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Paul French Q&A

The prize-winning author on channelling his life-long fascination with Shanghai into his latest book, City of Devils.

Can you tell us about your relationship with Shanghai?

As a boy I was fascinated by Shanghai. My great grandfather visited the city with the Royal Navy in the 1920s; my father was a fan of art-deco architecture and had many pictures and books about Shanghai and its famous waterfront Bund (though he never visited). I went to Shanghai while I was a Chinese language student in the 1990s. I then found any way I could to stay there as long as I could. I left after over a decade in 2013 and returned to London, but now try and find every excuse I can to get back there. When I’m not in Shanghai I’m in a library researching and writing about Shanghai. It’s basically a lifelong obsession with China, and Shanghai in particular.

What piqued your fascination in this period of Shanghai life?

The main action in City of Devils takes place in the western part of the city as it was when it was an international treaty port before WW2. That area, after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 became known as the “Badlands” with casinos, nightclubs, opium dens and bordellos. By pure chance I ended up living in that area (from which all sin had been purged by the 1990s!) and so was curious about it. As a student my favourite books about Shanghai were by the American Sinologist Frederic Wakeman and his speciality was this period and this part of the city too. Old Shanghai fascinates me – the neon, jazz, clubs, cheongsams etc – and this period, the 1930s, is really the heyday of that old Shanghai.

How did you become aware of Dapper Joe and Lucky Jack?

I needed characters to wander through 1930s Shanghai, to stroll through the Badlands and to make a book. I started reading the old Shanghai newspapers from this period in the archives and these two guys – their rise from obscurity to wealth, their troubled collaboration to become even richer and their relative experiences once the war started – seemed to sum up the whole experience of Shanghai’s foreign community at that time. I write almost exclusively about the foreigners who lived in China at the time, particularly those in Shanghai (“Shanghailanders”) and Joe and Jack were two of the most amazing specimens to study.

What compelled you to tell this story?

There’s still a great fascination and allure to old Shanghai – movies, novels, postcards, photographs – but I wanted to try and portray the city’s wealth and modernity in contrast to the terrible poverty that existed too. In the late 1930s people drank champagne, gambled all night and danced til dawn but the authorities also collected tens of thousands of dead bodies (mostly babies and old people) off the streets for mass burials in pauper graves. Most of my characters – the foreigners in what was the most cosmopolitan of 1930s cities globally – had nowhere else to go when war came. They were criminals or wanted back home, many more were Russian émigrés from communism and, latterly, many were Jewish refugees from European fascism. Shanghai was a sanctuary, but it was also the end of the line.

Authenticity of place is critical to this book – to what lengths did you go to capture a sense of Shanghai as it was?

My work is literary non-fiction. It hopefully reads well and similar to a novel. However, there are no invented people, places, events or dialogue. It’s all built up from memoirs, interviews, old newspapers, police and intelligence service records, customs and immigration records etc. Every address, date and even telephone number in City of Devils is real. I’ve also worked hard to try and immerse the reader in old Shanghai – food, weather, clothes, people’s living conditions, accommodations, cars, hopes and fears. I try to reflect this in language – the Austrian film director Josef von Sternberg who made the movie Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong said Shanghai was a “Tower of Babel on the China coast”. To walk through Shanghai in 1937 was to hear Shanghainese, Cantonese, Mandarin, a dozen other Chinese dialects as well as English (English, American, Australian and Pidgin), Yiddish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and maybe a dozen more languages. The city used Chinese, Mexican, Hong Kong and American dollars, British Indian rupees, Japanese yen, silver taels, gold and a mix of other currencies. It was truly international – the ONLY city in the world where you could step off an ocean liner and nobody asked for your passport or a visa.

What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered in researching this book? And how did you overcome these?

City of Devils, like my previous book Midnight in Peking, is all about the underbelly of the foreign community in China. The diplomats, politicians, businesspeople, missionaries and tourists all write their memoirs and like to have their photos taken; gangsters, prostitutes, criminals and conmen do not, neither do drug addicts, drug dealers or bank robbers. So I have to take many, many threads – tiny clues, small mentions – and pull at those threads to find the story. Criminals and prostitutes lie in court, they lie about their name, their age, their whereabouts – they lie all the time. It makes researching them difficult. But when you manage to trace someone through the courts, newspapers, police files and shipping records and build up a picture of their lives and their (invariably nefarious) activities it’s very satisfying.

How to overcome this problem – no easy solution. The book is really the cumulative result of decades of archive research in Shanghai and countless notebooks full of scraps of information.

City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir is an evocative title – how did you arrive at this?

“Devils” is a useful term for Shanghai – it was a sinful city of course (The Paris of the East; The Whore of the Orient) while foreigners in China were often referred to as devils by the local population. I take the term from Charles Dickens who, when watching one of the last public executions in London, looked upon the mad and crazy faces of the London mob as the trapdoor opened and the body fell through and declared ‘truly this is a city of devils’. 

What surprised you in the creation this book?

Shanghai was the world’s fourth or fifth largest city in the late 1930s and by far its most densely populated. To try and capture even a slice of that is a problem. The missionaries used to say that Shanghai was ‘a thin slice of heaven on a thick slice of hell’ and recreating that was a challenge. Also, I thought I’d seen every kind of sin and debauchery reported in old Shanghai but the activities of “Evil” Evelyn, the Shumchun Triads and The Velvet Sweetshop heroin gang shocked even me! You’ll have to read the book to find out why.

1940s Shanghai was a dangerous place: were there times that you were shocked by what you uncovered?

It’s hard to get a grip on the level of poverty in Shanghai at the time, the brutality and the easy-come-easy-go attitude to sickness and death. Unwanted babies were left out on the street, old people (Chinese and foreigners) too when they couldn't look after themselves. People froze to death in Shanghai’s chilly winters; they committed suicide in large numbers. As the Japanese attack on China worsened conditions many people simply gave up the struggle to survive and lost themselves in drugs, drink, suicide or violent crime. It was in many ways a glamorous time – the cars, clothes, cocktails, jazz bands – but I needed to also show the horrific downside of this unforgiving city.

What makes for gripping historical fiction?

For me it’s characters. With a period like the Second World War readers know what’s coming. They know that the characters are, as one journalist said of Shanghai in 1939, ‘dancing on the rim of a volcano’. I can’t change history – the Japanese will attack, it will be horrible, they will occupy the city. The question is which of the characters survive and which don’t. Not everyone gets out alive. I work with real people so unlike straight fiction writers I don’t have the freedom to dictate the fates of my characters – history has done that. If they died then they must die now. Getting to that part of the research into a character you’ve come to like and then finding out the ending is tough can be quite shocking.

Are there other books or authors that inspire you in the noir realm?

I am interested in authors who’ve taken on cities and written about them successfully, particularly in a noir style. Los Angeles seems to attract many, from Raymond Chandler to James Ellroy (whose sprawling novel of the 1940s/1950s city LA Confidential was particularly influential to me). Otherwise I’d go back to some other fantastic books that capture cities in all their greatness – Graham Greene’s Vienna in The Third Man and Saigon in The Quiet American; Alfred Doblin’s Weimar-era Berlin Alexanderplatz; John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy and perhaps lesser know works such as Jacques Yonnet’s evocation of post-war Paris in Rue des maléfices; Yasunari Kawabata’s 1920s Tokyo in The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa.

Any advice for first-time visitors to Shanghai?

Hurry up – sadly the local government is not very good at preservation so the older parts of the city are still being bulldozed at quite an alarming rate. Start at the Bund and then head back into the former French Concession. Once you get into those streets everything calms down, the traffic is less, the plane trees provide shade, the remaining architecture is a wonderful mix of traditional Shanghai alleys and western-style villas. Don’t take a map, don’t use your phone – just wander, turn a corner when something catches your eye and get lost. There’s always a taxi, a bar or a café close by.

Formats & editions

  • Trade Paperback


    May 14, 2018


    272 pages

    RRP $32.99

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  • EBook


    May 14, 2018

    Penguin eBooks

    272 pages

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City of Devils Paul French

A spellbinding and dramatic account of Shanghai's lawless 1930s and two of its most notorious criminals, by the author of the prize winning Midnight in Peking.

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