SHANGHAI GRAND: FORBIDDEN LOVE AND INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE IN A DOOMED WORLD
By Taras Grescoe
St. Martin’s Press, $28.99, 455 pages, illustrated
There’s nothing quite like an author madly enthusiastic about his subject to energize a book. Journalist Taras Grescoe telegraphs that quality early on when he tells us: “I fell for Shanghai — the city of legend and the city it is today” on his first visit nearly a decade ago. The heart of the book is about that vanished cosmopolitan crossroads and its amazing cast of characters, some legendary, others little remembered today, which he sees all around him in today’s 21st century cutting-edge hub:
“As I wandered the sidewalks of the district once known around the world as the International Settlement, my imagination was already taking up residence in a city I’d never known: the wicked old Paris of the Orient, a city whose major landmarks had been preserved in aspic for half a century.”
Buildings and atmosphere are all very well, but it’s that cast of characters who disported themselves in high style, whether living there or on visits ranging from fleeting to embedded, who comprise this book’s nucleus. And how many readers would have guessed just how many of the most prominent characters in “Shanghai Grand” turn out to be Jews. From “Morris ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen, a brawler from London’s East End, who, after saving the life of a Cantonese cook on the Canadian prairies, was named a general in the movement to liberate China from seven centuries of Manchu domination” to “the triple agent Trebitsch Lincoln, a professional shape-shifter, whose career — from rabbi’s son in Budapest, to Protestant missionary in Montreal, to shaven-headed Buddhist abbot in Shanghai — read like the back cover of a paperback thriller.” And let’s not forget Sir Victor Sassoon, a British baronet, scion of a Baghdad Jewish family who left an India roiled by Gandhi’s independence movement for fresh turf to work his commercial magic further east, relics of which Mr. Grescoe sees all these decades later.
But this author makes no bones about who is at the very least first among equals in his stellar cast of characters and in truth much, much more:
“If I was mesmerized by the personalities who congregated in ‘this paradise of adventurers,’ I fell in love with Mickey Hahn, the St. Louis-born journalist and adventurer who put the whole crazy scene down on paper.”
Few who read Emily (“Mickey”) Hahn in the innumerable pages of The New Yorker she filled with tales from China, Africa and many another locale, not to mention a host of books, knew she was Jewish, but she wasn’t shy about hiding much else about her life.
For if anyone embodies the term courtesan in the 20th century, with her role twin roles as mistress to Sir Victor Sassoon (with all the trappings one might expect ) to his polar opposite the Hu poet Zau Sinmay (known to most Chinese as Shao Xunmei), it is Ms. Hahn. But that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of her exploits, from openly smoking opium pipes and large cigars to equally openly bearing the child of a married British military officer, who would become her husband after many an adventure and misadventure. She leaps off the pages of this book: brazen, brave, and above all flamboyant. It is hard to imagine “Shanghai Grand” without her and her amazing range of antics, not just in Shanghai but also in Hong Kong and China’s wartime capital Chungking. She is also an observer par excellence, “delighted to witness the three Soong sisters laughing like the best of friends. It was the first time they had been seen together in public for a decade; the union of Mmes. Sun, Kung, and Chiang — of Left, Centre, and Right.”
Although current fashionable nostrums would dismiss the old Shanghai with its International Settlement by slotting it crudely into the colonial world and era, the salient point about it is just how different it was from any actual colony. There was no one foreign power which governed and imposed its culture on the city. As war swirled all around it and eventually invaded its precincts, spelling its death knell, it was a place where all nationalities could flourish and contribute to a mosaic rather than a monolith. There was not so much a clash of cultures as an orchestra of them, providing the ideal stage for people from all over to reinvent themselves. Those convinced that personal reinvention is a peculiarly American phenomenon need go no further than the Shanghai of yore to realize their error.
The way Mr. Grescoe never loses sight of the gleaming skyscrapers and other futuristic aspects of the modern metropolis which rose out of that vanished legendary city as he evokes its glorious past gives an added dimension to his time travel. An extra lens if you will for us to appreciate that unique place and time.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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