Paul French’s latest book reconstructs Jazz Age Shanghai in sin and splendor

Shanghai between the two world wars was a city of many names and reputations—both the Paris of the East and the Whore of the Orient. It was also a city of a refuge, and “a home,” writes Paul French in his latest book, City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir, “to those with nowhere to go and no one else to take them in.”

Among the “flotsam and jetsam” were European Jews fleeing Fascism, Russians escaping Bolshevism, Chinese peasants looking to get away from the grinding poverty and chaos of the Chinese countryside, and, later, the surge of the Japanese Imperial Army. There were also adventurers seeking their fortune and escaped convicts looking to evade the long arm of the state.

Shanghai was not a colony; it was a concession. In the waning days of the imperial era, it had been, at best, a lopsided and frequently improvised collaboration between the Qing state and various foreign powers. With the final demise of the Qing Empire in 1912, China entered a period of prolonged instability, including periods where the term “failed state” would easily apply. Despite the turmoil and war of early 20th-century China, Shanghai—neither a formal outpost of colonial power, nor locally governed municipality—became both a zone of stability and a refuge for the stateless.

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author Jeremiah Jenne

Jeremiah Jenne is a writer and historian based in Beijing since 2002. He earned his PhD from the University of California, Davis, and has taught Late Imperial and Modern Chinese History for over 15 years. His essays and articles on China have appeared in The Economist, the South China Morning Post, The Journal of Asian Studies, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The World of Chinese. His writings can also be found in China in “2008: A Year of Great Significance,” “The Insider’s Guide to Beijing,” and the 2015 collection “While We’re Here: China Stories from a Writer’s Colony.” Jeremiah frequent speaks and leads workshops on history, culture, and cultural adaptation for students, embassies, companies, and community groups. Along with David Moser, Jeremiah also hosts the podcast Barbarians at the Gate.

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