Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World

Review of Taras Grescoe, Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World (St. Martin’s Press, June 2016; HarperCollins Canada, May 2016).

Nigel Collett
Cross-posted from Asian Review of Books

Shanghai GrandOf all human societies of which we have knowledge, Shanghai in the late 1930s perhaps comes closest to the sci-fi dystopias beloved of Hollywood, societies in which the gilded, sophisticated inhabitants of a fabulous city live surrounded but cut off from wasted badlands, served by an abject underclass living as far from the light of day as it does from the consciousness of its masters. For inside the self-policed boundaries of Shanghai’s International Settlement and its French Concession lay both one of the greatest concentrations of wealth on the face of the planet and some of the most sordid scenes of human misery.

The taipans of British, American, French, Japanese and other stock who controlled and owned the wealth of Shanghai lived hedonistic lives of truly decadent luxury. For the wealthy, life was sweet, as Noël Coward, who passed through in 1930 and wrote Private Lives while laid up with influenza in a suite in the Cathay Hotel, remembered. “I entered the social whirl of Shanghai with zest,” he wrote.

There were lots of parties and Chinese dinners and general cosmopolitan junketings, which, while putting a slight strain on our lingual abilities, in no way dampened our spirits. We found some charming new friends […] with whom we visited many of the lower and gayer haunts of the city.[1]

The vast population that served and worked for the rich crammed itself into fetid rows of continually sub-dividing apartment blocks that stretched behind their employer’s workplaces on the iconic Bund. In the view of Harold Acton, an upper class English aesthete who lived in Peking at the time, “Shanghai was the most cruel and merciless of cities.”[2] WH Auden and his friend Christopher Isherwood, who visited Shanghai in 1938, were appalled by the city’s combination of an unashamed worship of mammon and its squalor. They found “nowhere a fine avenue, a spacious park, an imposing central square. Nowhere anything civic at all.”[3] Auden expressed his revulsion in his poem “A Major Port”:

Banks jostle in the sun for domination,

Behind them stretch like sorry vegetation

The low recessive houses of the poor.[4]

Outside the foreign-controlled settlement, life was far worse. The notorious magus, Aleister Crowley, surely one of the least squeamish Englishmen of his day, could stomach neither the settlement nor the Chinese city, the oyster, as it were, that surrounded the pearl of the settlement. He wrote of “the sordid scramble of the foreign settlement of Shanghai” and added that “I could not so much as indulge in a saunter through the native city.”[5]

In 1937, when the Japanese attacked the nationalist forces in the Chinese city and in its surrounding countryside, cutting off the foreign settlement entirely except from the exit to the sea, life there became even more surreal. Shanghai became “a Solitary Island” of wealth and excess in a sea of desolation; the fought-over buildings of the Chinese city stretched for mile after mile of empty rubble, its population fled either into the interior or into the increasingly overcrowded International Settlement.

Until the Japanese ended it all by marching in to take control in late 1941, the foreign business community in Shanghai continued to party as if the world would never end, made richer, if anything, by the growing profits their firms were reaping in the war-torn interior and by the increased rents they could extract from the hapless four million Chinese now crammed into the festering accommodation they controlled. As the rich partied, around them the war raged. Isherwood’s diary gives a flavour of this bizarre world:

If you want girls, or boys, you can have them, at all prices, in the bath-houses and the brothels. If you want opium you can smoke it in the best company, served on a tray, like afternoon tea [The British ambassador’s party is] ‘a beautifully-contrived charade […] somewhere, out in the suburb, machine guns are rattling. You can hear them all day long […] The International Settlement and the French Concession form an island, an oasis in the midst of the stark, frightful wilderness which was once the Chinese city.[6]

* * *

This is the world vividly conjured up by Canadian journalist and writer Taras Grescoe in his new book Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World. Grescoe’s subtitle is somewhat misleading, as his book is, in fact, a quadruple biography. According to Harold Acton, “everywhere in Shanghai one jostled adventures and rubbed shoulders with people who had no idea how extraordinary they were; the extraordinary had become ordinary; the freakish commonplace.”[7] Grescoe proves him right by focusing a spotlight upon three of the most extraordinary of the city’s denizens. His fourth subject is Shanghai itself, a city he clearly loves and knows deeply.

The Cathay Hotel was the most luxurious hotel in the Orient and it stood, prominent on its famous Bund, at the heart of Shanghai. It stands there yet, although now it is the Peace Hotel. The hotel is also at the heart of Grescoe’s book, the palace where its characters meet and their lives intertwine. In the late 1930s, it could be an exciting place to stay, as Auden and Isherwood found: “Going into the Cathay Hotel one morning for a cup of coffee, we found a little crowd round the entrance gazing at a pool of blood”; a Chinese politician, a stool pigeon of the Japanese, had just been murdered by the resistance on the hotel steps.[8]

The hotel’s builder, the fabulously wealthy Sir Victor Sassoon, makes the first of Grescoe’s subjects. Descendant of a Baghdad Jewish family that had made a fortune in trade and manufacturing across the British Empire, Sassoon was a canny businessman and rentier, one of the richest men in the city. He was also a playboy who built and ran the best nightclub in a town renowned for its nightlife. He collected beautiful and amusing women to enliven his leisure hours.

One of these was the globetrotting Jewish American writer Emily “Mickey” Hahn, a wild and uninhibited girl from St Louis who arrived in Shanghai in 1935 and was almost immediately picked up by Sir Victor. She was a beauty; Harold Acton described her as “Emily Hahn, like a voluptuous figure from a Moroccan mellah”.[9] Hahn, who is Grescoe’s second major subject, had not intended to stay more than a few weeks in the city but ended up remaining there until 1940.

Shanghai helped make her reputation, which, although she is much forgotten now, was enormous in America in the middle years of the 20th Century. Her journalism and books on the city and on China were widely read. She was most famous for The Soong Sisters, a joint biography of the most prominent Chinese women of the day, the wives of Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai-shek and the latter’s finance minister, HH Kung. This she wrote after a hazardous journey through a China ravaged by war to interview all three women. Hahn was one of the small group of writers who opened the eyes of America to the plight of China in the 1930s and 1940s, writers like Pearl Buck, whose stories of rural China for the first time humanized the population of the country in the eyes of the west; Edgar Snow, whose works about Chinese Communism informed the left wing consciences of the West for decades; and Hahn herself, who wrote of educated, cultured and internationalized Chinese intellectuals and the urban middle classes.

One of her frequent subjects was her own lover, the poet and publisher Zau Sinmay (Shao Xunmai), whom she christened “Mr Pan” in the series of short stories she wrote about him for the New Yorker. Zau, whose concubine Hahn became and who introduced her to opium, is the third focus of Grescoe’s account. He is perhaps the most attractive figure in the book, but also the most tragic. Abandoned by Hahn, his life and work destroyed by war and by the Communists, Zau was imprisoned for attempting to get a letter out of China to Hahn. He died in 1968, unappreciated and in poverty.

Littering Grescoe’s account are many other unlikely, eccentric, even alarming characters; Morris “Two Gun” Cohen, the Cockney Jew who became a nationalist bodyguard and general; “Big-Eared” Du Yuesheng, the opium lord appointed by Chiang Kai-shek to suppress the opium trade; Mickey Hahn’s lover and eventual husband, the British intelligence officer and scholar Charles Boxer; and the American socialite Bernadine Szold-Fritz, whose parties mixing East and West in Shanghai brought together all those in Grescoe’s story.

All take their place upon Grescoe’s Shanghai stage. The city permeates everything in this book. Harold Acton characterized it in his translation of an 11th century Chinese poem:

Are you not he, cicada,

Of whom I have heard told you could transform

Your body, magically moulding it

To new estate: Are you not he who, born

Upon the dung heap, coveted the sky,

The clean and open air?[10]

Isherwood had a less lofty view; he believed that “in this city the gulf between society’s two halves is too grossly wide for any bridge.”[11] It is a gulf that has opened once again today. There is something in the mud of the Huangpu River, perhaps, that leads to the excess that Taras Grescoes’s fine book reminds us was there from Shanghai’s inception.

Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. His latest book is Firelight of a Different Colour, about Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung.


[1] Noël Coward, “Present Indicative” (London; Methuen, 2004), pp. 294-5.

[2] Harold Acton, “Memoirs of an Aesthete” (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), p. 291.

[3] W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, “Journey to a War” (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), p. 227.

[4] Ibid, p. 14.

[5] Aleister Crowley, “The Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography” (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p. 229.

[6] W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, “Journey to a War” (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), pp. 227-230.

[7] Harold Acton, “Memoirs of an Aesthete” (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), p. 290.

[8] W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, “Journey to a War” (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), p. 231.

[9] Harold Acton, “Memoirs of an Aesthete” (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), p. 288. A mellah is a North African Jewish ghetto.

[10] Ibid, p. 287.

[11] W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, “Journey to a War” (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), p. 242.