My novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is set in Shanghai 1937. Does any story set in the past qualify as historical fiction? Hilary Mantel says historical fiction must do far more than dredge up the past:
A relation of past events bring[s] you up against events and mentalities that, should you choose to describe them, would bring you to the borders of what your readers could bear. The danger you have to negotiate is not the dimpled coyness of the past – it is its obscenity.
Obscenity is the only way to describe life in Shanghai in 1937. The city was a Christmas turkey, trussed and ready for the carving knife, the prime cuts being the International Settlement and the French Concession, the leftovers the native city. As the scholar Frederic Wakeman, Jr. noted in Policing Shanghai 1927-1937, organized crime – gambling, prostitution and narcotics – was rampant throughout Shanghai. In 1936, there were over 300 cabarets and casinos in the foreign concessions alone. Prostitution also soared, fed in part by the ratio of men to women (16:10). When the dance halls filled with taxi dancers. pp. 108-109.
Eventually, toward the end of the 1930’s, Shanghai would have 2,500 to 5,000 taxi dancers, more than 60 percent of whom were believed to be practicing prostitution.
But let me be clear: I am not an historian. I will even admit to using the Internet to look up countless historical facts, acutely aware of its unreliability. For example, this famous photograph Bloody Saturday is often used to illustrate the savage Japanese bombardment of Shanghai. Some sources attribute the scene the First Battle of Shanghai in 1932, while others contend that the picture was taken in the aftermath of the Second Battle of Shanghai in 1937. Which of these contentions is historically accurate? Does it matter?
Not to me. Unless it was an historical fact critical to the plot of my novel, in which case I looked for validation. Otherwise, I didn’t sweat it. My goal was never accuracy but rather versimilitude. I want to take the reader to a place that smells and sounds and tastes like it could have existed.
But for those of you who want the real deal on Old Shanghai, here is my reading list.
Tales of Old Shanghai, a veritable gold mine of information on matters ranging from opium addiction to the size of the foreign population in Shanghai, is sadly no longer available at http://www.earnshaw.com but maybe a book will be in the offing soon?
I use photographs to find my way around Old Shanghai. But Old Shanghai is disappearing under the weight of the newest Maglev line or high-end shopping mall.
As a result, most of my photographs are nothing more than a reminder, a hint, a door into another world. There are other, better visuals that can actually take you there.
If I needed to find a location, let’s say for a romantic tryst between the dancer Anyi and her lover Cho, I would pore over A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai by Tess Johnston and Deke Erh (Old China Hand Press 2004). And if I wanted to know how the rooftop bar at the Park Hotel was furnished, Shanghai Style: Art and Design between the Wars by Lynn Pan (Joint Publishing (H.K.) Co. 2008) would give me the answer.
Some other sources:
Old Shanghai, He Youzhi and George Wang (purchased at the Shikumen House Museum, Shanghai), a 2011 calendar with marvelous illustrations of daily life.
Shanghai Lady Poster, Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center, a museum whose primary focus is the Mao period in Shanghai though it also houses quite a number of these lovely ladies.
Splendid Slippers: A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition, Beverley Jackson (Ten Speed Press 1997), a sometimes gruesome yet also aesthetically pleasing account of the practice of footbinding and the fashion it inspired.
I’ve read some serious historical research books, too. For an overall sense of Chinese history, Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China (W.W. Norton 3rd edition 2013) is excellent.
Shanghai’s Dancing World by Andrew David Field was indispensable for its wealth of texture and insight into the lives of dancers, musicians and the criminal underworld that supported them all.
For a look at Shanghai through the eyes of the greatest criminal of all, Du (“Big Ears”) Yuesheng, read the prolific Lynn Pan‘s Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise (Marshall Cavendish 1984). And for an eye-popping insight into police corruption, you can’t go wrong with the Wakeman research cited above.
I’ve captured some of our family ghosts on film but most have no better home than my imperfect memory. Like the pair of children who walked to Shanghai wearing coats lined with smuggler’s bars of silver. Or my father, returning to China after an absence of more than 40 years, unable to identify what’s wrong. Then the last day of his visit, he says,
I miss the smell of opium.
The gods have gifted me with my grandfather’s letters written in the last 8 years of his life. My father and his eldest brother have both written memoirs to capture the Kao family history. I have my own faulty records of numerous conversations with my father about his life in Old Shanghai. My brother produced a family tree, which I have plucked bare to name the characters in my novel. But, as the disclaimer goes:
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
How does all this information jell into a novel? I have no idea. As with the making of sausages and laws, perhaps it’s best not to know.
Originally published on 14 December 2016. Edited on 8 June 2017.