Very Quick Review: DESTINATION SHANGHAI by Paul French (Blacksmith Books)

Destination Shanghai_18mm spineA fascinating collection of short biographies

18 true stories of those who went…

For the privileged a cosmopolitan pleasure ground; for the desperate a port of last resort.

A pot of gold at the end of an Oriental rainbow; a thick slice of hell denounced from the pulpit.

The start of a journey for many; the end of the road for some.

A place to find fame, or to seek anonymity; rogues, chancers, showgirls, criminals…

For so many people from so many lands, there was one phrase that sent a tingle of hope or a shiver of anticipation down every spine: “DESTINATION SHANGHAI”

Ever since I read his contributions to Penguin’s series of short China Specials, I’ve been a big fan of Paul French’s books. He has a gift for bringing history alive, and writes in an engaging style. In Destination Shanghai, the author offers a collection of short biographies of people who found themselves in Shanghai at one point or another. Destination Shanghai is an excellent, illuminating read. Continue reading

Excerpt: A HERO BORN by Jin Yong (MacLehose Press)

yongj-1-aherobornukToday, we have an excerpt from A Hero Born, the first novel in Jin Yong’s Legends of the Condor Heroes. The second novel in the series, A Bond Undone is also out now in the UK, published by MacLehose Press. Here’s the synopsis for A Hero Born:

China: 1200 A.D.

The Song Empire has been invaded by its warlike Jurchen neighbours from the north. Half its territory and its historic capital lie in enemy hands; the peasants toil under the burden of the annual tribute demanded by the victors. Meanwhile, on the Mongolian steppe, a disparate nation of great warriors is about to be united by a warlord whose name will endure for eternity: Genghis Khan.

Guo Jing, son of a murdered Song patriot, grew up with Genghis Khan’s army. He is humble, loyal, perhaps not altogether wise, and is fated from birth to one day confront an opponent who is the opposite of him in every way: privileged, cunning and flawlessly trained in the martial arts.

Guided by his faithful shifus, The Seven Heroes of the South, Guo Jing must return to China — to the Garden of the Drunken Immortals in Jiaxing — to fulfil his destiny. But in a divided land riven by war and betrayal, his courage and his loyalties will be tested at every turn.

This extract opens near the beginning of the volume with the Song patriots, Ironheart Yang and Skyfury Guo, and their wives exchanging the latest troubles of the Imperial Court by the fire. The dynamics of their simple gathering change, however, when Yang and Guo spot a mysterious passerby and invite him in for a drink.

Continue reading

Quick Review: CITY OF DEVILS by Paul French (Riverrun/Picador)

FrenchP-CityOfDevilsUKAn intriguing glimpse into Shanghai’s pre-war underworld

A spellbinding and dramatic account of Shanghai’s lawless 1930s and two of its most notorious criminals…

1930s Shanghai could give Chicago a run for its money. In the years before the Japanese invaded, the city was a haven for outlaws from all over the world: a place where pasts could be forgotten, fascism and communism outrun, names invented, fortunes made – and lost.

‘Lucky’ Jack Riley was the most notorious of those outlaws. An ex-Navy boxing champion, he escaped from prison in the States, spotted a craze for gambling and rose to become the Slot King of Shanghai. Ruler of the clubs in that day was ‘Dapper’ Joe Farren — a Jewish boy who fled Vienna’s ghetto with a dream of dance halls. His chorus lines rivalled Ziegfeld’s and his name was in lights above the city’s biggest casino.

In 1940 they bestrode the Shanghai Badlands like kings, while all around the Solitary Island was poverty, starvation and genocide. They thought they ruled Shanghai; but the city had other ideas. This is the story of their rise to power, their downfall, and the trail of destruction they left in their wake. Shanghai was their playground for a flickering few years, a city where for a fleeting moment even the wildest dreams seemed possible.

In the vein of true crime books whose real brilliance is the recreation of a time and place, this is an impeccably researched narrative non-fiction told with superb energy and brio, as if James Ellroy had stumbled into a Shanghai cathouse.

Until City of Devils, I had only read Paul French’s shorter books on Asia — mainly on early 20th Century China, but also an excellent short book about Kim Jong-un. In City of Devils, French turns his attention to the criminal underworld of Shanghai in the 1930s, and two foreigners who managed to turn certain sectors of the city into their own private kingdoms. It’s a fascinating look at extraterritoriality, Westerners’ fascination with China, and their willingness to take advantage of their hosts. Continue reading

Recommendation: Penguin’s World War I China Specials

ChinaPenguinSpecials-WWI

This series of nine short books is fantastic. I bought them quite some time ago — they were released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I — but I have finally caught up. If you have any interest in learning about China, then I would highly recommend these books. Each of them was informative, engaging, sometimes entertaining, and frequently brutally honest. Continue reading

Upcoming: CITY OF DEVILS by Paul French (Picador/riverrun)

FrenchP-CityOfDevilsUSI’ve only recently started to read Paul French‘s books. I’ve been aware of his stuff for a long while, but this past Christmas I went on a Penguin China Special reading-binge, which meant I finally read two of French’s titles: Betrayal in ParisThe Badlands and Bloody Saturday — all three of which were excellent.* I promptly bought Midnight in Peking (for myself and family members), and will read it very soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d some information about his next non-fiction book, City of Devils. here’s the synopsis:

1930s Shanghai could give Chicago a run for its money. In the years before the Japanese invaded, the city was a haven for outlaws from all over the world: a place where pasts could be forgotten, fascism and communism outrun, names invented, fortunes made — and lost.

‘Lucky’ Jack Riley was the most notorious of those outlaws. An ex-Navy boxing champion, he escaped from prison in the States, spotted a craze for gambling and rose to become the Slot King of Shanghai. Ruler of the clubs in that day was ‘Dapper’ Joe Farren — a Jewish boy who fled Vienna’s ghetto with a dream of dance halls. His chorus lines rivalled Ziegfeld’s and his name was in lights above the city’s biggest casino.

In 1940 they bestrode the Shanghai Badlands like kings, while all around the Solitary Island was poverty, starvation and genocide. They thought they ruled Shanghai; but the city had other ideas. This is the story of their rise to power, their downfall, and the trail of destruction they left in their wake. Shanghai was their playground for a flickering few years, a city where for a fleeting moment even the wildest dreams seemed possible.

In the vein of true crime books whose real brilliance is the recreation of a time and place, this is an impeccably researched narrative non-fiction told with superb energy and brio, as if James Ellroy had stumbled into a Shanghai cathouse.

City of Devils is due to be published in July by Picador in North America (Raincoast in Canada), and in June by riverrun in the UK.

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* The Penguin Specials series is fantastic in general: around 100 pages or so, compact and focused non-fiction narratives. I’d highly recommend them. They appear to be focusing on a different theme every year (or so). Last year, for example, they released a handful of Hong Kong Specials, which I’ll be buying and reading very soon.

DC Comics Takes Aim at Chinese Market…?

NewSuperMan-Art-01&02

I haven’t been reading much coverage of DC Comics’ upcoming “Rebirth”, but I just stumbled across this title: New Super-Man. From the synopsis, it would appear that DC are aiming to crack the (no-doubt) growing Chinese comics market. Or just to capitalize on the growing awareness of China in contemporary society/politics/economics. The first story-arc, “Made in China” takes the DC universe in a potentially interesting direction — a new, “Justice League of China”…

“Made in China” Chapter One.

An impulsive act of heroism thrusts an arrogant young man into the limelight of Shanghai as China begins to form its own Justice League of powerful heroes. Rising from the ashes of The Final Days of Superman, award-winning writer Gene Luen Yang and on-the-rise art star Victor Bogdanovic introduce readers to Kong Kenan — the New Super-Man! When the world needed a new hero, China made him!

As someone who has studied China and Chinese history and politics for over a decade, this could be a really interesting title. Also, the fact that China made their own Super-Man is amusing — given the long history of Chinese manufacturers’ tendency to replicate Western creations (just as each new rising power has done, throughout history), this seems entirely apt.

New Super-Man #1 is due to be published on July 13th, #2 on August 10th. Here’s the synopsis for the second issue:

“Made in China” Chapter Two.

The New Super-Man must face off against the Justice League of China? When Kenan Kong was imbued with the powers of Superman, he didn’t waste any time using them! Now it’s up to the New Bat-Man and New Wonder-Woman of his home country to bring our hero back down to earth-just in time to stop the attack of the deadly Sunbeam!

Guest Review: THE THREE BODY PROBLEM by Cixin Liu (Tor Books)

Liu-ThreeBodyProblemA satisfying start to a Hugo Award-winning Sci-Fi trilogy

With the scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day, Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

Reviewed by Ryan Frye

It is hard to believe that The Three-Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo award for best novel. Not because it isn’t deserving of the accolade — it is — but because, when I read it, I felt like I was reading a classic work of Science Fiction. The Three-Body Problem tackles the classic genre idea of whether or not there is other intelligent life in the universe. While the book is rooted in a question that could be traced back to the earliest beginnings of the genre, this book takes a markedly different and unique approach from the very first page. Continue reading