An Interview with Paul French on Bloody Saturday: Shanghai’s Darkest Day

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Penguin China is having a busy summer when it comes to releasing short books in its “specials” series, many of them linked this year to round number anniversaries. First came a set of short volumes on Hong Kong, on issues such as youth and protest, to mark the 20th anniversary of the territory’s transition from being a Crown Colony to being Special Administrative Region of the PRC. Next up is Paul French’s look back to a dramatic and dreadful day on Shanghai history, dubbed “bloody Saturday,” which will be published as the 80th anniversary of that August, 14, 1937, date arrives. Here are some questions Paul, known for works such as the Edgar-winning Midnight in Peking, was good enough to answer via email.

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JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Your new book focuses on a single crucial day in the history of Shanghai.  For readers of this blog who aren’t steeped in the city’s history, can you describe briefly what make it so important?

PAUL FRENCH: August 14th 1937 effectively marked the start of the Battle of Shanghai and the full-scale Japanese onslaught into central and southern China after having already invaded and occupied Beijing the previous month. The Japanese began shelling the Chinese portions of Shanghai (what are now Zhabei, Baoshan and Jiangwan) and anchored their Third Fleet, with the flagship cruiser Idzumo, in the Huangpu adjacent to the Garden Bridge and close to the Bund. To respond the Chinese attempted to attack Idzumo from the air. However, it was a tough target — close to the foreign settlements and, due to a typhoon having just passed close to the city, cloud cover was lower than Chinese bomb sighters had been trained for. The Chinese bombs missed Idzumo and disastrously landed at the junction of Nanjing Road and the Bund hitting the Peace and Cathay Hotels (now the Swatch Art Peace and Peace Hotels respectively). A second tranche landed outside the Great World Amusement Palace (recently refurbished and reopened on Xizhang Lu) in the French Concession. Well over 2,000 died in what was, at the time, the worst aerial bombing of a civilian city in history. The newspapers quickly dubbed August 14th 1937 as “Bloody Saturday”.

You draw heavily on eyewitness accounts, who is one famous observer and one unknown or obscure one whose comments you found particularly interesting?

Eleanor Roosevelt (no, not that one, but Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, daughter-in-law of Teddy and wife of Theodore Roosevelt III, former Governor-General of the Philippines) was the kind of woman who seems not to have been phased by anything. Stuck in the Cathay Hotel as it was hit by a bomb she gathered up her belongings and her 18-year-old son Quentin and headed immediately to the American Consulate to start sending telegrams to sort the whole awful mess out. She immediately got in touch with Madame Chiang in Nanjing and told her, “None deplore more than we the terrible, tragic, accidental dropping of bombs from two damaged airplanes. I personally witnessed casualties and destruction among these people beyond realisation.”

I was also pleased to be able to weave in the personal testimony of Vanya Oakes from that day. I still kick myself for not having included Vanya in my history of foreign correspondents in China, Through the Looking Glass. She deserved a mention and I didn’t manage to squeeze her in to what is a very crowded book. She pitched up in China from America in 1933 dodging the Great Depression, like so many other Americans in Shanghai at the time. She got a job on the local American-owned English language paper, the China Press. Vanya was the best sort of journalist in my opinion – gung-ho and intrepid (trips to Indo-China, the Burma Road), but also not afraid to share her own opinions. She was very aware of, and angry about, the Japanese encroachment on China in the 1930s. Being stuck on a sinking sampan on Suzhou Creek as bombs fell on the Bund on August 14th 1937 did nothing to change her mind! Her memoir, White Man’s Folly, published in 1943, is well worth a read if you can find an old copy. She also always looked amazingly stylish.

How does this book link up to things you’ve written in the past and/or a different project currently in the works?

Bloody Saturday is a Penguin China Special, so it’s only 20,000 words. However, as 2017 is the eightieth anniversary of the tragic events I thought it worth publishing. It also happens to be a key turning point for both Shanghai and many of the characters in my forthcoming book, City of Devils (out November in Asia/Australia from Penguin, and then Spring 2018 from Picador in the US and Riverrun in the UK), which deals with the true stories of the foreign gangsters and criminal underbelly in the city’s casinos, nightclubs and infamous “Badlands” during the strange period between Bloody Saturday and Pearl Harbor. Bloody Saturday is the moment when total war with Japan becomes inevitable and that the International Settlement of Shanghai becomes the Gudao (the “Solitary Island”); it’s when the largely unpoliced and lawless Badlands in Western Shanghai are created. That period lasted until December 1941 and Pearl Harbour, when the Japanese also occupied the International Settlement.

Any other topics you might be tempted to tackle in this sort of short book format — or wish someone else would take on and you’d want to read?

The Penguin China Special format does lend itself to both getting stories before an audience that perhaps don’t command a 350-page book and also to bringing key moments to people’s attention. Bloody Saturday was a key moment in the Second Sino-Japanese War and in the wider Second World War — 2017 is the 80th anniversary. The format and the occasion compliment each other I feel.

I like lives and characters — mini-biographies, snapshots of people’s experiences. So (and in keeping with my own particular interests in the foreign presence in inter-war China), those that visited, sojourned and then left China but added to the legends – Eugene O’Neil’s Shanghai breakdown; Californian conman C.C. Julian’s Shanghai suicide in the Astor House Hotel; Mr Moto creator J.P. Marquand’s time in Peking; the most stylish but least remembered of the English aesthetes in 1930s Peking, Desmond Parsons; Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and other African-American thinkers and writers who visited China; the Russian émigrés who pulled off the biggest ever bank heist in China’s history…the list goes on and on.

Similarly so uncovering lost lives — there are so many who left fragments to pour over and trails to follow — Jewish refugees, Russian émigrés and so many of my old friends in the foreign underbelly of Shanghai and Peking. They’ll have packed me off to a care home long before we’ve even scratched the surface of the old Shanghai Municipal Police files. So many projects; so few hours in the day.

Switching gears a bit, is there any recent book on China or on North Korea, another country you’ve written about, that you wish had gotten more attention?

I’m always looking for gripping narrative fiction, or literary non-fiction, that captures China, or the wider region. However, it’s damn hard to find. What I want is another Graham Greene (admittedly not China proper but Indo-China in The Quiet American) or Andre Malraux (in The Conquerors or Man’s Fate). I’d even take the second rank of the old China fiction writers like Emily Hahn (Miss Jill) or Maurice Dekobra (Shanghai Honeymoon). But it’s an elusive genre. However, I was amazingly impressed by Lawrence Osborne’s The Ballad of a Small Player (2014), which, I thought, captured contemporary Macao perfectly. I also thought Osborne’s Hunters in the Dark (2015) and Nick Seeley’s Cambodia Noir (2016) — both set in Phnom Penh and environs — stylish and capturing a great dark Conradian sense of South-East Asia.

I also admire James Church’s Inspector O series, which capture the ever-opaque nature of North Korea where the real answer is always just slightly out of reach and beyond grasp — all his novels are a great master class in technique.

Same question but with a twist: one you wish had gotten less attention?

To be honest I think the ones that should get less attention generally do — rubbishy ex-pat and sex-pat memoirs mostly that create small squalls in the far reaches of the internet and then disappear into e-book-only obscurity. I think we’ve probably got a ways past Peak China Book now — indeed that was probably between 2006-2009 and around the Beijing Olympics. Will Hutton’s clearly largely Google-researched The Writing on the Wall; Mark Leonard’s execrable What Does China Think?; and a lamentable biography by some American guy in Beijing who claimed to sell millions of computer servers to the Chinese by day and hosted naked Martini and wife swap parties in his Shunyi MacMansion by night that was so bad I’ve blotted the title out of my memory. Those stand out as being really bad — I’m sure I slagged them all off at the time so I’m not making any new enemies and, anyway, they all probably hate 1930s Peking murder mysteries!

I’ve enjoyed the “Twenty Questions” feature the TLS has started with authors, which includes a variation on the “humiliation games” from David Lodge’s fiction, that is, asking someone if there’s a book (or other cultural product) that everyone will assume they’ve read (or watched or listened to) but they are embarrassed to say they haven’t.  How about a China-related variant on that.  Is there any famous book or film that you know you really should have spent time with but haven’t been able to bring yourself to actually read or watch it?

It’s not just a book I’m afraid of, but an entire category. Despite buying any number of them that come highly recommended (Spence, Terrill, Pantsov, Short…) I have just never been able to bring myself to read a biography of Mao. It’s the same with Frank Dikotter’s People’s Trilogy — I’ve seen him speak on all three books, bought them all, got him to sign them!! and then just watched them grimacing at me from the bookshelf. Similarly with Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone, and the super-highly recommended China Under Mao from Andrew Walder. I just get too upset, too angry. I’m unable to summon up any sense of academic detachment in that field!

I have also never managed to press play on my DVD of Mikael Håfström’s 2010 movie Shanghai with John Cusack, Gong Li and Chow Yun-fat. It’s 1940s Shanghai — I should have watched it 20 times (and have even watched Madonna and Sean Penn in Shanghai Surprise one and a half times!), but I’m terrified of being disappointed after so many bad reviews, so invariably I just watch von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture from 1941 again and revel in Madame Gin Sling’s gambling joint.

Thanks much for making the time to do this — and I look forward to having you contribute to the LARB China Channel when it launches in the fall.

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