I have known Paul French for many years, and I knew that he was working on a book that would bring to life the stories of long forgotten characters who once populated the city’s nocturnal world of entertainment, vice, and sin—intriguing characters like Joe Farren and Jack Riley and many others. So when Paul’s new book City of Devils came out in March, I headed over to Garden Books in Shanghai and picked up a copy (unfortunately I couldn’t make it to his talks as I was out of town at the time). Over the next month I devoured his novel in a series of late-night readings. Sure enough, it rekindled my own memories of the many years I spent in archives and libraries digging into the history of the city in its glorious (inglorious?) heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. Reading this “Shanghai noir” also conjured up a few dreams of those days as well. This is a book that I believe will stand the test of time, not as a history of the era per se, but rather as a rich evocation and literary reconstruction of a lost and submerged world populated with the colorful characters who once made Shanghai famous worldwide for its nightlife. So I decided to hold an online interview with Paul and send him some questions about his latest book. Here are my questions and his answers:
AF: First, let me congratulate you on your achievement! This is the book about Old Shanghai we’ve all been waiting for. It’s grounded in real history but it reads like a novel. If Fred Wakeman were still alive today, I’m sure he’d be over the moon about City of Devils. For those of us who have spent many years combing the libraries and archives to research the history of Shanghai, this book carries with it the ring of authenticity. It captures in fine gritty detail the dark and seedy underbelly of the “Paradise of Adventurers” in its heyday. So, my first question to you is, what originally prompted you to write this book?
PF: Thanks! I’m always trying to write for a wide audience but I still appreciate positive comments from the China hands and Old Shanghailanders. Frederic Wakeman’s work on Shanghai in this period was very influential and inspiring to me when I first read it. I then ended up living on Xinhua Lu for many years which was once in the old Western Roads Area that transformed into the “Shanghai Badlands” after the Japanese attack on Shanghai in summer 1937. My work concentrates on the underbelly of the foreign experience in China – the criminals, conmen, grifters, “white flowers” and so on and this area became a magnet for them being largely beyond the law at the time.
AF: In your book City of Devils, you focus on two Shanghai characters in particular. One is the Austrian dance impresario and ballroom entertainment organizer and later nightclub/casino owner Joe Farren. The other is an American ex-con named Jack Riley, who became the Slot Machine King of Shanghai. What drew you to these two characters in the first place?
PF: I really wanted to tell the story of the city at this time but needed characters that represented the elements of the city’s trajectory that I wanted to focus on. Both Joe Farren and Jack Riley are prime examples of men who came to Shanghai and reinvented themselves. They found themselves (not by chance – the city attracted them for many reasons) in a city where changing your name and background was the norm, where millions of Chinese from across the country were also changing their names and identities, where the city itself was transforming into a modern metropolis. Both men were legends in the city’s nightlife milieu and that they came together to create the largest nightclub and casino in Shanghai’s history seemed a good story. Of course it wasn’t a marriage made in heaven!
AF: Much of the tension and drama in the story you tell in City of Devils revolves around the complex, dynamic relationship between the city’s police and justice system and its criminal underworld. Of course, the Japanese occupiers add a great deal of extra tension to the climax of the story. How do your main characters and the story fit within the matrix of the city’s complex history of policing, governance and crime? And what does their story reveal about Shanghai during those times?
PF: The Shanghai treaty port of course is an eternal contradiction. It’s a creation of imperialism and gunboat diplomacy, of unequal treaty. Yet, it became a sanctuary and a haven – to Chinese fleeing the Taiping and later warlords, poverty, disease, natural disaster. It became a haven for the anti-Bolshevik “White” Russians and then European Jews escaping fascism. It was also, due to its almost unique constitution, a haven for criminals and those wishing to disappear and reinvent themselves. The justice system – extraterritoriality – was (without writing an essay explaining it all) over complicated and problematic. Policing the multicultural city was equally problematic. In many ways Shanghai worked very well (if you like your capitalism freebooting and your welfare system virtually non-existent); in others it failed totally – poverty was of course as extreme as wealth in the city. The gradual collapse of the policing and justice system – the collapse that allowed the Badlands to be created and persist, for crime to spiral out of control and for many of the event in City of Devils to occur was primarily the Japanese attack on the city. City of Devils is set largely during the Gudao, or “solitary island” period when the foreign concessions were surrounded by the occupying Japanese army. To have maintained a functioning police and justice system at this time of all out war would have been impossible really.
AF: As a historian of Shanghai and its nightlife, I can testify that City of Devils is deeply rooted in the real history of the city’s nocturnal life as well as the myriad other aspects of the city’s history. You obviously spent a great deal of time researching this book. Can you describe some particular moments during the course of your research when you achieved a major breakthrough in identifying the contours and substance of your story?
PF: City of Devils is all about the links. It’s about placing people in relationship to each other and the events, venues and crimes of the times. Obviously most of these people are engaged in illicit activities in one form or another – they don’t talk about it, they don’t leave memoirs or confessions. So there’s an element of taking the evidence you can – from the newspapers, police and intelligence reports, any other sources you can find – and piecing it together. I’ll admit you then have to made a guess, but hopefully it’s an informed one. If you look, for instance, at the opium shipments going from Shanghai to organized criminals in New York in the 1930s we have so many scraps of evidence, hear say and rumour but no definitive account. But I think we can put them all together and arrive at a plausible explanation of how these deals and smuggling routes worked. Again, when the underworld of foreign Shanghai fell out and went to war with itself (as underworlds always do!) we have no definitive accounts but we can put together the scraps of evidence to work out, plausibly, why gang war broke out.
AF: The style of City of Devils is quite interesting. You adopt a narrative voice that remains consistent overall, yet which seems to change in its tone and style with the characters and stories you are telling at any particular moment. It also moves freely back and forth between past and present tense. Was that an intentional strategy on your part or did it come out organically during the writing process?
PF: I write what I consider to be literary non-fiction. I also try to fit the style of the work to the subject matter and time period. My previous book, Midnight in Peking, was the same period but was a more procedural account of a murder and followed that style. City of Devils is a “noir” – in noir, unlike say an Agatha Christie, there is no one murder to solve that brings justice but rather society is the criminal, we’re all guilty to one extent or another. In a noir the protagonist is not a detective, but rather a victim and often self-destructive. Jack and Joe, their friends, colleagues, enemies, are all in this category.
As to tense I tried to stay present when we are in the action and with the characters on their journey. However, it’s a complicated period in a past Shanghai that is now very much (to sort of quote LP Hartley) a foreign country and so there needs to be some background and historical context and that’s in past tense. Hopefully it reads fairly seamlessly in the end!
AF: There seem to be many literary influences in City of Devils. I detect a splash of Spillane, a dash of Hammett, a lick of Le Carre, and even a pinch of Pynchon. Knowing you to be a voracious reader of noir fiction, can I ask whom you yourself see as your main literary influences?
PF: Well probably everyone is in there. I think the major influences on this book were a combination of neo-noir writers like James Ellroy (particularly his seminal LA Confidential) and David Peace (both his Red Riding Quartet and his current Tokyo Year Zero trilogy). I think Le Carréis an influence and Joseph Kanon but I felt from the start that City of Devils had to be quite highly stylized, even if that might be off-putting or a hard read (and there’s nothing wrong with hard reads!) to some readers. The style is part of the overall historical immersion process, the language can take you back there along with maps, pictures etc. For me that’s when literary non-fiction works best – that immersion of story, style and content.
AF: While reading City of Devils, I couldn’t help but feel that you walk a thin line between the literary genres of historical fiction and literary non-fiction. On the one hand, as somebody who has read through hundreds of memoirs, newspaper articles, government and police archives from that era, I have no doubt of the authenticity and historical veracity of many of the characters and scenarios you paint in your book. On the other hand, I can sense that you’ve taken certain liberties and leaps of faith in the process of telling the story. Can you explain how you were able to navigate between the two realms of non-fictional and fictional storytelling, and in which realm do you feel your book ultimately lies?
PF: You’re quite right, I do take some liberties. But here’s my defence! Firstly, I’m dealing with underworld characters, criminals (quite serious and nasty ones in some cases) and they work hard to obscure themselves (Jack Riley burnt his fingertips off!), their lives and their crimes. It’s not the same as writing a biography of Carl Crow (which I did and had his whole archive that I could verify in numerous above-the-board ways) or foreign correspondents in China (again with great archives and verifiable). The cast of City of Devils, just as with so many of the cast of Midnight in Peking, are not easily revealed and so some calculated guesswork and justifiable liberties have to be taken. But these people were real, they existed and they were an important part of the Shanghailander community that is under-explored. Probably, due to the problem of incomplete and inaccurate, conflicting sources, academics won’t delve too deeply into these people because the sources are too problematic for scholarly research. But for me, and certainly I think for readers, these people are catnip!!
Secondly, these are massive stories with many characters but they have to be fitted into a coherent narrative and 90,000 to a 100,000 words. If I used all the research I had on all the characters, locations, the back stories and the history of Shanghai at the time City of Devils would be 500,000 words and you’d need a truck to get it home. It can’t be, so some condensing has to occur. I always try to point out to the reader where I might have made a shortcut. However, I never totally invent anybody, anywhere or anything.
So I think this is literary non-fiction rather than creative non-fiction or historical fiction.
AF: I have to admit that as a historian, I was hoping you would supply references, i.e. footnotes. You do have a brief acknowledgement section at the end of City of Devils (thanks for including my work on Shanghai nightlife) and it is obvious that you relied heavily on English-language newspapers of the era such as the North China Daily News, China Weekly Review, and China Press. What were some of the other key sources you used to research the book? And where did you conduct your research?
PF: I toyed for ages with the idea of doing footnotes. I did include them in Midnight in Peking so people could access the necessary archive files if they wanted to verify or investigate the story themselves (and some people did, coming to radically different conclusions from me!!). But ultimately I felt City of Devils was too layered and the sources too multiple throughout to really be able to footnote it properly. Newspapers may tell one story, the Shanghai Municipal Police files another, the notations from the Shanghai intelligence service (Special Branch) another, memoirs yet another, a personal anecdote told to me once more gives a version. In the end the stories within City of Devils are multi-layered composites derived from so many sources. What was Joe Farren like? The newspapers talk of one man; dancers who worked for him (I spoke to a couple) talk of another; those who disliked him yet another and so on. What was he really like? I have tried to pull him together. Similarly so with technical details – how did the opium smuggling out of Shanghai to New York work? Well, there’s the US Justice Department and FBI reports, the SMP reports, Special Branch again, the French Concession Guard Civil and Sûretéreports, the newspapers, the few court cases that happened in America and Shanghai, gossip from journalists at the time etc etc. I’ve combined all these to try and work it out – show how it happened and how it worked. It’s an educated best guess.
Similarly so with the final battles in the Badlands and other events – we’ll never know the full truth. Think of the, what should be, fairly simple fight between Jack Riley and the jazz musician Buck Clayton at the Canidrome. I know you know that event well and have written about it. But there are multiple versions of that fight and what caused it, who arranged it, why Jack started the fight, what were the machinations occurring behind-the-scenes. Again, in City of Devils, I’ve recreated that fight and the reasons for it as best I can. It’s the old problem that happens in every courtroom everyday – Jack started the fight but never publicly said why; Buck got in a fight with Jack but didn’t necessarily know why the fight was started; witnesses all saw different things and understood the fight from different angles and outcomes. If there is a “fog of war” then there’s definitiely a “fog of old Shanghai” – but its massive fun trying to see through the mist!!
AF: You make some references in City of Devils to memoirs by Whitey Smith, Buck Clayton, and John Pal. Do you have a short list of memoirs from people who experienced the times firsthand that you’d recommend to others?
PF: Well, all three of those are important and kudos to yourself and Graham Earnshaw for bringing back Whitey Smith to a new generation. I also think JB Powell’s My 25 Years in China (1945), the great journalist is worth reading and Hallett Abend, the long time New York Times correspondent, with his My Life in China (1943). Ralph Shaw’s Sin City (1971) is a MUST – a former British soldier turned North-China Daily News hack who, unlike everyone else really, talks about the politics and the city, but also about the sex and the drugs. Shaw’s memoir is really unique (excepting perhaps Hendrik De Leeuw’s Cities of Sin, 1934). I also think that Vanya Oakes’s book White Man’s Folly (1944) is an excellent and largely forgotten read.
AF: You and I collaborated on a book about Mu Shiying, the 1930s avant-garde writer who might be called the F. Scott Fitzgerald of Shanghai for his depictions of the nightlife. Do I detect some influences from Mu Shiying’s rather unique writing style in City of Devils?
PF: Yes, Mu is definitely in the mix as are other Shanghai modernists from that period. Publishing your translations of Mu in the RAS Shanghai book series was important to me, along with Anne Witchard’s Lao She in London. Positioning Chinese modernist writers within the global modernist movement – along with and often the equals of Joyce, Woolf, Barnes, Musil etc etc (choose your own favourites) – is a very important contribution to modernist studies. I am inspired by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, a great modernists writer (who I admit is not always popular or politically correct these days, to say the least!) as well as Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929).
However, I’m a voracious reader so who knows where inspiration comes from – Ellroy and Peace as I mentioned earlier for their neo-noirs; also Megan Abbott for her noir novels. Thinking of Shanghai I can’t ignore Malraux’s 1933 La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate) or Riichi Yokomitsu’s novel Shanghai (1931) when thinking of Shanghai writing. I love to include rumour, gossip and superstitions from the time in my work (again, problematic for the scholar, but not for me) and I know readers loved that element of Midnight in Peking (fox spirits etc). I’m not sure many people read him nowadays but Jacques Yonnet’s Rue des maléfices (1954) is very inspirational.
I can’t help but be inspired by the work of Robert Modiano is creating the ‘full immersion’ in the past I’m trying to achieve – he specializes in occupied Paris. The spy writer Alan Furst is also excellent at that (in all his novels) and Don Winslow’s Isle of Joy (2011) about 60s New York.
I could go on and on about great books but…
AF: I couldn’t help but notice that City of Devils focuses almost exclusively on western characters and that Chinese characters mostly seem to appear mainly in the background. Is this a fair observation and if so, why did you make this choice?
PF: Yes, I think it’s fair – my work is about the foreign community in Shanghai. This book in particular is about that period between August 1937 and December 1941 when the local gangsters (essentially the Green Gang and Du Yuesheng) had effectively collapsed and exited the scene. In this extraordinary few years before the total Japanese occupation the foreign gangsters were dominant at a time of collapsing law and order.
As far as I can tell there was very little cross-over or contact between the Shanghainese gangs and the Shanghailander gangs. They largely existed in separate worlds. The foreign gangsters had to deal with the Japanese (which is reflected in the book) but not with the Chinese (except, later, with the demands of the Wang Jing-wei puppet collaborator administration). If you look at the lives of Jack Riley, down on Blood Alley, and Joe Farren in the ballrooms (where Chinese were often customers) their interaction with Chinese Shanghai was pretty limited.
AF: You lived in Shanghai for many years and obviously you developed a deep fondness for the city and its history. Are there any parallels that you observe between those bygone days you write about in City of Devils and the more recent past of the city?
PF: No, none. Firstly, the Shanghai I write about was a treaty port – run by foreigners, largely for foreigners. Obviously that’s not the case now. Secondly, the excesses foreigners indulged in during that period were far more excessive than anything allowed or permissible now. Some may disagree but there’s no comparison in terms of alcohol, gambling, drugs, prostitution etc. Third, the city was in crisis, China was at war – Shanghai surrounded, cut off, China in a total battle for its very survival. Fourth, there was extreme wealth in Shanghai as there is now (though, it was classier then!) but also extreme poverty (thousands of dead bodies picked up off the street every year; you walked home at dawn from your casino past dead bodies in 1940!) and that’s now largely a thing of the past. And lastly, we just ain’t nowhere having the class of that period and I do not consider that statement up for debate!! A few nightclubs (and compared to New York or London in the 1980s those Shanghai nightclubs of the 1990s were fun, but pretty tame) don’t make a Badlands!
AF: You inject City of Devils with a stunning variety of lingo, including German, Yiddish, Chinese, Shanghainese, and Russian. You also put in a lot of fine details about things, ranging from food and drink to weapons to institutions that are lost to the collective memory. You must have a great deal of confidence in your readers to be able to appreciate these fine details from a lost and forgotten world. What sort of readership do you envision for City of Devils?
PF: A general readership, such as I got with Midnight in Peking. I don’t think I can quantify my readership anymore – Midnight in Peking has sold over 250,000 copies in English and however many in 14 other languages. That’s too many people to define I think. City of Devils has a first print run of 100,000 in the US, 30,000 in the UK etc – so, again (if anyone buys all those books!) the readership is too diverse to define. China fans, true crime fans, noir fans, history, gangsters…who knows? Of course the crossover (being a China specialist essentially but writing literary true crime) is where you build a large readership and where it all gets much more interesting in terms of interacting with your readership
I think there are some challenges in reading City of Devils – you have to get to grips with period language in multiple lingos, there are a lot of period-specific references, as you note. But I think to talk down and dumb down to the reader would be a greater insult. I find readers come from all levels of knowledge and they have Google (and do use it) and are curious. People also love words and they enjoy being confronted with new (or rather old) terms. So many reviews of Midnight in Peking claimed to enjoy words like “tiffin” and “rickshaw puller” etc – again, the language is crucial to the historical immersion process, it’s part of what (if the book works) combines to take you back to 1940 Shanghai.
AF: While reading City of Devils, I felt there was a dreamlike quality to your narrative and storytelling technique. Although I completed my book Shanghai’s Dancing World many years ago now, I still have frequent dreams about conducting research in libraries and archives and finding a lost treasure trove of documents or books that sheds additional light on this forgotten world. I wonder if you too have experienced these sorts of dreams since you undertook this project?
PF: Of course – and it happens sometimes. It’s also the case that once a book comes out so do the sources you never found (and could never have found as they were in someone’s attic). Since publishing City of Devils in March in only China and Hong Kong I’ve had some new photos I’d not seen before of the characters sent to me, old advertising for Joe Farren cabarets, some gossip I didn’t know on Joe’s wife and some relatives of other characters turn up. I can only imagine what will turn up when the book appears in the UK and US.
However, I don’t dream of being in libraries and archives – I dream of being front row at the Canidrome nightclub when Buck plays and his wife Derby sings; I dream of drinking beer on Blood Alley with Jack Riley to the wee small hours; or smoking a pipe of opium with the “China Coaster Dame” Babe Sadlir and; mostly, I dream of winning a million silver Mexican dollars at Farren’s casino.
AF: I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that things don’t turn out too well for Joe Farren. Is what you describe in the Bridge House based on written testimony of what really happened to him there, or is it a composite image from other testimonials about the Bridge House?
PF: Here’s what we know about Joe Farren – he was arrested by the Japanese and taken to the imfamous and notoriously cruel bridge House interrogation centre by the Japanese. What happened inside to him personally we’ll never know so, yes, it was built up from a composite of testimonies we do have. There’s no reason to think anything less cruel or less terrible happened to Joe.
AF: Other than Jack and Joe, what characters did you become most attached to while researching and writing this story? And what else would you like to know about the people who survived those times?
PF: The gals – Nellie Farren put up with a cheating husband but kept it classy throughout; Nazedha equally kept it all together when Jack went on rampages; Babe Sadlir fought the opium, lost, fought it again and always looked a million dollars; Larissa Andersen survived Joe’s attentions and became a top billed dancer and later a great poet. I also have deep affection for the great Alexander Vertinsky (just go to Spotify and listen to his singing), an amazing entertainer and a Russian gentleman so emblematic of his troubled times.
AF: Final question: what’s next for you?
PF: City of Devils ends on December 8th 1941, Pearl Harbour (it was already the 8th of course in Shanghai across the international date line). My next book starts after the war, after the liberation of Shanghai by the Americans. It covers those final few years when Shanghai was worn out and run down, a city of blackmarketeering, deserting nationalist soldiers, criminal gangs, rampant stagflation, Displaced Persons (all those Russians and Jews), as well as many Shanghainese desperately needing to get out and the final end of it all coming as the Communists approach. It was a desperate time – it’s kind of Graham Greene’s The Third Man comes to the Huangpu. I don’t think that Shanghai has been really done in detail and well so I’m taking that on – hopefully with some flashbacks to Japanese occupied wartime Shanghai and how the foreign underbelly, in many cases, just went right on operating.
It’ll be grim, gritty and noir again – and, like everything I ever write, I doubt they’ll be a happy ending; I just don’t do them!! Kirkus just reviewed City of Devils and described it as ‘Casablanca without any heroes’ – I couldn’t be more happy than to get that review!!