An intrepid journalist in free-wheeling 1930s Shanghai.
At that time, Shanghai was “one of the most cosmopolitan places on the face of the earth,” replete with “gin slings and sing-song girls, rickshaw coolies and Bolshevik spies.” It was a place, writes journalist Grescoe (Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, 2012, etc.) in this lively biography of a city and some of its colorful inhabitants, “to which the ambitious, the wily, and the desperate could escape to discard old identities and recreate their lives from scratch.” New Yorker writer Emily Hahn arrived there in 1935, intending to stay for two weeks. She fled, along with other expatriates, in 1943. Those eight years were filled with adventure, danger, love, and sex. She soon met the “free-spending playboy” and real estate mogul Sir Victor Sassoon, who had built, among many other edifices, the sumptuous Cathay Hotel, “the best address in the Far East.” He lived in its penthouse, where he entertained the rich, famous, and beautiful, such as the 30-year-old Hahn. Besides accepting gifts from Sir Victor, Hahn supported herself by reporting for a Shanghai newspaper, and soon she began to contribute pieces about exotic China to the New Yorker. Among them were “pen portraits” of a man she called Pan Heh-ven. He was Zau Sinmay, a famous poet—dashing, handsome, “fabulously wealthy”—and her lover. When he balked at being the subject of her “cultural stereotyping,” she was unapologetic: “I use people,” she said. Sinmay introduced her to smoking opium, which accelerated from “a harmless indulgence” to a 12-pipe-per-day addiction before she checked into a hospital for a cure. Hahn’s challenges intensified during the 13-week Battle of Shanghai in 1937, turbulent Chinese politics, and the Japanese occupation. The author deftly follows Hahn’s adventures through this “city of legend.”
Grescoe exuberantly captures the glamour and intrigue of a lost world.