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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

City of Devils - Book Review

Paul French, whose first book Midnight in Peking became a New York Times bestseller, explores a topic dear to me in his latest book City of Devils. His second book takes place in pre-war Shanghai, playground for the rich and famous and battleground for various gangs—Chinese, Japanese, and Western. The seamy underside of Shanghai’s nightlife and the constant gang warfare that defined the city at the time—all the while perched on the lip of the cauldron of the Sino-Japanese War—occupies the first part of my novel, Above the Water. In City of Devils we are introduced to Joseph Farren, a Jewish refugee from Vienna who came to dominate Shanghai’s nightclub scene in the Thirties, and Jack Riley, a small-time ex-con from Tulsa, Oklahoma who mastered Shanghai’s slot machine racket. Pre-war Shanghai was known as the ‘Paris of the East’ because of its cosmopolitan population, its vibrant culture, and its never-ending variety of distractions. It was dominated by the British (whose administration ruled over the International Settlement—an extraterritorial possession, off-limits to Chinese rule and law) and to a lesser extent by the French (who ruled over the French Concession). By the late 1930s, however, the Japanese began to have an overwhelming and sinister influence over the foreign concessions. Within these foreign concessions lived a hodgepodge of peoples, many of them refugees from the First World War and the Russian Civil War and—increasingly—those coming to escape the gathering storm in Europe. Refugees were able to stay indefinitely in extra-territorial Shanghai because passports and visas and the like were rarely obligatory. This assortment of refugees included down on their luck White Russians, Portuguese, Hungarians, American ex-servicemen (many who decided to stay on and try their luck rather than returning to the States in the midst of the depression—like Riley), and Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe (like Farren). While the British and the French cavorted in high-end establishments and behind the walls of exclusive country clubs, these desperate newcomers became the bosses and clientele of Shanghai’s sordid underground nightlife. Some of them (including Farren and Riley) profited greatly. It was during this time some people began instead calling Shanghai the ‘Chicago of the East’ due to its reputation for seediness and gang warfare. It is against this fascinating backdrop that we are introduced to our two main characters. Joe Farren, charming and cultured, cut a dashing figure and could fit in with almost any crowd. His beautiful wife (and ex-dancer) Nellie was his constant escort. Farren formed a dance-girl chorus known as Farren’s Follies that became an overnight sensation in the city. In clubs such as the Paramount and the Blue Danube, Farren also hosted numerous foreign entertainers. His troupe even began conducting tours overseas. Jack Riley, on the other hand, cavorted mainly with gangsters and his business was selling and controlling slot machines in low-rent clubs and dive bars on ‘Blood Alley,’ a warren of establishments frequented mainly by sailors and seamen. Eventually as fate would have it, these two unlikeliest of partners came together briefly as overlords of Shanghai’s nightlife, controlling drugs, gambling, prostitution, and protection rackets. This was in the tempestuous, waning days before the outbreak of the Pacific War. After December 8, 1941 Shanghai was occupied by Japanese forces and most Westerners spent the remainder of the war behind barbed wire in fetid camps. Farren never got out. Riley did but ended up in an American penitentiary. The reign of Shanghai’s Lords of the Underworld came to an end. French, a Shanghai resident, gives an excellent feel for what this exotic city must have been like in its heyday. It reads almost like a crime thriller. This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in pre-war China, and for anyone with an interest in reading about a colorful cast of characters in a place so exotic that it seems almost implausible that it even once existed.


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