New York journalist Dong offers an engaging but rather lightweight portrayal of the Chinese (and—arguably—European)
city of Shanghai, from its days as an opium port in 1842 to the fall of the city to the Communists in 1949.
Dong begins her account with the entry of the British into the illegal (although not for long) opium trade. Merchants such
as William Jardine and Elias Sassoon made enormous fortunes out of this trade and began to build in Shanghai palatial estates
and monumental clubs and houses that were the rival of any to be found in England. As other nationalities came in, the city was
divided into distinct legations—the American, French, and British, etc."each maintaining its own courts, police force, and
government. The reliance on opium for income and the dearth of Western women guaranteed a thriving business in prostitution
and smuggling—which soon gave Shanghai a well-deserved reputation as a place where anything was legal and all could be done
for a price. Someone in flight from justice, for example, had only to cross into another zone to escape the jurisdiction of the
police and evade arrest. Dong excels at drawing vivid portraits of the various merchants (such as Jardine and Sassoon), Chinese
underworld figures (e.g., Pockmarked Huang), and whores (among them, the American Madame Grace Gale) who thrived in
Shanghai, but her attempts at broadening the scope of the history—for instance, her brief capsule account of the Opium
Wars—fail miserably, and she does little to place the events in Chinese history into any sort of global perspective. Also, although
she relates the history of the city in chronological order, much of the same information—the life of Pockmarked Huang or the
story of the famed Soong family—is gone over again and again.
A low-calorie taste of a very rich city.