Interview: Paul French talks drugs, blackmail and brothels in 1930s Shanghai

The award-winning author on his latest book City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir

Photograph: Sue Anne Tay
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.

Drugs, 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?
I 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.

02b - Riley baseball pic
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?
It 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.

But 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.

010b - Slot machines at the Arcadia Russian Restaurant & Nightclub 1940
Photograph: courtesy Katya Knyazeva (Slot machines at Arcadia Russian Restaurant and Nightclub).

What drew you to Riley and Farren?
I 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.

I 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.

C_F_ front cover_CityofDevils-152x230_16mm (1)
Image: courtesy Penguin

Are there any landmarks from the book that are still around?
No, 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.

On 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.

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