With his latest work, City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir,
best-selling author Paul French catapults readers into the chaotic world
of Shanghai in the 1930s. The book follows frenemies Jack Riley and Joe
Farren, their glamorous nightclubs
and gambling empire, and the shady characters they meet along the way.
It’s a scandalous and dark tour of the city’s International Settlement
nearly a century ago made even more exciting by the fact that it’s true.
Here French introduces the book, and talks street food and the disappearance of old Shanghai.
blackmail and brothels for bored housewives – you document some pretty
outrageous stuff that went down in this city. Did you know that 1930s
Shanghai was this wild when you started researching the book?
was familiar with the Badlands area to the west. When we think about
Shanghai, we have an image about excess. About nightclubs and drugs and
guns. But even for me, someone who read about and walked around old
Shanghai for 20 years, I didn’t realise or fully appreciate how totally
lawless it was or how big it was.
Photograph: courtesy Penguin (Jack Riley reproduced from North-China Daily News, 1936).
What about Shanghai at the time made it such a magnet for criminal activity?
was this impossible period between summer 1937 and 1941 when the city
was surrounded and because of the Japanese, the police are ineffective,
the Chinese gangs have left, and the foreigners find themselves in
charge of all the criminal activity. There’s no law and order and the
city is filled with people that can’t leave because they have nowhere
else to go.
The book follows two people: ‘slots
king’ Jack Riley can’t leave because he’s a wanted man who skipped out
on a prison sentence in the United States. Joe Farren, the man behind
the city’s best nightclubs, can’t go anywhere because he’s an Austrian
Jew. He doesn’t have a passport after 1937. They’re sort of stuck, so
they have to stay and try to make money and do the best they can.
even with all of this going on, you still couldn’t make as much money
anywhere else as you could here. People were making buckets of money
with basically no tax.
Photograph: courtesy Katya Knyazeva (Slot machines at Arcadia Russian Restaurant and Nightclub).
What drew you to Riley and Farren?
lived in here for a long time and very much wanted to write about the
city, but I didn’t have any characters. I got derailed when I came
across the Midnight in Peking murder
which took place in Beijing around the same time period.
had read about Joe [Farren] and Jack [Riley] separately – I knew about
Joe’s glamorous nightclubs and to me, that was the cool Shanghai that we
like to think about. Jack had this incredible backstory that you just
can’t make up. When I looked into it, I discovered this frenemy
relationship where they needed each other but they didn’t trust each
other. It was always going to end up a disaster.
Image: courtesy Penguin
Are there any landmarks from the book that are still around?
not really. I find [Shanghai] a bit more difficult now because they’ve
knocked so much down. It’s like Beijing – you used to be able to walk
all day without leaving the hutongs. Shanghai is going the same way.
That’s not to say that people going to Shanghai won’t be able to see old
things or won't be able to have fun. It’s just that it’s changed a lot.
one hand, I am just being an old fart. But on the other hand there has
been a terrible devastation of heritage. I think that later generations
will look back and say ‘we didn’t need to do all that, it was just
greed.’ While the landmarks are disappearing, the one thing here that
doesn’t change is the food. When you get a jianbing or youtiao, it’s cooked and tastes exactly the same as it would’ve done then. Things change but food is pretty constant.
City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir is available at amazon.cn for 184RMB.