In 'City of Devils,'British author Paul French uncovers a hidden Shanghai

Li Shiyu China Plus Published: 2018-04-13 15:39:02
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In 2011, a real-life crime story titled "Midnight in Peking" hit the book shelves and soon became a literary sensation. 

Trying to solve a murder mystery that occurred in Beijing months before the Japanese invasion, this gripping historical non-fiction has not only made its way into the New York Times bestselling list, but has also put its author Paul French into the limelight. 

Trying to solve a real-life murder that occured in Beijing in 1937, Paul French's New York Times bestseller "Midnight in Peking" has won nods both critically and commercially.[Cover:Courtesy of Penguin Random House North Asia]

Trying to solve a real-life murder that occured in Beijing in 1937, Paul French's New York Times bestseller "Midnight in Peking" has won nods both critically and commercially.[Cover:Courtesy of Penguin Random House North Asia]

Recently, this award-winning writer made a strong comeback with yet another whodunit, City of Devils. 

But this time, instead of Beijing, Paul French takes us back to Shanghai in its licentious 1930s and 40s, where some of the most dodgy, eccentric, and villainous criminals the city had ever seen thrived before their downfall. 

In today's episode, our reporter Shiyu sat down with Paul to talk about his new book, his fascination with early 20th century China, and how crime literature has become the lens into history.  

Lived and worked in China for almost two decades, London-born  Paul French a widely published journalist andcommentator on China and has written a number of books, including a history of foreign correspondents in China and a biography of the legendary Shanghai adman, journalist andadventurer Carl Crow.[Photo by Sue Anne Tay/Courtesy of Penguin Random House North Asia]

Lived and worked in China for almost two decades, London-born Paul French a widely published journalist and commentator on China and has written a number of books, including a history of foreign correspondents in China and a biography of the legendary Shanghai adman, journalist andadventurer Carl Crow. [Photo: Taken by Sue Anne Tay/Courtesy of Penguin Random House North Asia]

Some highlights of the interview:

On why China in the first half of the 20th century piques his interest  

On the one hand, that is one of the most incredible times in world history and also an incredible time in Chinese history. Thinking about Sun Yat-sen, the 1911 Evolution of Xinhai, the whole warlord period, and then the Japanese attacks on China, this was an incredible time for China and there were so many foreigners here. Partly because places like Shanghai were treaty ports that had been sort of annex from China by foreign countries, but also because there were so many people from the West who were fascinated by China and they came to China as well. Not just to Shanghai, but also to Beijing, and up to Tianjin, Harbin, Shenyang, and all across China. So in that way, there were so many fascinating characters around. You know, we live in a very peaceful time at the moment. But the first half of the 20th century was basically a time of chaos, upheaval and revolution. Everything was up for grasp. To me, it's like what they call the "honey pot."There is always more to go back for. For someone who wants to write, who wants characters, there were so many great characters in China at that time. 

On how Shanghai attracted a great number of foreigners in the 1930s    

There really wasn't any police. I mean there were police. But there weren't many laws. It was kind of a crazy city, because Shanghai was the only city in the world where you can turn up without a visa, without a passport. You can get off the boat, walk into the city, tell them any name you wanted, which didn't have to be your real name, tell them any age you wanted, completely invent your whole past, and just live your life. It was an incredibly open city. There is no city like that now. It was also called Paris of the East, because it was such a beautiful city because of the architecture, the décor architecture and modernist architecture. It was always a very modern city. If you look at the history of Chinese cinema, the history of Chinese publishing and graphic design, it was always where new ideas came into China. The great writers always lived there one time or another, such like Lu Xun. The communist party of China was also founded in Shanghai. That was new idea at the time. Of course, the origin of Shanghai was embarrassing, because it comes from the Opium War. It was a city forced from China by Britain. But out of the city, it comes with this kind of the place where so many Chinese people went during things like the Taiping Rebellion. Lots of Chinese came to Shanghai because it was safe and it had foreign soldiers there who could protect it. For a long time, even after 1937, when Japan invaded China, the international part of the city was still safe from the Japanese. So many, many more Chinese came from the northern districts. In that sense, it was always a place of refuge. Even though it had this colonial, imperial history, it was always many times a place that saves people's life, whether there would be Russian, Jewish, or Chinese from disasters that were happening elsewhere. 

On why depicts Old China by writing crime non-fictions

I am not really obsessed with crime, murder, or anything like that. I think the thing about crime, it's that when a crime happens, particularly a murder, the police have to go into every aspect of life. You cannot keep any secrets. They have to know anything about your life. So if you are really a historian trying to look at China, if you can find a good murder that happened, you can look at every single aspect of the society, because the police reports and newspapers and everything will reveal this. I think that is the reason why contemporary crime is so popular, because it shows us all sort of things about our society. So I think that's such a good way of writing about what's going in Shanghai at that time, because it reveals all goes-on, and I also don't want to write about people who are doing very well, such as diplomats, business people, and journalists. I also want to find out about all these people that live in the lower end of the society, the poorer people, but also the people that are in trouble. Because Shanghai was a city where anyone could just walk in without saying their password and of course it attracted a lot of criminal people. 

City of Devils is French’s much-anticipated second narrative non-fiction book, following Midnight in Peking which was a New York Times Bestseller, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and will be made into an international mini-seriesby Kudos Film and Television, the UK creators of Spooks, Broadchurch and Life on Mars. [Cover:Courtesy of Penguin Random House North Asia]

City of Devils is French's much-anticipated second narrative non-fiction book, following 'Midnight in Peking' which was a New York Times Bestseller, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and will be made into an international mini-seriesby Kudos Film and Television, the UK creators of Spooks, Broadchurch and Life on Mars. [Cover: Courtesy of Penguin Random House North Asia]

On how he came across the kingpins in his new book "City of Devils"

Jack Riley and Joe Farren came together to run the biggest casino that Asia had even seen. When it opened in Shanghai, all the Chinese newspapers and foreign newspaper wrote about it and went on with pictures. It had gambling on three floors and on the ground floor, you could have dinner and listen to the jazz band and dance. It was an amazing place. It was enormous. So I read about that and the two very different men who came together to do this. Joe Farren, who sort of let the night club "Farren's" name after him, was from Austria and he run big night clubs in Shanghai. Jack Riley, who was an American, actually escaped from a prison in America and came to Shanghai. He burnt his fingerprints with acid, thinking no one would ever be able to fingerprint him. He managed through various ways to get the money run the casino, to bank the casino. It was so much money in Shanghai at that time and they did all of these at the most crazy time. Because after August 1937, when Shanghai was attacked by the Japanese troop, upon until December 1941, after the Pearl Harbor attack and the Japanese took all of Shanghai, this was a time which Chinese call "the solitary island" or "the lonely island" period. Because all around Shanghai, Japanese was in control of the Yangtze part of China; and the other side is the sea and the Japanese navy controlled the sea. So just within what was the international settlement and French Concession, these people were just stuck there. They couldn't leave. Jack Riley, the American escaped prisoner, had nowhere to go. He can't go back to America. Joe Farren was Jewish and from Austria. By that time, he couldn't get another passport since Austria was controlled by the Nazis. So they just carried on having parties, having casinos, and committing crime; while all around them, China was at war. 

On whether he took any creative liberty while portraying those characters

I call what I do literary non-fictions. So I don't make up any places or names or anything like that. But of course I have to try to imagine what these people were like. I have photographs so I know how tall they were, what they looked like and a little bit about how they spoke. Some people who met them wrote about these things. Joe Farren started up as a dancer, like a kind of Fred Astaire. With his wife Nellie, they were like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They can do the most amazing dancing, looking like they were gliding. Then I tried to imagine them from that. As for Jack Riley, people remember him being very friendly in many ways unless he got angry. So there was a little bit imagination there to try to make these characters more real. But I certainly never invent something that I don't really feel historically inaccurate. Just like "Midnight in Peking,"I put a lot of photographs and maps, because I think it's really important to know there were real people who lived and breathed. The story can be so much more compelling when you know it really happened. 

On the messages of "City of Devils"

"City of Devils" is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story. Within all my works, because this one is historically specific, you kind of know it’s going to end badly. I am sorry if everyone wants a happy ending book, but I really don’t do them. Because everything always ends badly. It always ends up with the war. This was a time when everybody for one reason or another ended up becoming criminals, because they were poor, they were forced out of their countries, or they were criminals themselves. How did Shanghai become anything else but a city full of criminals? It was a city stolen from China. That's how it existed. And then, it was stolen from everyone again by Japan, who was the criminal in this story. Everybody was a criminal in this story and the entire city was criminal. Nobody was innocent. 

For previous episodes, you can download the podcast by searching the keyword Ink&Quill on iTunes.


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