When the yoga instructor says “Go to your happy place,” I go to Shanghai in the 1930s. I’m not being facetious. In the years between the two world wars, Shanghai had an abundance of a priceless commodity that the world finds in such short supply today: freedom. I’ve spent much of my life looking for a city where outsiders can pursue personal liberty without undue interference.
Berlin during the Weimar Republic was at least two full generations before my time. I even missed, though only by a few years, the foreigners’ paradise that Tangier used to be. But Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s — that would have been the best time and place for westerners (if unfortunately often quite horrible for so many of its Chinese). The most important lines in Taras Grescoe’s invigorating new book Shanghai Grand (HarperCollins Canada, $32.99) are the ones reminding us that “Shanghai was unique among the world’s great cities in that it required no passports, visas, financial guarantees or certificates of character from new arrivals….” No strangling bureaucracy. To settle permanently in the Paris of the Orient, with its “afternoons at the races, evenings on the river and nightlife that continued well into the next morning,” one had only to show up.
The cosmopolitan and multicultural city that Shanghai became was the result of Britain’s victory in the Opium Wars of the mid-19th Century. Cities up and down the China coast and on the major rivers were declared treaty ports. That meant, among other things, that the British and Americans pocketed the customs and excise money and “could enjoy the benefits of colonial power without any of the costly responsibilities of actually administering a colony.”
Under the doctrine called extraterritoriality, foreigners living in Shanghai could not be prosecuted by the Chinese authorities. Rather, they would be dealt with in separate European and American courts established in the two enclaves known as the International Settlement and the French Concession, which also had their own separate police forces and the like. British, American and French citizens, along with exiled White Russians, were the most numerous non-Chinese residents, though there were also Germans, Filipinos, Koreans, Italians, Germans, Dutch — and an estimated 38 other nationalities. In 1935, Shanghai had a population of 3.5 million and was the world’s fifth-largest city (it now has 24.5 million and is ranked 18th in size).
Grescoe is a Montreal author, the scion of a notable Canadian journalistic family. He began writing travel narratives before branching out into a wide range of other nonfiction genres. But Shanghai Grand is more than that. It’s a beautifully constructed work that is equal parts history and romance. On the one hand, it’s a richly researched examination of the rise of the foreigners’ paradise and its destruction in successive wars. On the other, it’s a vivid reconstruction of a famous love affair of the period.
The main character in the latter drama is Emily Hahn (called Mickey), a highly prolific and charmingly eccentric American journalist and novelist, long associated with the New Yorker. She was an adventurous opium addict who favoured simians as friends (for instance, she travelled with a gibbon named Mr. Mills). She arrived in China as “a recovering flapper” and was befriended by the richest man in Shanghai, Sir Victor Sassoon, the suave real estate tycoon who built the famous Cathay Hotel. Like Hahn, he was a cultural Jew, but not a religious one. The history of his family’s wealth extended back a thousand years to the Bhasid caliphate in medieval Baghdad. His dress reminded people of the caricature of the millionaire on Monopoly cards, and he was the only Shanghailander (as the foreigners called themselves) to employ a full-time social secretary.
Hahn became romantically involved with the early modernist poet and publisher Zau Sinmay (now written Shao Xunmei), “the Verlaine of China,” who lost his family fortune, but tried to keep up appearances. As Grescoe writes: “In Republican-era Shanghai [1912–49], kidnappings made being a flâneur risky, so he usually opted to be chauffeured in his brown Nash sedan.” Zau and Hahn had a not-quite-official marriage. Later, she wed Charles Boxer, the head of British intelligence in wartime Hong Kong who is now better known as a famous historian of Dutch and Portuguese colonialism.
Hahn noted that “Shanghailanders seemed to look upon the Chinese as quaint — or infuriating — servants, dwellers in picturesque villages, or, at best, descendants of the emperors of a once-great civilization.” The racism that the Chinese had to endure was unrestrained, but the poverty in which so many of them lived was a common source of pity. Typical was a Los Angeles Times reporter on the scene who commented that Shanghai had “more cabarets, country clubs, lavish living and degrading misery than any port from Honolulu to Suez.” Aldous Huxley, one of the many literary figures driven to document the place, wrote of the crowded, dirty, lively city that “inspires something like terror.”
The dark side of the city
Viewed at street level, nine floors below the posh Tower Club in Sir Victor’s Cathay Hotel, life was brutal and often brief. A Capone-like figure named “Big-Eared” Du Yuesheng first became rich by smuggling opium inside coffins. He could be seen racing through the streets in a flashy automobile with tommygunners standing on the running boards. A reference book of Shanghai’s social elite characterized him as “one of the leading financiers, bankers and industrial leaders of China.” That is to say, he ran the dope trade in the International Settlement (and coincidentally was also the head of the Opium Suppression Bureau). His contemporary in the French Concession, “Pock-marked” Huang Jinrong, was leader of the justly feared Green Gang. He also ran the Sûreté’s detective squad. Karl Marx famously wrote that “religion is the opium of the people.” But in Shanghai opium was a kind of religion.
In the early 1930s, there were 20,000 beggars in the International Settlement. From time to time, the police would round up many of them and drive them through the countryside, tossing out a few at each town or village they encountered. “Disease and hunger often took care of the rest.” In 1935, the authorities had to deal with 5,960 corpses in the streets and lanes of the International Settlement. One year, a city-wide census of unclaimed bodies revealed 18,000 corpses. Shanghai was the location of the world’s biggest prison, the Ward Road Gaol. The city also had its own leper colony, at least until the Second World War — when almost everything else changed as well.
Japan invaded the northern reaches of China and by January 1932 was in open, large-scale warfare with Chiang Kai-shek’s Republican forces. Shanghai was at various times bombed and encroached on, but it didn’t fall to the Japanese army until 1937. By then it had a large population of Jewish refugees from Europe who saw it as “the port of last resort” after they had been refused entry to numerous other places. The Japanese, however, confined them to a new ghetto while leaving the foreign concessions more or less alone, at least for the time being. Asked about fears of what the Japanese might do, Mickey Hahn remarked, like a true Shanghailander, “I think the more scared you are, the better it is to go out dancing.” As Grescoe observes dryly, “The anesthetic qualities of opium almost certainly contributed to her neverthelessness.”
The above events were part of the Second Sino-Japanese War, but by the very early 1940s they had become instead a section of the Second World War’s East Asian theatre of operations as Hong Kong, Singapore and other places fell to the Japanese, one after another. In 1943, a large percentage of Shanghailanders — those who hadn’t left town when the going was still good — found themselves interned. The International Settlement was shut down, followed by the French Concession in 1946. The final blow to the wide-open days came in 1949, of course, when Chiang and his nationalist government fled Mao Zedong’s takeover and relocated themselves on Taiwan (then called Formosa). It was a dark time for what the Chinese referred to as bad hats (“spies, turncoats, and dope dealers”). In Grescoe’s phrase, “What the world gained in probity, it lost in romance.”
The scent of the old days still lingers in western nostrils after all these years.
Grescoe is writing as a historian, a traveller and a chronicler, but also as a strangely strong-minded sentimentalist. Sir Victor, Mickey Hahn and Zau Sinmay are wonderful characters to re-create. So are a number of the others in Shanghai Grand, such as Morris Abraham (Two-Gun) Cohen. He was, among other things, the bodyguard of Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who overthrew the old Empire and became president of the new Republic. Cohen had once been a very minor political figure in Edmonton. While in China, he acquired a shipment of Ross rifles, the weapon given Canadian soldiers in the Great War that proved so dangerous that it became a scandal that rattled Sir Robert Borden’s government. Cohen had a nice sideline selling the damn things to Chinese warlords. “How did he get away with a con like that?” I once asked someone with knowledge of the period. “Well,” he answered, “Cohen did have a grounding in Alberta politics.”
Yet, as the title of the book suggests without being blunt about it, the Cathay Hotel is Grescoe’s most important character. Renamed the Peace Hotel by the communists, it still dominates the Shanghai Bund, that exquisite row of 1920s skyscrapers that looks for all the world like the glory-days skylines of Cleveland and Buffalo or of Batman’s Gotham City. The last time I stayed at the Cathay, there were two large signs in the lobby, resting on easels. One informed guests that the hotel is far-famed for its clean linen and attention to hygiene. The other read: “Due to necessary renovations, the jazz band, which normally is to be found in our lobby, may now be heard on the eighth floor temporarily. Our apologies for any inconvenience. You are thanked.”
Reporters in prison
Once upon a time, the popular image of a foreign correspondent was of someone who was, above all else, dashing. These days, the stereotype is becoming that of a person who has been dashed: abused, shot at, imprisoned. In the past dozen or so years, a significant number of books have appeared about journalists who have run into serious trouble for doing their jobs. Two of the recent ones are by Vancouver journalists with connections to the University of British Columbia.
Deborah Campbell is an independent reporter who has worked in eight or nine Middle Eastern countries (and also in Russia and parts of Latin America). She is fluent in a number of the relevant languages and contributes to Foreign Policy, the Economist, the Guardian and other important periodicals. A decade after her student days at Tel Aviv University, she returned to Israel. The end result was her first book, This Heated Place, a controversial inquiry into the national psyche and the Israeli-Palestinian strife. It was published in 2002.
The following year saw the American-led invasion of Iraq, one consequence of which was the flood of two million Iraqi refugees who poured into Syria. In 2007, Campbell was in Damascus, undercover, writing about them and their rocky existence in a neighbourhood referred to as Little Baghdad. She is the kind of journalist who learns from and lives with (rather than merely visits) the people she’s covering. To help her get closer to her subjects, she hired an Iraqi woman named Ahlam. In the chaos of war and politics, the two became genuine friends, bonding through, for example, the discovery that the Syrian situation had greatly complicated their relations with their respective male partners. One day, Ahlam was grabbed by the secret police in front of Campbell’s eyes, disappearing into a prison. When freed, she managed to make a new life in Chicago, but everything she had been through (including a kidnapping) could not be erased. Campbell, a fine stylist, tells the whole heartbreaking story in A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War (Knopf Canada, $32). It’s a book that a reader will never forget — and one that deserves the awards it’s already won.
A somewhat similar horror story, told every bit as well, though with a happier ending, is The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey from Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom by Mohamed Fahmy and Carol Shaben (Random House Canada, $34.95). One fact that sets the book apart is that Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen, came to be seen as a sort of living martyr within the international journalistic profession. He was an experienced pro who had covered the start of the Iraq war for the Los Angeles Times and later became a familiar presence on CNN. He was named the Cairo bureau chief of Al Jazeera’s English-language arm in 2013. That was the year that Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president, was overthrown in a coup, an event that led to large-scale violence and mass arrests.
Among those jailed were Fahmy and two of his colleagues. They were accused of having been members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the political party that had been outlawed a few days earlier on the grounds of being a terrorist organization. The actual charge was electronic “defamation of Egypt” from a base the men rented in the Cairo Marriott hotel (hence the book’s title). The authorities labelled them a terrorist cell. It was no coincidence that Al Jazeera is funded by the government of Qatar, which had also lent financial support to Morsi.
One of the three colleagues, an Australian, was pardoned and sent home, but Fahmy and the third man, an Egyptian, remained in Scorpion Prison, a particularly horrific maximum security institution specializing in political prisoners and terrorists real and imagined. Under pressure from Britain, the U.S. and, of course, Canada (though the Harper government was criticized for doing so little), Fahmy was given a second trial. Found guilty once again, he received a sentence of three years. In the end, the redoubtable human rights lawyer Amal Clooney was able to do what John Kerry and others could not, and got him sprung. He, too, now teaches at UBC. The story that Fahmy and Shaben relate is stomach-turning in places. The writing is masterful. The book is being made into a feature film.
And finally …
In Spies in the Congo (Publishers Group Canada, $37.50) Susan Williams, a British academic, reveals what must surely be one of the very last secrets of the Second World War. In 1944, the U.S. needed to develop a reliable source of uranium for the Manhattan Project while also keeping the stuff out of Nazi hands. The best supply to be had was in Katanga province in the southeastern part of what was in those days (and until 1960) called the Belgian Congo. So Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime intelligence organization, the Office of Strategic Services or OSS, set up a shop in the capital, Léopoldville, a place that was already full of spies because the region was exporting copper, iron and rubber — commodities in demand by the various warring states.
The OSS is known for having recruited many staff with little or no military experience and/or absolutely none whatsoever in espionage. The group that was sent to the city now called Kinshasa was led by a civil engineer who wrote pulp fiction and staffed by, for example, two ornithologists and a woman who had been a friend of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. The engineer proved particularly adept at surviving assassination attempts.
In 1947, the OSS was supplanted by the new Central Intelligence Agency, which became even more alert in the region when the Soviet Union got “the Bomb” in 1949. The revenue from uranium sales was a godsend for the Belgian economy. When the Congo became independent, the Belgians, or most of them, went home, but the Americans remained. Indeed the CIA was an active presence there as recently as the late ’60s.
George Fetherling is a novelist and