Any impression of the smart set’s antics between the 20th century’s two cataclysmic wars instantly conjures the cabarets of Weimar Berlin or the nightclubs and brasseries of 1930s Paris. A more distant but no less radiant beacon of the Depression-era party circuit – Shanghai – is the subject of Taras Grescoe’s entertaining and detailed, if somewhat unfocused, portrait.
High finance, cocktails, opium, and a steady parade of international luminaries – including Charlie Chaplin and Jean Cocteau – kept China’s cosmopolitan “Paris of the Far East” in the spotlight for much of the 1930s, even as the encroaching shadow of Japanese imperialism threatened to bring the festivities to an end.
Grescoe’s narrative largely centres on the lives of three crucial participants: the wealthy tycoon Sir Victor Sassoon, whose opulent Cathay Hotel served as the backdrop for much of the frivolity; the wealthy, opium-addicted Chinese poet Zau Sinmay; and his American lover, Emily “Mickey” Hahn, a St. Louis-bred journalist and author who documented the scene as a correspondent for The New Yorker. But as it pinballs from anecdotes about the three principals and numerous other characters to Shanghai’s history as an international metropolis to the engineering challenges presented by the city’s spongy soil to the author’s own relationship to the place, the story struggles to find a narrative linchpin.
Shanghai Grand, which bears some similarities to Erik Larson’s work of narrative non-fiction, In the Garden of Beasts, is a change of pace for Grescoe, an acclaimed travel writer whose journalistic subjects have included food (The Devil’s Picnic), fish (Bottomfeeder), and public transportation (Straphanger). The new book succeeds as an evocative snapshot of a place and time: vivid descriptions of the Cathay Hotel, where a French head chef and his staff of 70 Chinese cooks served Persian figs, Caspian caviar, and California peaches, are contrasted with the brutal lot of rickshaw pullers called upon to transport their privileged human cargo from engagement to engagement. Fascinating as some of these threads are, however, the story wants for a theme to weave them all together. By the end of it, a reader might reasonably think: all very interesting, but what’s the larger point?