10 authors have picked their favorite books about
Shanghai and why they recommend each book.
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Why this book?
Published in 1933 Mao Dun’s Midnight is the Chinese novel that most accurately shows the harsh effects of the freewheeling capitalism that characterised old Shanghai in its international treaty port days. The city’s great wealth is built on low wages, awful conditions, and exploitation. This is Shanghai as a powder keg about to explode.
Malraux’s novel is perhaps the most intricately atmospheric novel of old Shanghai, written in 1933 but set amid the 1927 Lefist Uprising and the massacre that follows. Malraux weaves the stories of Chinese revolutionaries, Russian agents, stateless refugees, foreign businessmen and poor workers into a portrait of the city. It is also a book that shows Shanghai as the most modern city in Asia between the world wars – neon, traffic jams, jazz….
Riichi, an experimental, modernist Japanese writer, was perfectly suited to Shanghai, always an experimental modernist city. Shanghai was written after the author’s extended sojourn in Shanghai in the late 1920s. It is a fever dream of a city, cosmopolitan, deracinated, and louche yet almost impossible to grasp. Riichi’s Shanghai is not totally naturalistic yet his novel amazingly embodies the very spirit of old Shanghai.
This is a collection of short stories by one of China’s modernist masters, mostly translated by Andrew Field. However, Mu is largely forgotten and rarely read now either in Chinese or in translation. The reason is simple – he chose to collaborate with the Japanese in World War Two. Yet his short stories are so emblematic of old Shanghai, its dancehalls and bars; nightclubs and bordellos. Mu moves through a Shanghai demimonde of Chinese and foreigners, gangsters and tycoons, imported whisky, and Shanghainese cuisine. His writing is the epitome of the nighttime neon-lit old photography of the city we are…
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…
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…
Shanghai is a city that fascinates and repels both Chinese and foreigners alike. The harsh exploitative past and the contemporary resurgence embrace a sometimes unsettling mix of wealth, style and brutality. The architectural reshaping of the megalopolis of more than 20 million souls reflects this context and no one has captured it better than Greg Girard, a Canadian photojournalist who spent much of his career in Asia. The twilight of eerie neon tones in the smoggy half-demolished city is fertile territory for this image maker chasing the phantoms.
Starting out as a serial in an 1890s Shanghainese magazine, yet remaining unpublished until 2005 following the discovery of its English translation among the belongings of the late Eileen Chang, The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai is an unparalleled historical classic set in the pleasure quarters of the Qing Dynasty. Unlike the hyper-erotic writings of Li Yu and Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng, the author, Bangqing Han, opted for a tempered realism unique for its period. Clocking in at 600 pages, and densely layered with multiple character arcs that are a bit difficult to keep track of, Sing-Song Girls may require more than…
Decidedly contemporary China’s most provocative foreign writer, Isham Cook has spent the past decade in Beijing penning books about taboo subject matter that heretofore few expat authors have been willing to publicly reveal about their lives here. Specifically, prurience and libertine excess. I liken him as a reincarnated Edmund Backhouse with a hint of Henry Miller and a dash of de Sade. In his putative memoir The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai, Cook reimagines himself as an Asian woman in order to psychoanalyze his past relationships with Chinese girlfriends whom he tormented with polyamory. If nothing else, read this for…
Like her or not, the reigning queen of the naughty girl subgenre of Chinese literature decidedly is Wei Hui, whose debut, Shanghai Baby, was a cultural phenomenon that resulted in public book burnings, an international media frenzy, dozens of imitators, and one so-bad-it’s-good movie adaptation starring Bai Ling. Not that Wei Hui is a particularly well-regarded writer – Shanghai Baby is basically a knockoff of shallow Western-style chick-lit, about a designer-brand-obsessed young woman who has an affair with a married foreigner – but in 1999 it was groundbreaking for kicking the publishing doors down for the post-1970s generation of…