Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Shanghai Noir: China's Long History of Crime Stories, Real and Fictional

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Professor of History at UC-Irvine, wrote China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, published by Oxford University in 2010. He is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.

As my son and daughter will be the first to tell you, I'm a bit obsessed with Shanghai.  When they were teenagers, they'd tease me about my proclivity for bringing the city into dinner conversations that had nothing to do with Shanghai -- at least on the surface. Say the Beatles were the focus of discussion, I'd slip in the fact that George Harrison wrote the theme song for Shanghai Surprise, a film starring Madonna and Sean Penn that's excruciatingly bad.  If computer games came up, I'd point out that "Shanghai" was the name of an online version of mahjong.  And so on.

As I noted recently, allusions to noir books and films have featured prominently in commentaries on the recently purged Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai. They were from Chongqing, where Bo was party secretary, but no other Chinese city is as tightly linked to the noir as Shanghai. Consider these basic facts:

  • During its century-long incarnation as a treaty port (1843-1943), Shanghai was viewed as such a dangerous place that its name entered the English language as a verb meaning to dragoon or kidnap.
  • By the 1930s, Old Shanghai (to use a common term for the city in treaty port days) became globally famous or rather infamous for possessing all of the things you would expect to find in tales by Damon Runyon or Mickey Spillane. Drug deals? Check.  Brothels? Check.  Gangsters? Double check.  This Chicago of the Pacific even had its counterparts to Al Capone: The Green Gang leaders Pockmarked Huang and Big-Eared Du.
  • Old Shanghai served as the setting for many Golden Age Hollywood films dealing with intrigue and danger.  Some remain famous (think 1932's Shanghai Express), while others are deservedly obscure (think 1935's Charlie Chan in Shanghai)....

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