Stories of Shanghai
“The Valley of Amazement” is one of those books that plunges you into an alternative world that is so strange, it’s hard to believe that the events that unfold took place only about 100 years ago. The heroine’s predicament is unforgettable – she’s a half-Chinese, half-American girl who is raised in a house of courtesans run by her mother. Then she is kidnapped and is groomed to become a courtesan herself.
Several of Amy Tan’s books have dealt with the enormous leaps of time and circumstance and culture that have been experienced (or endured) by Chinese citizens who emigrate from the old country and have to adapt to a new and very different way of life in America. Her fantastic, best-selling novel “The Joy Luck Club” is in part about a group of daughters and mothers who do not always get along (to put it mildly); you gradually realize that some of the mothers have been through unimaginable experiences in China as it went through numerous convulsions in the 20th century.
One of the epicenters of Chinese history is Shanghai, where “The Valley of Amazement” is set. Some excellent books have been set in Shanghai, old and new. Several of these novels are set in the Shanghai of 1937, a very pivotal year for the city, and for China.
Shanghai, with almost 24 million people, is now the world’s largest city by population. It’s an economic powerhouse. Shanghai was also a center for business in the early 20th century, but foreigners had enormous and outsized influence. The city was in China, but large portions of it were sectioned off for wealthy foreigners, and Chinese authorities had little say as to what went on there – the arrangement was basically forced upon them by the British. Dubbed “The Paris of the Orient,” it was an incredibly wealthy place where money was made and people, mostly foreigners, enjoyed a life of luxury as everyday people, including many Chinese, lived in poverty.
All this came crashing down when the Japanese attacked Shanghai in 1937, and that leads me to my first book, the incredible novel “Empire of the Sun” by J.G. Ballard.
J.G. Ballard was a highly regarded English writer, known for many different kinds of books (he’s an excellent science fiction writer). But “Empire” is based on his experiences in Shanghai as a young boy during the invasion. In this book a boy, the son of British parents (the character is loosely based on Ballard’s own experiences), is separated from his parents in the initial phases of the invasion. He has to fend for himself, sometimes living in abandoned mansions, picking through leftover food. Eventually he turns himself in to the Japanese and winds up in a Japanese prison, where he actually becomes rather fond of his captors, but eventually witnesses much more privation and tragedy before the camp is finally liberated by the Americans.
Maybe you haven’t read this book, but you probably saw the stupendous movie version of this novel made by Steven Spielberg. It is simply an amazing movie, inspired by an incredible book.
Another novel set partially in the Shanghai of the 1930s is Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2000 novel, “When We Were Orphans.” This book is a kind of detective story – it features Christopher Banks, a private investigator, based in London. The quite successful Christopher is obsessed with solving the disappearance of his parents, 20 years earlier, in Shanghai. He remembers that his parents had a falling out because of his dad’s participation in the opium trade, but not why they vanished.
He returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery of what happened to his parents and walks right into the 1937 Japanese invasion. This is a complex, many layered book, and Banks, the detective, has a lot in common with the butler in Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” – he tells himself a lot of things that may or may not be true, and in so doing becomes a very intriguing unreliable narrator.
I have mentioned the author Lisa See before, but I have to do it again in this context – her novels “Shanghai Girls” and “Dreams of Joy” follow two sisters who start out in wealthy Shanghai, again in 1937! They quickly go from a life of privilege to a much different existence when their father, whose business is going down the toilet, arranges marriages for them in America, and they leave just as Japanese bombs begin raining on the city. In “Dreams of Joy,” one of the sister’s daughters returns to China in 1957 to uncover some family secrets, and gets a lot more than she bargained for. Like Amy Tan, Lisa See explores themes of relationships between women; between the sisters there’s a lot of love, but there’s a lot of pain, too.
Finally, a book set in contemporary Shanghai, which has become one of the world’s great financial centers, is Tash Aw’s novel “Five Star Billionaire.”
This novel, which was just released this summer, chronicles the lives of five strivers, men and women, several from Malaysia, who migrate to Shanghai in the hopes of making it big. It’s a very humorous and black look at the kind of business that’s being conducted in China today; corruption plays a big part, and the only constant is that everything is likely to change tomorrow. One review of this book called it Shanghai’s “The Way We Live Now,” Trollope’s tale of greed gone wild in 19th century London. Since Trollope is one of my favorites, I’m predisposed to like this one!