Mones’ breathless and enlightening account of an African-American jazzman and his circle in prewar Shanghai.
In 1936, weary of America’s race barriers against black musicians, Thomas Greene is lured to Shanghai by jazz promoter Lin, adopted son of Du, boss of a crime syndicate that controls most of Shanghai’s commerce, including its nightclubs. Hired as a bandleader, Thomas, used to a life of squalor, suddenly finds himself ensconced in a mansion, attended by servants. A classically trained pianist, Thomas cannot really play jazz, as the musicians under his direction soon realize; however, his diligence in learning improvised riffs from sheet-music transcriptions wins them over. From afar, Thomas admires Song, an educated, multilingual young woman who accompanies Du as a translator. In fact, she is the kingpin’s indentured servant. A clandestine communist, Song spies on Du’s operations and dreams of escaping to the northern cave enclave where the party’s leaders are planning campaigns against both Chang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and the Japanese, who already control much of northeast China. When the Japanese finally invade and occupy Shanghai, the city’s nightlife diminishes. Du flees to Hong Kong, Thomas and his band members disperse, and Song, after an impassioned tryst with Thomas, leaves for the north. By 1939, Thomas is scratching out a living playing with David, a Jewish violinist. Their chamber concerts in local hotels attract many members of Shanghai’s émigré Jewish community, now 25,000 strong, thanks to the efforts of Chinese consul Ho Feng-Shan to issue exit visas from Austria. Rumors of a Japanese sneak attack on America, pressure from Berlin to eliminate Shanghai’s Jews and Lin’s involvement in a daring scheme to resettle 100,000 more Jewish refugees in China keep the suspense mounting until the end.
The sheer historical gravitas of this ambitious book often threatens to submerge the individual struggles of the three principals, but perhaps Mones’ point is that, as stated in Casablanca, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”