The best books on twentieth-century Shanghai

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom Author Of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink
By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom

The Books I Picked & Why

Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai

By James Carter

Book cover of Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai

Why this book?

Shanghai, which was once called the “Hollywood of Asia,” has always been a cinematic city par excellence, so a good way to describe the charms of this book is via movie terms. In one sense, it zooms in tightly on a specific day in the history of the city and what was happening in a single setting. It mixes close-ups of a horse race and some people who came to watch it, though, with wide-angle shots and flashbacks. The author, a skilled historian with deep knowledge of Chinese history and a stylish writer, moves effortlessly between Shanghai in the early 1940s as the Japanese military’s World War II era grip on the city and much of China was tightening and earlier points in its past. He also moves fluidly between the racecourse—a potent symbol, as during the height of the British imperial period, Britons would often build these to mark their presence in an urban center—and other parts of Old Shanghai. All in all, the book provides a wonderfully readable introduction to the city during the decades leading up to World War II and captures well the unusually cosmopolitan character of the great port.

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Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars

By Lynn Pan

Book cover of Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars

Why this book?

Lynn Pan, who was born in Shanghai before 1949 and then returned to live there early in the twenty-first century after spending time in many other parts of the world, is in many ways my single favorite Shanghainese writer. So, when I put together a list like this, the question is not whether a work by her will be on it, but rather which one of several excellent ones by her will make the cut. This volume is a beautifully produced one that complements Champions Day nicely, focusing on similar themes but coming at them via a focus on architecture and creativity. It is a book for those fascinated by Shanghai, for obvious reasons, but like a lot of books on the city’s past, it is also intriguing to read by those who have been fascinated by Hong Kong’s cultural and creative vibrancy and have been following the news about the way it is now being threatened. That city, which was one where Pan spent time between her two periods living in Shanghai, is also one where the mixing of cultural traditions led to the emergence of a very special style—a style that could only flourish for a time but has left a complex lasting legacy.

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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?

This is a spirited and emotionally resonant read that follows the lives of a group of Shanghai residents who grew up in the city before it fell under Communist Party control and then left it to start new lives in other parts of the world. Based on extended interviews, it is by a journalist who has done important work on people of Chinese descent in the United States, and as impressive as it is in bringing Old Shanghai to life, it is equally good at capturing elements of the time the people she profiles spent in other parts of the world, from Taiwan to New York to Hong Kong. There is a personal angle to it as well, as the author is writing in part about her own relatives.

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Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life

By Jie Li

Book cover of Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of Private Life

Why this book?

At this point in a list, it isn’t bad to note connections between works, so I’ll begin with those. This is the only book other than Champions Day that is by an academic, but Li, like Carter, is one who knows how to write for general audiences in a compelling and accessible way. Hers is another book, like Zia’s, that is partly an effort to reconstruct the history of the author’s own family, as key figures in this author’s reconstruction of the changing (and enduring) rhythms of life in a Shanghai neighborhood in the 1950s and beyond are relatives she interviewed. There is also a tie to Lynn Pan’s work, in the sense that Li has moved between different parts of the world in her life. All this said, Shanghai Homes is a unique work that reminds me of the best ethnographically minded studies of connections between people and patterns of quotidian existence I’ve read about any time and place. There is also a charming use of photographs.

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Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai

By Qiu Xiaolong

Book cover of Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai

Why this book?

There is a lot of wonderful fiction set in Shanghai, so I wanted to make sure to include one such work. Figuring out which wasn’t easy, as there are good short stories and novels by a range of important authors, from deceased writers like Mao Dun, Eileen Chang, and J.G. Ballard, whose partly autobiographical Empire of the Sun was based on his Shanghai childhood, to living ones like Wang Anyi. I chose this collection of vignettes by Qiu Xiaolong (who is best known for his Inspector Chen Shanghai-set police procedurals and grew up in Shanghai and now lives in the United States) because it pairs so well with Shanghai Homes. You can read it as a fictional cousin to Jie Li’s book, as this work by Qiu, in which his famous detective does not appear, is made up of tales set in a single alleyway neighborhood. Reading them together, as they both deal largely with the 1950s and 1960s, you can imagine the real-life figures in Li’s book and made-up ones in Qiu’s (who were likely based on people the author knew or heard stories about) crossing paths with one another.

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