Essays

Sin in Old Shanghai

Into the Shanghai trenches, with Paul French

Shanghai’s sin districts, catering to foreigners, were many and varied. They appeared moments after the city became a treaty port in the 1840s and survived through to the 1950s. Whoring at the brothel shacks in Hongkew (Hongkou), gambling at the first race course on Honan Road, illicit betting at the adjacent Fives courts and knock-down-and-drag-out shamshu bars in Pootung (Pudong), were all popular pursuits for sailors. Sin existed across the city – in the French Concession and the International Settlement, around the edgelands of the foreign concessions in the Western External Roads (Huxi), as well as the Northern External Roads that ran across the Settlement’s borders from Hongkew into Chapei (Zhabei).

All of these districts shifted, morphed, rose and fell over the decades thanks to a variety of factors: from suppression by the Chinese and/or foreign authorities; as a consequence of the Second Sino-Japanese War after 1937, and the liberation of Shanghai from the Japanese in 1945; and ending after the arrival of the communists in 1949. All these places were the subject of legend and anecdote, exaggeration, and not a little official embarrassment. The sin districts fill the pages of the files of the Shanghai Municipal Police and the jotter books of the Garde Municipal in Frenchtown. They were patrolled by the Japanese Gendarmerie that, in the late 1930s, controlled the Western and Northern External Roads, and by the Chinese police that governed the fringes of the settlements beyond foreign control. All saw prostitution, drug abuse and gambling alongside murder, mayhem and bloodletting. The stories are legion, such as the unsolved murder of Eliza Shapera in 1907 – one of the many crimes among Shanghai’s multinational underclass, once called ‘Shanghailanders’.

 

Essays

Sherlock Holmes and the Curious Case of Several Million Chinese Fans

How Holmes came to China, and a run-in with the Beijing Sherlock Holmes Society – Paul French

China’s long love affair with England’s greatest consulting detective is a mystery worth solving. The BBC hit show Sherlock, which ran from 2010-17, proved a smash with Chinese viewers: 4.72 million viewers watched one episode, eager to find out how Holmes dodged death after plunging off the roof of London’s St. Bart’s Hospital at the end of the previous season. Weibo, China’s Twitter, was filled with chatter about the show by fans of “Curly Fu” and “Peanut” (the nicknames given by Chinese fans to Holmes and Watson, because they sound like the Chinese pronunciation of their names).

The often lumbering behemoth of the BBC indeed showed itself rather fleet of foot in China. Faced with The Case of the Pirate DVD Seller and the Mystery of the Illegal Download Site, Auntie Beeb performed a shrewd deduction of its own by licensing Sherlock (with official Chinese subtitles) to Youku, a Chinese video streaming site, which screened it just hours after its British air time. (Had they waited even a few hours more, they knew, the illegal downloads and bootleg DVDs would have hit the streets.) But why not make it available in China at the same time it airs in Britain? Unlike a good detective mystery, China’s TV bosses don’t like surprise endings: the censors have to check for any anti-China content. This was a big issue in the first episode of season three – Holmes’s return from the dead – and as any good Sherlockian knows he spent the years after his tumble over the Reichenbach Falls in the contentious region of Tibet.

Holmes mania is not new to China, however. Sherlock Holmes was first introduced to Chinese readers in 1896, with translations of four stories appearing in Current Affairs newspaper. So popular were they with readers that in 1916 the Zhonghua Book Company published The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, featuring 44 stories that rendered Conan Doyle’s prose into classical Chinese (文言文 wenyanwen).

 

Essays

The Chinese Intellectual Memorialized in Oxford

Chiang Yee and England’s wartime circle of Chinese literati – Paul French

Anyone who has lived in or visited the UK will likely be familiar with the Blue Plaque scheme: permanent signs on buildings across the country, commemorating the link between that location and a culturally significant person or event. To qualify for a Blue Plaque, nominees must be regarded as eminent within their field; that is, their achievements have made an exceptional impact or deserve national recognition. Nobody is quite sure how many Blue Plaques there are – it’s rather a hotchpotch system administered locally – although London alone has about 900.

Until recently, Britain only had two Blue Plaques commemorating the lives of Chinese people: one to the writer Lao She, and another to Dr Sun Yatsen, “Father of Modern China.” 

Hidden History

Lady Chatterley Must Go!

The censorship of a classic in 1940s Shanghai – Paul French

In September 1940, the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) launched a concerted campaign to ensure that no English-language books deemed “salacious” or “unfit for public sale” should be available in the territory of the International Settlement. The campaign began by seizing several copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover available in foreign and locally operated bookstores. With the Japanese encirclement of the foreign concessions of Shanghai complete, relations between the International Settlement – often termed the “solitary island” (gudao) – and the Japanese military were at an all-time low. It was the brink of all-out, total war.

Essays

The Shanghai Mind

Arthur Ransome and the Origin of the Shanghai Mind – Paul French

People have long talked about Shanghai being different from the rest of China. Beijing scholars in the 1920s coined the term haipai (Shanghai style) to criticize Shanghai’s self-obsessive modernity. Shanghai was a “bubble,” “a bastard child,” somehow not fully China.

It is true that Shanghai’s history is distinctly different to that of other Chinese cities. It was not a Crown Colony, a Dominion, a Commonwealth, a Raj or a Federated State, but Shanghai was that other product of British imperialism – a Treaty Port. From 1842 until 1941, Shanghai was one of initially five settlements forced from China after the First Opium War (1839-1842) and based on the notion of extraterritoriality, which meant that foreigners were exempted from the jurisdiction of local Chinese law.