China Conversations

Delving into Shanghai’s Demimonde

Paul French talks nonfiction noir with  Jonathan Chatwin

Where did the research for City of Devils start?

My first port of call is newspapers, specifically the old China coast newspapers, which are mainly – though not exclusively – in English: the North China Daily News; the China Press; the Shanghai Mercury; the Peking Gazette. Some of it is online, but not much has been scanned, so you have to go to the British Library newspaper archive, Hong Kong University library or the Zikawei library in the Xujiahui district of Shanghai, and use originals or microfilms. In going through those, you find stories which give you threads to pull at. And the stories are important in context of the Sinology. City of Devils, for instance, takes its lead from Frederic Wakeman’s Sinological work. He wrote two books, on policing Shanghai in the 1930s and on Shanghai’s Badlands. But both are focused on the Chinese experience, whereas I write about the foreigners.

China Conversations

In China, No Never Means No

Zhou Xun, in conversation with Jonathan Chatwin

Did you always have an interest in Chinese history?

My first degree was actually nothing to do with history; it was in librarianship, which has been hugely useful in preparing me to do archival research – I walk straight into the archives and know where to start! When I came to the UK, my academic interest was more around the history of religion, in particular Judaism. Through that I met a group of Jewish people who were born in Manchuria and became interested in their story. I initially wanted to pursue a PhD on the subject, but as I started, I changed my mind as I came across a vast amount of material on Chinese perception of the Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries; it was this that really began my interest in modern Chinese history.

China Conversations

Robert Bickers: “Look for China and You Will Find It”

Could you outline how your interest in China, and Chinese history, began?

The logical answer might be: I spent three years of my childhood living in Hong Kong, where my father was posted with the Royal Air Force to a helicopter squadron. I was just six when we arrived, but remember the first day vividly. But it’s not that. Applying to London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to study Mandarin just seemed like a good idea at the time. I might say specifically that it was a course on ‘Chinese Peasants and Revolution’ at SOAS, led by Charles Curwen, who had worked in China with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and stayed on in China until 1954. In London in the mid-1980s, Curwen was no less wrapped up in the Chinese revolution than he had been in China. But it’s probably not that course either. Again, it just seemed a good idea at the time when I applied to study for a doctorate in Chinese studies; there weren’t many people in that field in the UK then.