On the eve of WWII, the foreign-controlled port of Shanghai was the rendezvous for the twentieth century's most outlandish adventurers, all under the watchful eye of the fabulously wealthy Sir Victor Sassoon. ??
Emily Hahn was a legendary New Yorker writer who would cover China for nearly fifty years, and play an integral part in opening Asia up to the West. But at the height of the Depression, "Mickey" Hahn, had just arrived in Shanghai nursing a broken heart after a disappointing affair with an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter, convinced she would never love again. After entering Sassoon's glamorous Cathay Hotel, Hahn is absorbed into the social swirl of the expats drawn to pre-war China, among them Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Harold Acton, and the colourful gangster named Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen. But when she meets Zau Sinmay, a Chinese poet from an illustrious family, she discovers the real Shanghai through his eyes: the city of rich colonials, triple agents, opium-smokers, displaced Chinese peasants, and increasingly desperate White Russian and Jewish refugees—a place her innate curiosity will lead her to discover first hand. But danger lurks on the horizon and Mickey barely makes it out alive as the brutal Japanese occupation destroys the seductive world of pre-war Shanghai and Mao Tse-tung's Communists come to power in China.
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About the Author
Taras Grescoe is the award-winning author of several books, including The Devil's Picnic, Bottomfeeder, and Straphanger. He's a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, Gourmet, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian. He lives in Montreal.
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Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World
By Taras Grescoe
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Taras Grescoe
All rights reserved.
Shanghai, January 28, 1932
The room boy had just cleared Sir Victor Sassoon's desk for tiffin – the multi-course luncheon that, on Thursdays, included a Bombay-style vegetable curry accompanied by a bottle of ice-cold Bass ale – when the blast occurred. Suddenly and authoritatively, every molecule in the penthouse of the Cathay Hotel was displaced by a vastly percussive thud, almost tectonic in its intensity, followed half a beat later by a watery, all-encompassing whoosh. For a moment, the entire building seemed to lurch backwards, like a stout man rocked on his heels by a gust from a Pacific typhoon.
Sir Victor approached the windows that faced north towards the Public Gardens. A geyser of filthy water was already subsiding into a cloud of vapour on the river in front of the Japanese Consulate in Hongkew. Shock waves from the explosion had sent the bat-winged junks on the Whangpoo River bobbing like toys in a bathtub. From the looks of it, the Chinese had detonated a naval mine not fifty yards from the Izumo, the flagship of Japan's Imperial Navy in China.
So, this was how it was going to be. Tokyo and Nanking weren't content to confine their squabbling to Manchuria. They were going to bring the fight to his doorstep.
That the Asiatics were at each other's throats was one matter. That their chosen battleground was the greatest metropolis in the Far East, a city whose greatness derived from the sustained industry of the Western powers, was quite another. Ever since the Japanese had sunk the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in 1905 – the first time a Western power had been defeated by an Oriental one – they had been swaggering about Asia like they owned the place. In Shanghai, the number of their factories had been steadily growing, as had the number of resident Japanese, so that they now outnumbered the combined British and American population. In spite of their assurances that Tokyo's intentions in Shanghai were peaceful, belligerent elements in the Imperial Navy had taken advantage of a Chinese boycott of Japanese-made goods to launch their fleet, on the pretext of protecting Japanese citizens in Shanghai. Less than a week before, Rear-Admiral Shiozawa had solemnly assured Harry Arnhold – chairman of the Municipal Council, and one of Sir Victor's most trusted lieutenants – that Japan had no intention of trespassing on the neutrality of the International Settlement. Yet the following day, 500 Japanese marines had landed on the wharves of Yangtzepoo, half a mile from the front door of the Cathay Hotel. The copy of the North-China Daily News atop Sir Victor's desk reported that a dozen Japanese destroyers had sailed from Nagasaki the day before. Even now they were crossing the 500 miles of the East China Sea, destination: Shanghai.
Sir Victor picked up the telephone receiver and called down to the lobby. Carrard, the Swiss-born manager at the front desk, assured his employer that the staff had reported no deaths or injuries. So there was that: he wouldn't be walking out into a lobby strewn with bloodied bodies. Before he reached the door, an impulse made him pivot on his walking stick and reach for his motion-picture camera. Whatever drama was occurring outside, it was bound to be photogenic.
In the corridor, the Chinese lift operator was waiting for him, white-gloved hands holding back the gates. As the indicator needle counted down the floors, Sir Victor's anxiety mounted. Until now, he had had no reason to regret his decision to move the Sassoon family's base of operations from India to China. In Bombay the previous summer, he'd announced his decision to quit the subcontinent with some satisfaction.
"The political situation in India does not encourage one to launch out in a big way for the time being," he'd told the editor of the Times of India, who he'd summoned to his office. "India under Swaraj [self-rule] will have a great deal of internal trouble. On the other hand, China now is getting over her civil wars."
The interview had appeared on front pages in London and New York. The Indians, long restless under British rule, now seemed intent on self-sabotage. Two years earlier, a self-righteous lawyer had marched over 200 miles from his Gujarati ashram to the Arabian Sea. Kneeling on the beach, Mohandas Gandhi had bucked the tax laws of the Raj through the simple expedient of boiling a lump of mud in seawater to illegally manufacture his own salt. Now, as head of the Congress Party, Gandhi was calling for a complete rejection of British authority. The flag he proposed for an independent India was made of handspun cloth. Bang in the middle was a simple rendering of a foot-operated spinning wheel, said to symbolize Indian self-reliance. For Sir Victor, it was a personal affront: the thousands of mechanized spools of the twelve Sassoon mills in Bombay, which kept the British Empire supplied with well-priced cotton, had also spun the family fortune.
In truth, life in India had become tiresome for Sir Victor. Bombay meant sweating in formal whites at excruciatingly long banquets with the Viceroy; yet another burra peg of whisky at the club to ward off the withering humidity; the stultifying Colonial atmosphere of inertia, bureaucracy, and over-taxation. Since he had started visiting the Sassoon offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai, China had impressed him with its immense potential. Shanghai was gin slings at late-night cabarets, horse races with spirited Mongolian ponies, and pliant sing-song girls with outlandish nicknames. The city, inevitably, had its share of self-styled blue bloods who thought it clever to mumble anti-Semitic remarks behind his back. But they were outnumbered by an ever-growing population of cultured White Russians, straight-talking American entrepreneurs, preposterous European adventurers, and educated – and increasingly prosperous – Chinese. For a man who knew how to make the best of a complex situation, this most complex of cities felt like home.
On the eve of the stock market crash, Sir Victor had transferred sixty lakhs of silver taels – the equivalent of $29 million – from Bombay to Shanghai. Even now, new Sassoon hotels and apartment buildings were under construction in the Chinese city, the French Concession, and the International Settlement. While stockbrokers leaped from skyscrapers on New York's Wall Street, Sir Victor had been raising new towers on Shanghai's Bund; as the global depression bit deeper, the neon had continued to glow bright in only one city. All over the world people dreamt of coming to exotic, seductive Shanghai.
Sassoon had made sure of that with his grandest gesture: the construction of the Cathay Hotel. Its very name was a declaration of faith in the future of China. Since the day it opened in 1929, when the press had dubbed it the "Claridge's of the Far East," its reputation for up-to-date elegance had made Shanghai an essential port of call for luxury ocean liners. Already the hotel registry was filled with the signatures of celebrities. Noël Coward had been one of the first guests: he'd written an entire play while laid up with influenza in his suite. The arrival of every new ocean liner brought launches filled with well-heeled visitors. The most fashionable arrived with a booking for a room at the Cathay.
The presence among them of comely young women kept Sir Victor hopeful. He had known love once; they had met during his university years, while he was summering in London. Parental opposition cut the affair short; her family wouldn't hear of their daughter marrying a Jew. (To even his closest friends, he never spoke her name aloud; she was always "that woman.") Back at Cambridge he'd substituted defiance for despair, founding a "Club for Bachelors" with his fellow undergraduates. The initiation ceremony culminated in a blood oath, sealed one night over magnums of champagne, never to marry. Until now, he'd kept the faith, cultivating the role of cynical man of the world, flippant about affairs of the heart. When he had liaisons, he was careful to keep them brief. Fortunately, it was easy to ward off the gold-diggers who assailed him: their motivations tended to be as transparent as their charms were extravagant.
For Sir Victor, building the Cathay was a gesture of defiance: if he could not find happiness in London, Bombay, or Hong Kong, he would build a world of his own, beyond the confines of Empire. In Shanghai, he was in the process of turning a malarial swamp into a garden of delights. The Cathay was his prize orchid on the Bund, one that was already luring the world's most fabulous social butterflies. He was confident that, one day, he would go down to the lobby and she would be there – a woman who could fire his imagination and match his passion.
It wouldn't be today, though. If the news spread that the Cathay Hotel was at the heart of an active combat zone, nobody – apart from a few crazy reporters – would be coming to Shanghai at all. As the clatter of his steel-tipped walking stick echoed through the lobby rotunda, people turned to gaze at the rangy, middle-aged man with sleek black hair and a full moustache, a long Roman nose, and a monocle clamped into his left eye. Lately, American guests had taken to asking for his autograph. People told him he was a ringer for the Hollywood leading man Adolphe Menjou.
Today, though, no one dared impede his progress towards the revolving door. The castle on the Bund was under assault, and its lord had appeared to inspect the integrity of the fortifications.
Outside, he began to pace the building's perimeter, his gaze drawn upwards by the narrow granite ribs that separated the columns of slender windows on the building's facade. At street level, the colonnade of the hotel lobby and the ground-floor shopping arcade ran to the end of Nanking Road. The next three storeys were occupied by the corporate offices of Sassoon House, among them E.D. Sassoon & Co., headquarters of the private banking and trading company that was the cornerstone of the family's business in the Far East. Next came the Cathay Hotel itself: 215 rooms and suites on five floors, each with a private bathroom. Atop the guest floors, an entire level was devoted to dining and dancing. At the front of the building, nearest the riverfront, the first three tiers of the tower emerged from the roof: the Chinese-style Tower Grill, the Jacobean-style banquet hall, and the penthouse from which he had just descended. Atop it all was a pyramidal roof of verdigrised copper culminating in a look-out, 202 feet above street level, reserved for the spotters of the Shanghai Fire Brigade.
To some eyes the Cathay suggested a fanciful Art Deco rendition of a Chinese skyrocket. For Sir Victor, its granite streamlines recalled those aerodynamic sedans, their very silhouettes evoking velocity, that had lately been coming out of America. It was a fine contrast to its neighbours, the banks and head offices of the Bund, whose rusticated cornerstones and Corinthian columns suggested immobility, tradition, and the solidity of capital and Empire.
As a condition of building the Cathay, Sir Victor had convinced the Municipal Council to let him straighten out the dog-legged Nanking Road. The building's southern perimeter tapered towards its northern edge, which ran diagonally along Jinkee Road, so that the two sides met in a near-point at the hotel's riverfront facade. From the air, the Cathay formed a flat-bottomed but perfectly legible "V."
Not coincidentally, this was how Sir Victor signed his correspondence. Later that year, a vast apartment complex he was building to house his employees would complete the signature. When it was finished, its sinuous facade would form a stylized "S" on the far side of Soochow Creek. Reading from left to right, a passenger in a seaplane above the Bund would see the letters "V" and "S" stitched into the very fibres of Shanghai. Sir Victor Sassoon would be the first man in history to have monogrammed his initials into an entire city. It was a fitting emblem for a man who had derived so much of his fortune from the manufacture of cotton.
Only five years earlier, naysayers had told him no real skyscrapers would ever rise on the banks of the Whangpoo River. In Shanghai the mud of the ages went down, in places, a thousand feet. Sir Victor's engineers had solved the problem by sinking 1,600 piles, made of a composite of concrete and Douglas fir shipped from the Oregon coast, to a depth of sixty feet into the slime. On the piles sat a concrete pontoon, atop which was perched the ferroconcrete structure of Sassoon House. This made the Cathay the only hotel in the world where the guests slumbered atop a gargantuan raft, floating free in semi-liquid alluvial muck.
The explosion on the river had put the structure to its first real test. It appeared to have passed: as he continued his inspection of the colonnade, Sir Victor could detect no cracks in the granite. "Tug" Wilson, the architect, had done his job well.
As he walked farther along the east side of the building, Sir Victor was forced to keep his eyes on the street before him. At the best of times, the point where Nanking Road debouched onto the Whangpoo waterfront was chaotic. Here, outlandishly mutilated beggars keened for coppers and rickshaw coolies trawled for custom, as electric trams shouldered their way through the crowds. Now, stepping onto the Bund, the riverfront promenade that curved as elegantly as the blade of a Sikh policeman's kirpan, he saw pandemonium.
Over the water, the smoke from the exploded mine near the Izumo was dissipating into the ambient winter haze. From between the gossamer arches of the Garden Bridge, which spanned Soochow Creek, an uninterrupted torrent of humanity poured onto the Bund. The arrival of the Japanese was clearly causing panic across the creek in Hongkew. Sweating coolies pushed barrows with enormous wooden wheels, laden with the contents of entire households. Children in padded cotton jackets clutched rag dolls and toy trains to their chests; the topknots of the tiniest bobbed and swayed as they swung in baskets that dangled from poles over the shoulders of older brothers. One old man carried a birdcage; another a grandfather clock. That winter's flooding in the Yangtze had already made the city's Chinese districts swell with homeless peasants. Once again, the International Settlement was about to become a haven for China's most desperate refugees.
Sir Victor planted himself at a spot at the corner of the hotel, by the end of the Nanking Road colonnade, spread the legs of the tripod on the asphalt, and screwed the motion picture camera into place. Just as the motor started to whir, and he began to swivel the lens to take in the panorama, he heard the report of a rifle. A foot above his head, a windowpane shattered.
Damned if somebody wasn't shooting at him.
Hastily folding up the tripod, he made a beeline for the nearest entrance to the hotel. The doorman, trained to keep out sightseers and riff-raff, at first blocked the revolving door with a gloved hand. Flushing as he saw who it was, he bowed deeply as his boss made for the bank of elevators that would whisk him to his office on the third floor.
In the E.D. Sassoon offices, Sir Victor retrieved the service revolver he'd had since the Great War from his desk, tucked it into his belt, and told his secretary to call for a car and driver. No one was going to take pot shots at him in front of the house that he'd built. The Japanese might have decided to play rough, but Shanghai's International Settlement had a few resources of its own.
Sir Victor spent that afternoon in constant motion, inspecting the defenses on the perimeter of the Settlement, snapping photos and chatting with the soldiers of the Volunteer Corps. In the aftermath of the explosion that had shaken the Cathay, the Municipal Council declared a state of emergency and named Brigadier-General George Fleming the Commander-in-Chief. The Scots Fusiliers, he learned, were manning five miles of barricades on the borders of the Settlement.
Pausing at a checkpoint, Sir Victor chatted with a young officer. The mayor of Shanghai's Chinese municipality, he said, had agreed to most of the Japanese demands, including an end to the boycott of Japanese goods that had precipitated the crisis. The wild card in all this was the 19th Route Army, a mob of Chinese soldiers from the distant south – many armed with rifles left over from the 1870–1 Franco-Prussian war, and hand grenades made of cigarette tins – who had washed up outside Shanghai after the nationalists' Northern Expedition. It was anybody's guess whether this lot would melt into the countryside or stand and fight against the Japanese.
The defenses, Sir Victor had to admit, looked solid. There were gunboats on the Whangpoo, and the entire Settlement was surrounded by barbed wire. Yet privately Sir Victor, who had served in a real war, felt the Volunteer Corps were playing at being soldiers. Only that morning, most had been dressed in business suits. The Japanese, in contrast, had sent over men ready to die in their uniforms.
Excerpted from Shanghai Grand by Taras Grescoe. Copyright © 2016 Taras Grescoe. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Map: Shanghai, 1935,
1: Shanghai, January 28, 1932,
2: Where China Meets the World,
3: The Sassoon Gamble,
4: St. Louis, May 27, 1916,
5: The Flapper's Progress,
6: Shanghai Grand,
7: Mickey Checks In,
8: On the Shanghai Beat,
9: Shanghai, April 12, 1935,
10: Cathay and the Muse,
11: The Fantastic Mr. Pan,
13: Shanghai, November 3, 1936,
14: The Rise of the Dwarf Bandits,
15: Sweetie Pie Goes to Nanking,
16: Shanghai, August 14, 1937,
17: After Saturday,
18: The Solitary Island,
19: Waking from the Doze,
20: Shanghai, August 1, 1941,
21: The Last Light in a Dark World,
22: Check-Out Time,
23: Settling the Bill,
Also by Taras Grescoe,
About the Author,