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Rollicking revelry in pre-war Shanghai

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/7/2016 (396 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Evelyn Waugh once titled a book of his travel writing When the Going Was Good. That sums up the city of Shanghai, lovingly brought to life, in this non-fiction doorstopper that assaults all the senses.

Veteran Montreal writer Taras Grescoe has six books under his belt, including his latest prize-winning title, 2012’s Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves From the Automobile.

Here we are given a historical view of the former "Paris of the East." The history is second, however, to the characters Grescoe has researched in great detail, with the emphasis here (as the subtitle suggests) being on the 1930s.

These include "Morris (Two-Gun) Cohen, a Jewish brawler from London’s East End, who after saving the life of a Cantonese cook on the Canadian Prairies was named a general in the movement to liberate China from seven centuries of Manchu domination."

If that reads like something from a Terry and the Pirates comic strip, it’s because the three main characters Grescoe brings to life all lived lives filled with adventure, sensuality and money.

To be fair, the city of Shanghai itself comes off as the author’s first love and major character, and Grescoe seems to agree with Aldous Huxley, who wrote of his visit that "in no city, West or East, have I ever had such an impression of dense, rank, richly clotted life."

Emily (Mickey) Hahn is a close second. Hahn grew up reading the Fu Manchu "yellow peril" nonsense of Sax Rohmer, while living in St. Louis, Miss. Life in Missouri was too tame for her; a feisty streak took her to university, where she switched to engineering after being told "the female mind is incapable of grasping mechanics or higher mathematics."

She became the first female mining engineer to graduate from the University of Wisconsin. Wanderlust and a hankering to write — or, as she later phrased it, "I use myself, which means that I use everything... I can’t help it anymore than I can help breathing" — took her to New York and eventually to Shanghai, where she wrote for the New Yorker magazine.

There she met the well-to-do Chinese poet and publisher Zau Sinmay. He introduced her to a Shanghai that would have been impenetrable to her, and that included an introduction to opium. According to Grescoe, "he matched the description of the evil Dr. Fu Manchu Mickey had thrilled to as a child. But in Sinmay’s case, the overall effect was one not of corruption and malevolence, but of exotic beauty and wistful charm."

The third representative of the time and period is Sir Victor Sassoon, whose extensive business and real estate holdings included the building of the Cathay Hotel (now the Peace) that graces the cover of the book. He rode and supported the wave of Western business control of the Bund and surrounding area until the Japanese came calling with their military.

Shanghai Grand is a somewhat padded story, but at its best it is a roller-coaster ride in a time and place of unbelievable wealth and unbelievable poverty. It was all crime, corruption and champagne cocktails until the Second World War and Mao Zedong swept it all away.

Ron Robinson found the jazz in the Cathay Hotel improved with a glass of Canadian Club.

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