City of Devils is a brilliant, fast-paced must-read that relishes inhabiting the darkest alleys and glitziest clubs of crime- and drug-filled Shanghai.
Shanghai in the ‘30s is the sort of setting that instantly conjures hedonistic and transgressive images for most culturally-aware consumers today: prostitution, liquor, gambling, gang violence and, of course, opium. The international zone was a haven of vice, crime and danger. What Paul French’s entertaining and detailed City of Devils exhibits is that ‘30s-era Shanghai was also a life raft for the lost, discarded and excluded, a place where people on the run from a bad break at home could lucratively forge a new life.
The book focuses on two such cast-offs and their meteoric rise to wealth and fame in Shanghai on the cusp of World War II: US-American prison escapee Jack Riley and Viennese Jew and nightclub dancer Joe Farren. Riley and Farren are held up as exemplars of the opportunities offered to the desperate by Shanghai and, in telling their intertwined stories, French is able to provide a portrait of the city itself.
Shanghai was internationalized after China’s losses in the Opium Wars, but did not rise to nightlife-capital-of-the-world status until the ‘20s, when it became a haven for White Russians escaping the Bolshevik Revolution, a drug- and alcohol-saturated bastion for US tourists fleeing the strictures of Prohibition and a geopolitical playground where the US and Japan quietly vied for dominance over the Pacific. In the ‘30s, as the Depression ravaged the North Atlantic countries and fascism and communism were on the rise, even more flocked to the city. Add in the smugglers who used Shanghai as a way station for sneaking booze and opium in to the States, the motley collection of foreign troops perpetually stationed in the city, Shanghai’s connections to the nascent Chiang Kai-shek regime trying to govern revolutionary China, the sex tourism always drawing rich men to the city and the native Chinese street gangs and Shanghai in the ’30s emerges as something of a love-child of Hollywood’s post-War noir fantasias and ‘20s-era Chicago gangland utopia. And it was ever shrouded in a thick, eternal cloud of opium smoke.
Riley and Farren make ideal tour guides through all the glitz and grime, and French, a long-time denizen of present-day Shanghai, an able steward. Riley barely survived his Don-Draper-like childhood in Oklahoma and Colorado orphanages and brothels before serving in the US Marines in Shanghai and Manila for years. Upon his return to the States, he pulled his best Andy Dufresne impression, becoming an unwitting accomplice to murder, being sentenced to a long prison term and managing to escape captivity and wash up in Shanghai with a new identity and acid-burned fingertips. Once in the City of Devils, he rose from dive bar proprietor to the self-appointed “Slots King” of Shanghai, exploiting the one-armed bandits for prominence and riches.
Farren’s pre-Shanghai life was a bit less dramatic—and not as aligned with beloved fictional figures of US popular culture—as Riley’s, but he too turned to Shanghai as a refuge. He was a famed dancer and club booker who slowly rose up the socioeconomic ladder in the city, which was far friendlier to Jews than anywhere else in the Old World. Shortly after he left the Jewish ghetto of Vienna, the Nazis rose to power in neighboring Germany and soon began persecuting central European Jewry. Meanwhile, Shanghai had its own Jewish quarter and Farren could make a happy life for himself.
Neither Farren nor Riley could return to their native lands; come rain or shine, Shanghai was home. For most of the ‘30s, it was all shine and made a great home for both men. In 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War started in earnest and all of Shanghai besides the international zone quickly came under imperial Japanese occupation; in 1941, when the War in the Pacific commenced with Pearl Harbor, Shanghai became inhospitable to most everyone, including both Farren and Riley. This is the trajectory of City of Devils, tracing Shanghai’s rise as the vice capital of the world and bastion for boozers, junkies, sex fiends, gambling addicts, Jews, blacks, fugitives, smugglers and anti-communist Russians and its rapid fall under the brutal occupation of the Japanese. For anyone who loves reading true stories from the classic era of organized crime or those obsessed with the interwar period, City of Devils is a brilliant, fast-paced must-read that relishes inhabiting the darkest alleys and glitziest clubs of crime- and drug-filled Shanghai.