Max Lazerich

The Dancing Girl and the Turtle
Cover image: The Dancing Girl and the Turtle

Max Lazerich is the star of the final volume of my Shanghai Quartet. And yet, so far, he’s played a relatively minor role. In The Dancing Girl and Turtle, Max is Kang’s workmate and improbable friend. He’s an even more unlikely love interest for the cook Jin.

By the time Peace Court and Laogai, the second and third volumes respectively of The Shanghai Quartet, Max had disappeared from Shanghai. And yet he is very much in the minds of Kang and Jin.

The Smell of Opium will close the circle on the Song family by going back in time. Back to the days when a Jewish-American boy named Max Lazerich comes of age in Shanghai when Jews were the kings of Shanghai.

The River Snake

The Huangpu River coils around Shanghai like a well-fed snake. The head of the snake faces the sea. This is where Max first makes land as a stowaway on a steamer from America to Shanghai. His first port of call is The Trenches, a seamy, crime-ridden outpost of Shanghai populated by sailors and prostitutes.

The Bund, Shanghai
The Bund, Shanghai circa 1876

Max soon learns that The Trenches is not a place to grow old. He heads for the Bund, the economic center of 1930s Shanghai, where the belly of the river snake distends the most. Here were the grand trading houses, the banks, and the newspaper offices. At the Custom House, Max and Kang meet.

Life is good. Max becomes a respectable member of the international community. He plays tennis and jollies about with other young men of ambition. Max even volunteers to organize a charity ball as a way to get his foot into the door. The river snake curls its tail around the French Concession, the throbbing heart of Shanghai’s social life.

A Golden Age

This is Shanghai’s Golden Age when, together with Hong Kong, Shanghai controlled East Asian trade.

Before the second world war, Shanghai was a byword for money, adventure and glamour. It was nominally under Chinese sovereignty but 40,000 foreigners lived in an international settlement where local laws did not apply. They prospered first from the deadly opium trade and later from dominating China’s commerce, finance and tourism.

Stefan Wagstyl, “Masters of old Shanghai” in The Financial Times, 6-7 June 2020

Chief among the traders was David Sassoon. Originally from Baghdad, Sassoon was driven out in 1829. He soon re-established himself in Bombay, first by running opium and later by expanding into more respectable products like Indian cotton and Chinese silk. The Sassoon empire spread from Bombay to Yokohama and Hong Kong to London.

A former Sassoon clerk, Elly Kadoorie, soon rose to rival the Sassoon clan. The Kadoories built power plants in Hong Kong. The Sassoons founded the Hongkong Shanghai Bank (now known as HSBC).

In Shanghai, the competition continued in the form of hotels.

Max dancing at the Majestic Hotel
Majestic Hotel, Shanghai Municipal
History Museum. Photo credit: Karen Kao

it was at Kadoorie’s Majestic Hotel that China’s Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and his famous bride, Soong Mei-ling, held their wedding party. Still, the Sassoon clan was to produce [the] art-deco Cathay Hotel, which opened on the Bond in 1929 [and] immediately eclipsed the Majestic.

“A night in the Cathay” in The Economist, 4 July 2020

The Jews

The Sassoons and the Kadoories become so powerful that they earn the moniker The Last Kings of Shanghai, a history of these two dynasties by Jonathan Kaufman. It might seem like a good time and place to be a Jew. But in my mind, not so. In The Smell of Opium, it’s in one of the Kadoorie hotels during the annual Fireman’s Ball, that Max learns about antisemitism in Shanghai.

It’s not as if the slurs would have been new to Max. He’s a kid from New Jersey. His parents are Eastern European immigrants. They do their best to raise Max to be an American first and a Jew second. But Max’s schoolmates are eager to perceive Max as an Other.

The antisemitism Max experiences in Shanghai doesn’t come from the natives. The Chinese are equal opportunity racists. To them, Muslims, Jews and Christians can all be lumped together into a single category: the Huí hui (回回), a term that could be roughly translated as the people who return. To the natives of Shanghai, Max is just another unwanted barbarian.

It’s the British and American foreigners who turn on Max,. They look down on Max’s Jewishness, his poverty, his nobody-ness. If he were rich and powerful, they might cut him some slack. But some lines cannot be crossed. When the real-life American adventuress Emily Hahn takes up with Victor Sassoon, it’s not the openness of their affair that shocks but the fact that he’s a Jew. Max’s fate is no different.

Max among Friends

I suppose there are many ways in which Max could combat the prejudice he meets. To fight fire with fire would, I suspect, be a short-lived gesture. Another alternative could be to ally himself with the powerful Jewish clans of Shanghai. To seek comfort in numbers among the Sassoons and the Kadoories.

Instead, Max finds friendship in the form of a shy Chinese boy named Kang and his rambunctious cousin Cho. The three young men gallivant about Shanghai and environs in search of pleasure and thrills. On a wild night out on the town, Max eats a moon cake and falls in love.

The love story between Max the American and Jin the cook runs through the heart of The Shanghai Quartet. Their relationship and its repercussions reverberate for long after Max leaves Chinese soil.