The best books on China’s greatest city Shanghai

Claire Chao Author Of Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels
By Claire Chao

Who am I?

“Old Shanghai” is in my blood: though raised in Hong Kong, I was surrounded by all things Shanghai through my parents and their friends, who had grown up during Shanghai’s 1930s heyday. The classical culture … the modern glamour … the breathtaking scandals! Since childhood I’ve searched for connections to my heritage; this fascination led me, years later, to write Remembering Shanghai with my mother, by then in her eighties. Having immersed myself in Shanghai history and culture most of my life, I am passionate about intimate, authentic stories that are told against a rich historical backdrop—the kind that make reviewers say “you can’t make this up!”


I wrote...

Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels

By Isabel Sun Chao, Claire Chao,

Book cover of Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels

What is my book about?

My goal in writing our multi-generational memoir Remembering Shanghai was to create a thrilling journey and a time capsule during a period of dramatic change, from imperial China to glamorous 1930s Shanghai and modern-day Hong Kong. The story is told in two interwoven voices, with my mother Isabel as protagonist and me as guide and narrator, providing historical context and cultural commentary. Bookending the saga are two visits one decade apart to my mother’s dilapidated childhood home in Shanghai; the first visit piques my curiosity to explore our family history. From here, our ancestors’ adventures and foibles unfold to reveal a complex past of suppressed secrets and unexpected revelations—a past filled with love and betrayal, kidnappers and concubines, glittering pleasure palaces, and underworld crime bosses.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao's Revolution

By Helen Zia,

Book cover of Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao's Revolution

Why this book?

Decadent Old Shanghai was never going to survive a Communist takeover. It wasn’t easy to leave—in her family, my mother was told she was the lucky one, and so was the mother of author Helen Zia. An accomplished journalist, Zia masterfully captures what it was like for four young people—including her mother—to make the wrenching decision to leave their homes for places unknown, the chaos and distress of boarding that fabled “last boat” out of Shanghai, and what came after. The core of the story unfolds through the authentic accounts of the main characters Benny, Annuo, Bing, and Ho. Additionally, Zia uses detailed research and extensive interviews with hundreds of émigrés from all strata of Shanghai society, bringing to life this last of a generation to embark on a largely forgotten mass exodus.

Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao's Revolution

By Helen Zia,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Last Boat Out of Shanghai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The dramatic real life stories of four young people caught up in the mass exodus of Shanghai in the wake of China’s 1949 Communist revolution—a heartrending precursor to the struggles faced by emigrants today. 

“A true page-turner . . . [Helen] Zia has proven once again that history is something that happens to real people.”—New York Times bestselling author Lisa See

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR • FINALIST FOR THE PEN/JACQUELINE BOGRAD WELD AWARD FOR BIOGRAPHY

Shanghai has historically been China’s jewel, its richest, most modern and westernized city.…


Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China

By Jung Chang,

Book cover of Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China

Why this book?

The legendary Soong sisters shaped 20th century China and have remained icons for nearly a century—from the time my mother was a girl in 1930s Shanghai, while author Jung Chang (best known for Wild Swans) was growing up in the 1950s, and well after the last sister died in 2003. The three sisters married the most powerful men of the time, leaders of the Republic of China government: Ai-Ling married its finance minister; Ching-ling, its first president; and Mei-ling became the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Republic for over 40 years. But Chang focuses on the sisters themselves, and demonstrates that much of the men’s success and place in history can be attributed to the extraordinary drive and dynamism of the three women. Chang—a prodigious researcher—draws from correspondence and interviews, providing historical context to create a compelling story.

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China

By Jung Chang,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

**SHORTLISTED FOR THE HWA NON-FICTION CROWN 2020**

They were the most famous sisters in China. As the country battled through a hundred years of wars, revolutions and seismic transformations, the three Soong sisters from Shanghai were at the centre of power, and each of them left an indelible mark on history.

Red Sister, Ching-ling, married the 'Father of China', Sun Yat-sen, and rose to be Mao's vice-chair.

Little Sister, May-ling, became Madame Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of pre-Communist Nationalist China and a major political figure in her own right.

Big Sister, Ei-ling, became Chiang's unofficial main adviser - and made…


Night in Shanghai

By Nicole Mones,

Book cover of Night in Shanghai

Why this book?

At the center of the novel Night in Shanghai is Black American musician Thomas Greene, who arrives in Shanghai from segregated Baltimore to find wealth, position, and love—only to have his life changed forever by the outbreak of World War II. Author Nicole Mones was a businesswoman in China in the 1970s; her China experience, coupled with meticulous research, makes this a pitch-perfect portrait of the city and its denizens. A talented storyteller, she describes the little-known Black American experience of Shanghai, taking the reader from go-go Shanghai to wartime, weaving in actual events, characters, and depictions of the nightspots and jazz clubs of my parents’ Shanghai.

Night in Shanghai

By Nicole Mones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Night in Shanghai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1936, classical pianist Thomas Greene is recruited to Shanghai to lead a jazz orchestra of fellow African-American expats. From being flat broke in segregated Baltimore to living in a mansion with servants of his own, he becomes the toast of a city obsessed with music, money, pleasure and power, even as it ignores the rising winds of war.
Song Yuhua is refined and educated, and has been bonded since age eighteen to Shanghai's most powerful crime boss in payment for her father's gambling debts. Outwardly submissive, she burns with rage and risks her life spying on her master for…


A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai

By Tess Johnston,

Book cover of A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai

Why this book?

Hard to imagine now, but when Tess Johnston arrived in Shanghai as an American diplomat in 1981, no one was researching or writing much about Old Shanghai. Fascinated by the city’s old Western buildings, she collaborated with Shanghainese photographer Deke Erh to piece together the stories behind the once-grand architecture. Photographed in the 1980s and ’90s, A Last Look provides a provocative visual history of Old Shanghai, accompanied by succinct text penned in Johnston’s personable style. This oeuvre is not only an appealing entrée into a lost era but has become a precious remembrance, as many of its subject buildings and neighborhoods have since been demolished. Although the book is out of print, it’s worth ordering a used copy.

A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai

By Tess Johnston,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Last Look as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Book by Johnston, Tess


The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

By Jonathan Kaufman,

Book cover of The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

Why this book?

A great deal has been written about the Jewish refugees who flooded into Shanghai during World War II, but that’s not the case with the story of the wealthy Sephardic Jewish families who arrived in the early days of opium trading and built fabulous fortunes. In Last Kings of Shanghai, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jonathan Kaufman weaves the epic tale of the Sassoons and the Kadoories, stretching from Baghdad to Shanghai to London and Hong Kong. It’s a story of business acumen and political intrigue, of wartime survival and the choices that saw one family perpetuate its wealth and influence in China, and the other fade into history.

The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China

By Jonathan Kaufman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Last Kings of Shanghai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"In vivid detail... examines the little-known history of two extraordinary dynasties."--The Boston Globe

"Not just a brilliant, well-researched, and highly readable book about China's past, it also reveals the contingencies and ironic twists of fate in China's modern history."--LA Review of Books

An epic, multigenerational story of two rival dynasties who flourished in Shanghai and Hong Kong as twentieth-century China surged into the modern era, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

The Sassoons and the Kadoories stood astride Chinese business and politics for more than one hundred seventy-five years, profiting from the Opium Wars; surviving Japanese occupation; courting Chiang Kai-shek; and…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, Shanghai, and refugees?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, Shanghai, and refugees.

China Explore 434 books about China
Shanghai Explore 46 books about Shanghai
Refugees Explore 98 books about refugees

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Factory Girls, The Party, and Champions Day if you like this list.