Nonfiction: From Rags to Ill-Gotten Riches in 1930s China

CITY OF DEVILS
The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai
By Paul French
299 pp. Picador. $28

Shanghai in the 1930s. Anyone familiar with detective novels or noir cinema knows exactly what that phrase means: smoke-filled nightclubs, back-alley gambling houses and dark, seedy opium dens, all frequented by a motley assortment of Chinese mobsters, White Russian émigrés, fugitive criminals of all nations and at least one gorgeous femme fatale with a past. Designated an international treaty port after the 19th-century Opium Wars, Shanghai eventually became a kind of global melting pot of the Seven Deadly Sins — what one writer called “a tawdry city of refugees and rackets” — largely controlled by foreigners determined to fleece the town of every copper yuan or Mexican silver dollar it could yield. By the 1930s, Shanghai was the fifth-largest city in the world — and, to hear some tell it, a corrupt and drug-addled place like no other.

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Just how much of this notorious reputation is historical fact and how much is Hollywood (or neocolonialist) fantasy is hard to say, and “City of Devils,” Paul French’s new narrative history of the city, is not likely to clear matters up. Though the book shows signs of being exhaustively researched, much of the material, by the author’s own admission, has been freely embroidered. “‘City of Devils’ is based on real people and real events,” French writes in his preface, but because of the sub rosa nature of the episodes described, “assumptions have been made.” Translation: Details have been invented. Even reproductions of newspaper articles have been punched up “with one or two minor additions in the interest of advancing the narrative.” And since French includes no endnotes or even a list of sources, it’s impossible to know just where the facts end and the folklore begins.

So the book is perhaps best regarded as historical fiction and, like many a good novel, it centers on the rags-to-riches ascent of a colorful protagonist — or, in this case, two colorful protagonists. Joe Farren, born Josef Pollak in the Jewish ghetto of Vienna, comes to Shanghai as a penniless exhibition dancer hoping to become “the city’s own Flo Ziegfeld”; Jack Riley, an American originally named Fahnie Albert Becker, is a former Navy seaman and wanted ex-con who shows up with a dream of making a fortune on illegal slot machines. As newcomers to this “city of reinvention,” they must start at the bottom of the gangland pecking order and work their way up, eventually partnering together on a drug-running operation that proves lucrative enough to make both of them major players in Shanghai’s criminal economy.

Their big break, however, comes in 1937, when the Japanese invasion of Shanghai changes the geography of sin in the besieged city, isolating the international settlement and moving its main vice district to a nearby area instantly called the Badlands. Joe and Jack, filling the power vacuum left by the decampment of native Chinese crime lords, collaborate on a venue called Farren’s, “the biggest, fanciest, richest nightclub and casino Shanghai has ever seen.” And from there they reign over the city’s reconstituted underworld — until war and Jack’s criminal past catch up with them, bringing the pair down along with the bad old Shanghai they have helped to build.

French, the author of “Midnight in Peking,” recounts all of this with great energy and brio. He writes in the knowing, slang-filled idiom of Shanghai’s Shopping News, a gossipy English-language newspaper he quotes repeatedly throughout. And if the book is never quite as engrossing or entertaining as it should be, it is at least atmospheric enough to keep one turning pages. After all, it’s hard to go wrong with dope, decadence and the demimonde. This may be Shanghai as seen through a cinematic Western lens, but there are few more fascinating places — in fiction or in fact.

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