Shanghai between the two world wars was a city of many names and reputations—both the Paris of the East and the Whore of the Orient. It was also a city of a refuge, and “a home,” writes Paul French in his latest book, City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir, “to those with nowhere to go and no one else to take them in.”
Among the “flotsam and jetsam” were European Jews fleeing Fascism, Russians escaping Bolshevism, Chinese peasants looking to get away from the grinding poverty and chaos of the Chinese countryside, and, later, the surge of the Japanese Imperial Army. There were also adventurers seeking their fortune and escaped convicts looking to evade the long arm of the state.
Shanghai was not a colony; it was a concession. In the waning days of the imperial era, it had been, at best, a lopsided and frequently improvised collaboration between the Qing state and various foreign powers. With the final demise of the Qing Empire in 1912, China entered a period of prolonged instability, including periods where the term “failed state” would easily apply. Despite the turmoil and war of early 20th-century China, Shanghai—neither a formal outpost of colonial power, nor locally governed municipality—became both a zone of stability and a refuge for the stateless.
It was also a city of opportunity and reinvention.