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Recommended Books

At the top of the list of books on Shanghai history is Shanghai-born Lynn Pan's nostalgic, romantic, easy-to-read history of the city and its characters, In Search of Old Shanghai (Joint Publishing [H.K.] Co., Ltd., 1982). Many accounts of Shanghai's history tend to focus on the lurid, the sensational, and the exotic during Shanghai's golden age in the first half of the 20th century, including Stella Dong's spicy history of colonial Shanghai, Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, 1842-1949 (William Morrow, 2000). It suffers, as any general book on Shanghai must, from a lack of depth, but it at least summarizes the main events and personalities that came to define the time. Harriet Sergeant's equally entertaining Shanghai (Jonathan Cape, 1991) focuses on a shorter period (1920s and 1930s) and uses stories and anecdotes to bring to life Shanghai in its heyday.

Considerably more academic but still fascinating, Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 1999) by Hanchao Lu gets past the myth and the hype to examine the daily lives of ordinary Shanghainese in their shikumen (stone frame) lane housing. Andrew David Field's well-documented Shanghai Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954 (The Chinese University Press, 2010) looks at issues of colonialism, sexuality, politics, and Chinese national identity through the prism of Shanghai's nightlife during the jazz age. Finally, for a much more comprehensive, long-ranging (but still readable) history, Jeffrey Wasserstrom's meticulously researched Global Shanghai 1850-2010 (Routledge, 2009) ambitiously takes on the city's history by focusing on seven 25-year installments, and in so doing provides a fascinating and wider perspective on Shanghai now and in the future.

As biographies and memoirs go, only the first section of colorful American journalist Emily Hahn's China to Me (Blakiston Co., 1946) is set in Shanghai, but it offers a vivid and entertaining account of life among the Shanghai elite in the 1930s. It includes her encounters with members of the Soong family, who are themselves profiled in great, highly readable detail in Sterling Seagrave's The Soong Dynasty (Harper & Row, 1985). Carl Crow: A Tough Old China Hand (Hong Kong University Press, 2007) traces the life and times of entrepreneur and businessman Carl Crow in Shanghai between the two world wars.

If fiction is your cup of tea, old Shanghai comes alive in Vickie Baum's novel Shanghai '37, in which different characters' lives collide at the Cathay (Peace) Hotel just before the Sino-Japanese War. No literary masterpiece, it nevertheless succeeds in bringing a tumultuous bygone era to life. Midnight (Foreign Language Press, 1957) by Mao Dun, a Chinese novelist who became China's Minister of Culture from 1949 to 1965, is a full epic that vividly brings the violence and corruption of 1930s Shanghai to life through the travails of a ruthless industrial capitalist. Shanghainese writer Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), better known in the West these days for her novella Lust, Caution, which spawned the 2007 movie, has a number of well-written novels, but for those with short attention spans, her book of probing short stories, Love in a Fallen City (NYRB Classics, 2006), is especially good, and tells of love, longing, and loss in 1940s Shanghai.

Far darker visions of Shanghai are powerfully evoked in J. G. Ballard's personal novel, Empire of the Sun (V. Gollancz, 1984), based on his imprisonment as a child during the Japanese occupation, and in Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai (Grove Press, 1986), a memoir of her imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution. Anchee Min's Red Azalea (Pantheon Books, 1994) recounts her extraordinary journey from revolutionary Red Guard to film star in Shanghai under the watchful eye of Madame Mao. The more recent Wang Anyi's The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai (Columbia University Press, 2009) is a lyrical, decades-long journey of a 1946 Shanghainese beauty pageant runner-up whose life unfolds against a turbulent backdrop of a changing China.

A welcome antidote to the dark and heavy survival stories is the light and fun series of detective novels by Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong, featuring the poetry-writing, murder-investigating Shanghai police inspector Chen. Start at the beginning with Death of a Red Heroine (Soho Press, 2000). There are five Inspector Chen novels. Those partial to thrillers can also pick up Tom Bradby's The Master of Rain (Doubleday, 2002), a murder mystery set in 1920s Shanghai involving British lads, Russian prostitutes, and Chinese gangsters.

Finally, for pictorial memoirs on Shanghai's colonial architecture, there's no topping Tess Johnston and Deke Erh's A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai Revisited (2005); Frenchtown Shanghai: Western Architecture in Shanghai's Old French Concession (2003); and Shanghai Art Deco (2006), all published by Old China Hand Press, and all more widely available in Shanghai than in the West. The two have also released a series of books on Western colonial architecture in other parts of China. Architecture fans can also pick up Australian architect Ann Warr's Shanghai Architecture (Watermark Press, 2007), a comprehensive guide to the architecture and history of Shanghai from the days when it was an old walled city right up to the present. Greg Girard's wonderful photography book Phantom Shanghai (Magenta Publishing for the Arts, 2010) gives glimpses of Shanghai you'll never see because many of the houses, shops, neighborhoods, and buildings he spent the previous 5 years photographing have all fallen prey to the bulldozer in the name of progress. The estimable Lynn Pan rounds out this section with her latest Shanghai Style: Art and Design Between the Wars (Long River Press, 2008), a history of haipai, that unique brand of Shanghai style, aesthetic, and culture that so seamlessly combined the East and West.

Recommended Films

Old Shanghai was the Hollywood of China. Many of its films were produced at the Shanghai Film Studios (located in Xujiahui on Caoxi Bei Lu across from the Xujiahui Cathedral) during the 1930s and 1940s, often featuring China's top actresses such as Ruan Lingyu, Zhou Xuan, and Hu Die. Another two-bit actress with the stage name Lan Ping was among thousands who never achieved a starring role then, but she had her revenge later, when she met and married the young revolutionary who would become Chairman Mao. Known as Jiang Qing after 1949 (and later punished as the leader of the Gang of Four), she helped dictate the nature of Communist cinema, drama, and other arts during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. She was a star on the political stage for decades, but her real dream remained Hollywood.

Today, Shanghai is no longer the center of Chinese filmmaking, although the Shanghai Film Studio continues to churn out some movie and television projects and the occasional joint-venture film with foreign filmmakers. Films about Shanghai, at least those familiar to Western audiences, trade heavily on the nostalgia of the mysterious and romantic 1930s. For Western audiences, the classic is Josef von Sternberg's 1932 film Shanghai Express, starring Marlene Dietrich, though none of it was filmed in Shanghai, of course. The Shanghai underworld of 1930s gangsters and their molls is also stylishly evoked in Zhang Yimou's 1995 film Shanghai Triad (Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao), starring Gong Li. Steven Spielberg's 1987 film Empire of the Sun, based on English author J. G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, takes a look inside the concentration camps of Shanghai during the Japanese occupation; some of the most gripping scenes were filmed in the streets of Shanghai (using 15,000 local extras) and at the Peace Hotel on the Bund.

Although Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai's 2000 award-winning film In the Mood For Love (Hua Yang Nian Hua) is set in Hong Kong, it evokes the lives of displaced Shanghainese in the former British colony during the 1960s. Everything in this wonderfully moody movie oozes nostalgia, and the lead actress Maggie Cheung's slim, figure-hugging qipao outfits even sparked a fashion craze in Shanghai in 2001. Old-time tailors were forced out of retirement to churn out once again this quintessentially traditional Chinese dress that had fallen so out of fashion until then.

For those who like a little more challenging fare, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's beautiful chamber piece, Flowers of Shanghai (Hai Shang Hua, 1998), takes place entirely inside four turn-of-the-20th-century opium-filled Shanghai brothels, as madams, servants, and courtesans (called hua or flowers) despair and connive for the attentions of their patrons. There's nothing lurid or sensational here, only a slow-moving existential meditation that grows increasingly claustrophobic as the evening wears on. Not for those with short attention spans.

More recently, director Ang Lee's trenchant and controversial Lust, Caution (Se Jie, 2007), adapted from Eileen Chang's novella and largely filmed in Shanghai, depicts the attempts of a group of young Chinese students to assassinate a Chinese collaborator during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in World War II. The movie's own considerable merits were largely overshadowed by the controversy surrounding it, including the cutting of 7 minutes of explicit footage from the version shown in mainland China, and for the movie's putative sympathetic portrayal of a Japanese collaborator.

The darker side of modern Shanghai as seen through the failed dreams and bleak hopes of a lonely Shanghai youth is depicted in the stylized low-budget Suzhou River (Suzhou He, 2000) directed by Ye Lou.

Recent Hollywood films shot with a full or partial Shanghai backdrop include Mission Impossible III (2006), The Painted Veil (2006), The Great Raid (2005), Code 46 (2003), and the not very successful The White Countess (2005), the last about a blind American diplomat, his fantasy nightclub, and a family of Russian aristocrats in 1930s Shanghai. Most recently, the murder mystery Shanghai (2010) directed by Mikael Håfström and starring John Cusack and Gong Li tells the story of an American who returns to 1940s Shanghai to investigate the death of a friend. The movie was all set to film in Shanghai in 2008, but Chinese authorities denied permission at the last minute, and the production had to relocate to London and Thailand where sets were built to stand in for colonial Shanghai.

Finally, a 1998 Austrian documentary by Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy, The Port of Last Resort, tells the story of the Jews who fled Nazi Europe for Shanghai from 1937 to 1941.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.