical material, Stray Birds tells the stories of this richly diverse and deeply rooted community – Bohra Muslims, Sindhis, Parsis, Sephardic Jews, Sikhs; from famous names like Sassoon and Tata, agitators in the name of Indian independence and anonymous servants of the Empire. The 21 contributors – journalists, writers, academics from both China and India dug into from archives and family holdings, interviewed elderly Indians who were born or grew up in Shanghai, and have provided a dazzling array of photographs as well as an old Shanghai directory of Indians.  For our review, click here. 

To order the book, click here.

In August 2018, Historic Shanghai was privileged to host a launch of Stray Birds on the Huangpu.

No Wall Too High, by Xu Hongci, Translated and Edited by Erling Hoh

No Wall Too HighUsing Xu Hongci’s original manuscript, journalist Erling Hoh tells the story of a smart, idealistic medical student at the Shanghai No. 1 Medical College, whose missteps during the late 1950s leads to being imprisoned in laogai, far from home. He was not the only one, of course, but he may have been the only one to escape. The story takes us from Xu’s childhood in Shanghai to his escape – hand-drawn maps included – and offers rare glimpses of 1950s and 60s Shanghai. Hoh’s terrific translation not only draws a fine portrait of the times, it creates the immediacy of being there with Xu: a historical prison break thriller! Hoh has also added historical background and epilogue on the rest of Xu’s life, which he spent in Shanghai.

What we’re looking forward to in 2019:

Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia (January 22, 2019)

Dramatic real-life stories of four young people caught up in the mass exodus from Shanghai in the wake of the 1949 Revolution.

Author Helen Zia will be in Shanghai in March, stay tuned for details.

Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin (January 22, 2019)

A coming-of-age novel, set in Shanghai’s Jewish ghetto during World War II.

Old Town, Part 2, by Katya Knyazeva (January 2019)

The much-awaited second part of a series on the disappearing old town.



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