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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Helen Zia

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

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

By Jung Chang

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Night in Shanghai

By Nicole Mones

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai

By Tess Johnston

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

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

By Jonathan Kaufman

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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists

Random Book Lists