I was more than pleased to read Paul French’s new historical novel “City of Devils” launched at the Shanghai Literary Festival (Thank you for getting a dedicated copy, Matthias). As I am a fan of Shanghai 1930s I definitely appreciated this book bringing a new stone to the house of the city’s memories with focus on Japanese surrounded Shanghai period. I actually already commented the “solitary island” time, when Shanghai was blockaded within the Foreign Concessions and developed a new entertainment industry, including cinema and night clubs. Paul French takes us even further into the night landscape and world of gangsters, nazi and Japanese collaborators as well as smugglers. Main character is Jack Riley (photo below), a Colorado born American who served in the Navy in Manila before coming to Shanghai. Riley is famous for introducing the slot machines business in Shanghai and also ran a joint, the Manhattan, in “Blood Alley”, the infamous bar street frequented by sailors.
A new insight in Paul French’s novel comes with the “Badlands” part, referring to the twilight zone of casinos, brothels and dance halls located West of today’s Huashan Road. Young JG Ballard tells about some of these gambling dens in his self-inspired fiction “the Empire of the Sun” as his parents were living not far from this gloomy area. Author and searcher Katya Knyazeva also wrote about this area, mentioning the short living night club Gardenia of White Russian singer Vertinsky. This zone located West of the International Settlement was a lawless no-man’s land since police forces from both French and International sectors could not intervene there. The Japanese rule starting from 1937 brought a new context to it, not only because the new masters of Shanghai needed entertainment for themselves but also for the profits they could get from its activities. Some venues for instance became real spy dens, allowing warring parties to collect first hand intelligence from the patrons.
This was a dangerous game to play for casino owners who sometimes got arrested and even tortured by the Kempetai, the Japanese police, when those considered they had gone too far or become too greedy. The joints of the Badlands included the Del Monte, the Argentina, the Bolero, the Ali-Baba, the Six Nations or the Pai Loh, which were run by American Jewish, Macanese or even Swiss investors attracted by the huge profits of gambling, alcohol, opium and prostitlution. There were no legal taxes but only the under-table commissions to the officials of the Wang Jingwei puppet regime which strong arms were based at nearby 76 Jessfield Road.
The second important character of the book is Joe Farren (photo above). who acted as a straw man for Jack Riley while running for him the Badlands grandest casino, the Farren’s, on Great Western Road (West Yan An today). “Farren Follies“ chorus line was popular back then, Farren being nicknamed “Shanghai‘s Ziegfeld”. The dance group was mostly constituted of White Russian ladies who had seized their chance in the entertainment business after they having lost everything in the Bolchevik Revolution. The troupe toured in every signle Chinese Treaty Port as well as in Japan under the leadership of Joe’s wife, Nellie Farren. The book’s frequent reference to gangsters like Du Yuesheng already make the description of Shanghai night landscape vivid but there was not only the Pootung originated boss to be feared in those years. Some extra white skin bad guys called the "boychiks" were led by Wally Lunzer, a Viennese Jew reconverted into the security business for casinos and working for Riley and Farren.
Among the colorful people depicted by Paul French, Buck Clayton (photo above), occupies a particular place. This black American jazzman was hired at Du Yuesheng’s controlled Canidrome to bring upper class music right into the heart of Shanghai. Buck and his Harlem Gentlemen were probably the only black American in Shanghai in those years who did not suffer from racial prejudice, being even admired by Chinese people for being dressed elegantly, sometimes seen driving in luxurious convertibles. It was Farren who actually set up the show for Buck Clayton at the Canidrome.
However, after crime level had risen too high, a special police squad was formed, the WASP (Western Area Special Police), which could also rely on the riot squad to confront with the toughest gangsters. They used bullet proof jackets and the Red Maria armored vehicle to enter and close down casinos. Such equipments were introduced in the 1920s by "Fearless Dan" William Fairnbairn, within the limites of the Foreign Settlement. In my article on Mark King, who was in the Shanghai Municipal Police in those years, I mentioned him working at the Bubbling Well Police Station which was close to the Paramount Dance Hall. This was the place where Nelly Farren and her girls used to dance, being called “The Paramount Peaches” (above) for the occasion. No doubt then that Mark King, a member of the vice squad, was also aware of the illicit activities of both Joe Farren and Jack Riley!
With focusing on the Badlands, Paul French’s novel adds a new chapter of the Old Shanghai urban legend. This book is remarkably well documented and brings light on a whole bunch of new crime figures.