The underworld of Old Shanghai

05 Dec 2018 / 14:46 H.

THERE is a treasure trove of stories in old colonial outposts such as Shanghai and Peking (now Beijing) between the two world wars.

Thanks to author Paul French, we are getting not only interesting stories of the people there, but also a history lesson weaved into the story.

French has written several books set in China, the most popular one being Midnight in Peking (which already has a movie deal) revolving around an unsolved murder.

“I have been living and working in China [since] the 1990s,” explained French during a tele-conference interview while he was in Singapore attending the Singapore Writer’s Festival.

“I have always been fascinated that before the big war (World War II), there was this big foreign community living in Shanghai and Peking, and there were a lot of stories about them.

“I thought that telling those stories would interest readers in the West, and also give a new perspective to Chinese readers and people who thought they knew China better.

“You will not only read about gangsters or unsolved murders, but also about Chinese history.”

His latest book, City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai, is set mostly in the 1930s, and revolves around two colourful real-life men, ‘Lucky’ Jack Riley and ‘Dapper’ Joe Farren.

Riley was a runaway American fugitive with acid-burnt fingertips who came to Shanghai to escape from the authorities back home.

Farren, on the other hand, was an Austrian Jew who escaped persecution by the Nazis and ruled the nightclub scene with chorus lines that rivalled those of the legendary Ziegfeld follies.

One was rough and deadly, the other refined and sophisticated. How the two very different men ended up becoming business partners for a short while to run Farren’s Nightclub (the biggest nightclub cum casino in Shanghai) makes for an intriguing story.

“It was great. It was telling the story of a completely different group of people in China,” French said. “I was telling the story of people who were criminals, who were always on the run from the police back home, and they were kind of hiding in China.

“A lot of these people were refugees, either from the Russian revolution of 1917 and, later in the 1930s, Jews coming from Europe running from the Nazis.”

On how he came across Riley and Farren’s story, French (who can read Chinese) explained: “I spent quite a lot of time reading old Chinese newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s.

“Joe Farren, who ran nightclubs, always appeared in the Shanghai newspapers as the guy who ran the best cabaret, or the best nightclubs.

“Jack Riley was also featured as this character who ran all sorts of things, but nobody really knew who he was.

“Of course, later on, as you would have read in the book, they came together and ran the largest nightclub and casino in Shanghai, and got in trouble with the police. As soon as someone gets in trouble with the police, there are records. If they went to court, there are court records.

“There was a lot of information on these guys, and they were very, very notorious in Shanghai in the 1930s straight through to the 1940s.”

French said Shanghai was an interesting place back then because it was an international treaty port that was created after the first opium war. “It was a product of imperialism and violence.”

Despite its volatile past, the international military presence surrounding the city and its port made it a place where millions of foreigners and Chinese sought refuge.

It was an ideal situation for people like Riley and Ferran, who could come in without passports, and become anyone they wanted to be. It was also a place where great artists flourished, where many of China’s modernist writers come from, and where Chinese cinema was based.

French added: “Shanghai was an interesting and very liberal city in terms of what people could do.”

Reflecting on Riley and Ferran, French said: “Theirs is an odd friendship, and it was a difficult friendship.

“They came from very different backgrounds, they were very different sorts of men. [But] they needed each other. The one thing that kept them together essentially was that they had no passports and they had nowhere to go.”

Things began changing for Riley and Ferran once Japan attacked Shanghai in 1937 in the Battle of Shanghai. While most foreigners fled the city, the two were unable to leave. Their friendship disintegrated as the city crumbled, and their ultimate fates could not be more different.

City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai is a fascinating, cautionary tale of hubris and greed.