Shanghai three ways: The 1930s view from Tokyo, Paris and Shanghai

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Shanghai, in the 1920s and 1930s, rivaled New York, Paris, Berlin and London as one of the most exotic and alluring of the world’s cities. Then, as now, Shanghai was known for glitz and glamour, for size and opulence, for growth, energy, excess and fortunes. But in this era Shanghai had the added reputation for lawlessness and revolution, for drugs, vice and arms. It was “The Paradise of Adventurers”, to borrow the title of G.E. Miller’s racy and popular collection of stories from the era, which reiterated a popular image of the city, namely, as the place for escapades in gambling, sex, drugs and arms. In Japanese it became known as mato or “sin city”, an appellation picked up from the title of a popular 1924 story by Muramatsu Shōfū. In Chinese, to cite but one example, the Qing masterpiece translated as The Sing-Song Girls of China plays on the possibilities of the literal name of Shanghai (“on the sea”) to reflect the vacillations and vicissitudes of the “floating flowers” i.e. the sing-song girls for sale (the “flowers”). Eileen Chang’s involvement with the translation of The Sing-Song Girls of China is also relevant given her position as “the most prominent author and public intellectual” in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.1 From France, “Le Paris de l’Orient” positions the city in relation to Paris – ”The Paris of the East” – a comparison widely found throughout Asia that reflected both pride and concern: an Asian city that rivaled a European one, reflecting all the glories and possibilities of Europe while embodying all that was depraved and injurious. That is, this Shanghai coin has two sides: if the obverse showed off the most international, bustling, chic, moneyed metropolis in the world, the reverse revealed the most destitute, decadent and decrepit city on earth. As the fifth largest city in the world in 1930, Shanghai had become synonymous, within China, with “modernity” and all that was flash and speed and sophistication.2 In representations of the time, this too-close juxtaposition defined it: death and disease snuggled up close to bright lights and glitter; grinding poverty and oppression lying beside opportunity and great wealth. Shanghai was arguably more “European” than Paris itself, being more cosmopolitan, perhaps more chic, very likely more international. “The city was fabulously cosmopolitan,” writes Michael Miller; it was home to a collection of foreigners that made Paris look anemic. While the population was, of course, predominantly Chinese, tens of thousands of Westerners and as many Asians, lived in Shanghai. The Japanese, for example, surpassed the British as the largest foreign group in the city, in 1915.3 Other Asians were represented in significant numbers, with some concentration in the Japanese neighborhoods. But Shanghai also welcomed political refugees of all stripes, and others with or without complete travel documents (passports were not needed to enter the city).4 The most visible, or most often commented on, were the White Russians, who had fled the Communist Revolution; a significant community of Jewish refugees also resided there. The Chinese population was interspersed throughout the city and formed the majority even in the International Settlement and the French Concession. While known for this international and cosmopolitan population, Shanghai’s reputation rested on shady bars and classy cabarets and on crime-ridden dens cheek by jowl with the toniest dance halls. Many Chinese enjoyed the wealth and prestige that resulted from this arrangement of course, but it was lived as a legacy of the Western residents: “For the Chinese, the foreign concession represented not so much forbidden zones as the ‘other’ world – an exotic world of glitter and vice dominated by Western capitalism.”5 That is, the foreign areas provide an Other, for many within China, against which to imagine identity; the edge of lawlessness and depravity based on illegalities and black markets so integral to the wild nature of Shanghai, was understood to be a legacy of the Western residents. Cosmopolitanism, with the edginess of vice and transgression, defined interwar Shanghai. But none of this is apparent at the outset of Andre Malraux’s novel La Condition humaine, “the most famous European novel set in China”,6 by one of France’s most important twentieth-century writers. The novel opens on March 21, 1927, as Ch’en Ta Erh struggles with himself, readying a knife to plunge into an arms smuggler’s chest. Ch’en is struggling to act, struggling with himself, struggling for revolution. The Shanghai of Malraux’s La Condition humaine is one of oppression, poverty and, above all, revolutionary activity; it provides a stage where characters – and vicariously, one assumes, readers – explore identity and action. It is an existentialist novel where characters struggle with self-definition through action. As a city full of fervor and hopes for a better future for the common man, Shanghai provides this cast of characters a stage to explore identity and revolution. In this chapter I will discuss three of the most important novels of the early twentieth century, each composed for a different language audience. All are set in Shanghai. In addition to Malraux’s French novel I will consider Yokomitsu Riichi’s Shanghai,7 as the view from Japan, and from China Mao Dun’s Midnight.8 These are three of the most accomplished writers of their era and the representative novel of each is set in Shanghai; this alone underscores how central Shanghai was to the popular imagination of the era and of each country. Thus, while the foreigners within Shanghai provided an Other, a counterweight, to self-identity, as noted above, Shanghai also fulfilled that role for those outside China. Writers and readers in Japan and France (among other places) were eager for stories from Shanghai, this exotic Other. While I do not wish to draw this circle too tightly and make each writer the representative of all that was taking place in their home countries, or the representative voice of Shanghai for their languages, I will tease out some of what Shanghai represented to these authors and, by extension, what Shanghai meant to their readers. The coincidence of concerns points to larger issues which I hope to elucidate here. The most salient images of Shanghai, which I have outlined above, prove consistent across the three linguistic traditions. But within that palette of images one also finds ramifications and nuances particular to each nation; I am interested in how this provides important clues to understanding the different views of China and the different concerns of the home audiences. Disentangling these is a goal of this project. André Malraux’s fiction, set in Asia, is in a lineage of writing that continues from earlier writers such as Victor Segalen and Paul Claudel and reflects much of the contemporary portrayals of Asia. He too finds in Asia the polar opposite to all that was lacking in the West, an Other for identity and self-conception.9 Malraux, however, with the possible exception of Segalen and Claudel, was more profoundly influenced by Asia than any other French writer of his time.10 In this map of reference, Asia provides an antidote to the malaise and lassitude, the weakness and flaccidity, of the West. Malraux, an adventurer in an age of adventurers, spun a romantic vision of Asia that was vibrant and “real”, pristine and unspoiled, both for the culture and for the individual. As André Vandegans has written, Malraux pursued the “knowledge of the self through difference by approaching the other”.11 That other was Asia. Malraux’s China is not the sleeping giant of the earlier writers but “a nation in the throes of a social and political revolution whose outcome will determine the destiny of the entire world.”12 In the end, however, his exploration is primarily a conceptualization of the self, pondering how one can act in the modern age, and reflecting the concerns of his French audience. Malraux’s characters struggle, alone, to forge meaning in the modern world. Drawing from a Nietzschean concept of will in the face of an oppressive, and tempting, Nihilism, Shanghai in revolution provides an arena for individuals to discover a basis for action. This congeries of concerns, set among the oppressed masses of Shanghai, as we shall see, establish the parameters for this French novel; that is, it helps put into relief what is “French” about this novel ostensibly about Shanghai. In the novel itself Ch’en continues to tussle, alone, first with the mosquito netting, then with the man lying within it. When he lunges with his knife the man dies and he has proven, at least to himself, that he can act. While the strikes and the revolution in the streets often feel abstracted and cerebral – and this is consistent across these three Shanghai novels-the action is brutally concrete: it involves the flesh and blood of bodies. Ch’en first tests the action on himself: he pushes the knife into his forearm and draws blood in order to prove to himself that he is alive, as a reminder of what being alive means in a moment where the abstraction of action coincides with the concrete of flesh. Ch’en thus embodies an oft-repeated image of Shanghai: a man is poised on the threshold between life and death, between fascination and fear, trembling here over a body, struggling to act individually, while death stares him in the face. A consistent Shanghai metaphor is replicated in the building in which this scene unfolds: the cerebral ruminations that lead to assassination take place on the upper story while the ground floor pulsates with sensuality and life: it is a dance hall. Shanghai is often presented as a body. Here, a man is killed quietly in the cranium of the building while the loins gyrate below. Ch’en has acted and the man is now dead; he opens his hand, prepares to flee and to meet his comrades, to flee the seeping blood and the atmosphere of death, to move away from the negative weight of the bloody body towards the positive activity of planning the insurrection that will bring a new future of selfdetermination to millions of Chinese workers. He turns from the corpse towards the balcony to escape into the night; the mew of a cat stops him and fills him with rage. Why rage? Because this live, noise-making cat is an affront in this place of death. A man is dead; he feels mocked by a cat. He opens the razor again, still dripping with blood, to cut down the infernal cat as well. The cat leaves. Ch’en follows onto the balcony. The cat is gone, but Ch’en finds “himself suddenly facing Shanghai”. This Shanghai night “seemed to whirl like an enormous smoke-cloud shot with sparks”.13 We have moved from the cramped and fetid room into the expansive phantasmagoria of the modern metropolis, into the urban space theorized by Walter Benjamin. Fleeing the claustrophobic room of death, Ch’en looks across the inky depths of Shanghai streets to the glittery lights and glamour at roof level. Bright at the level of his head, it is seething and dark below. The darkness of the Shanghai night opens before him, punctuated by the neon haze integral to Shanghai’s image of glitz and glamour. Ch’en is neither the only, nor the first, to find Shanghai opening up in this way. Shanghai the modern city has overwhelmed many before. Yokomitsu’s Riichi’s Sanki is one example. On a night similar to that in which Ch’en looks out from his balcony, Sanki, a Japanese expatriate, “a man with the fair skin and intelligent face of some medieval hero”, walks along the Bund towards the Garden Park, in the opening of Yokomitsu’s Shanhai. This setting calls to mind the same skyline of opulent buildings and neon that glows in Ch’en’s eyes, a phantasmagoria of flashing lights, of fog and of noir. Ch’en looks down from a balcony while Sanki looks up from the street in half-light and fog. The spatialities of cerebral and carnal are reiterated. We first encounter Sanki roaming the Bund, one of the more storied places in Shanghai. He is a Jazz age figure: an unattached heterosexual male with money to spend; he is rootless, plagued by malaise, and in a foreign city. Malraux’s Ch’en may be Chinese, but he is cast as the European-styled revolutionary radical slinking through a secretive and inaccessible Asian underworld. Sanki is grasping up at international chic, having traveled from a Japan that still seems backward and constrained, from a countryside struggling to feed itself. This sense of direction – up and down, east and west – is integral to the imagination of Shanghai in this era. Sanki, that is, is not slumming; rather, he is making his way into the international cosmopolitan class. His crisis of identity is not rooted in existentialist action, but in the embezzlement and fraud unfolding in the bank where he works. He is a Japanese expatriate and cosmopolitan – marked, for example, by his English language ability – and he is deeply enmeshed in an international trade in goods and bodies. He is male (but not white, a source of significant anxiety plaguing Asian men in many novels of this period). He talks with the white women, presumably Russian refugees, offering sex on the waterfront: “In a hurry?” One of the women turned her head toward Sanki. She spoke to him in English. . . . “There’s a seat right here.” Sanki sat down. . . . [She asks] “Got a smoke?” [. . . .] “You look like you’re broke.” [She replies] “I haven’t got a country, let alone money.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationForeigners and Foreign Institutions in Republican China
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781136252501
StatePublished - Sep 10 2012

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2013 Anne-Marie Brady and Douglas Brown.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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